Spreekt u Engels?
August 26, 2017 2:58 PM   Subscribe

I will be traveling in Europe for a couple weeks. I am only fluent in English. What's the best way to communicate effectively without being rude?

I will be in the Netherlands and Germany, so there will be a lot of English speakers around, but not everyone. I'm cramming language study with books and Duolingo, but realistically I don't expect to be able to hold more than a truly basic conversation by the time I travel.

It feels very off to me to just assume the other person speaks English. Is it more acceptable/polite to make do in the best Dutch and German I can manage, to politely request English, or something else entirely?
posted by Upton O'Good to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
When I travel to a non-English speaking country, I make a point of memorizing a few basic phrases and the sentence "I'm sorry, I don't speak Language". Most people in shops, etc. will pick up that you don't speak the language from your accent.
posted by Automocar at 3:02 PM on August 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

Pretty much anyone in the Netherlands and Germany will speak some English, and basically everyone interacting with tourists or under the age of 50. Learn enough basic words to be polite: Hello, Please, Thank you. Smile and be friendly and look a little embarassed and then say "do you speak English?" or "do you mind if I speak English?" or the like. You'll be fine.
posted by Nelson at 3:04 PM on August 26, 2017 [26 favorites]

What I often do is greet people immediately in both the local language and in English. As in, walking into the shop and saying "guten tag, good morning" to the person behind the counter. Usually people will switch to English seamlessly but it gives people the choice and is less awkward than asking if they speak English, I feel. Then a "danke, thank you" at the end.
posted by EmilyFlew at 3:26 PM on August 26, 2017 [17 favorites]

Traveling in Germany is really more of an experience in being embarrassed at how much better Germans speak English than you speak German than in being embarrassed because you can't communicate at all. The one real trap is that they will yell at you for not obeying signs, which is hard to do when you can't read them.
posted by praemunire at 3:45 PM on August 26, 2017 [18 favorites]

I agree with praemunire. Your main issue will be reading signs, menus, etc., not talking to people. The first word I would learn is EXIT, so you don't get stuck in the train station.
posted by AFABulous at 3:51 PM on August 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

The last time I traveled around the Netherlands, I did have to use my limited spoken Dutch to specify breakfast time and preferences to a B&B worker who was, as far as I could tell, the one Dutchman who never learned English. That was in a small town in Noord-Holland. Otherwise, a simple "Goede dag, spreekt U Engels?" sufficed.

In Germany and Austria this summer, I mostly spoke German for basic transactions, asking directions, etc., but most people I dealt with were fine switching to English if the subject got beyond my vocabulary or if my wife, whose German is pretty basic, was involved.
posted by brianogilvie at 4:02 PM on August 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Remember, English is the common language among Europeans who don't speak each others languages. So as a Dane, I speak English in the Netherlands and Germany. There is a difference, though: everyone in the Netherlands speaks amazing English and enjoys speaking English. In Germany it depends on where you are and who you are talking with but you will be able to manage just fine. So in the Netherlands, I'll usually just start speaking English and not make a fuss about it, while in Germany I may try to start out with German phrases if I feel the person I'm talking with might be uncomfortable with English. If you are outside the big cities, in the South, or in the old East or talking with someone over 50 in Germany, it will be good to follow EmilyFlew's advice.
There is also a political side to this - just recently there has been a complaint that some waiters in Berlin only speak English.

(I actually speak fluent German, but try not to because my accent and tone of voice strongly reminds some people of an artist I don't want to be associated with and it is distracting).
posted by mumimor at 4:03 PM on August 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

Nthing reading being the main issue. Get a translation app so you can look things up in restaurants and other public places, and be polite and smiley when you talk to people. It will all work out.
posted by something something at 4:04 PM on August 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was recently in Mainz, Germany, for work. Very few people were able to speak English, but all were happy with hand gestures and "I wollen ein Tasse Kaffee kaufen, bitte". Just a handful of words go a long, long way.
posted by kariebookish at 4:04 PM on August 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I always learn, "Pardon me, I do not speak $LocalLanguage, do you speak English?" in the local language. I think making the effort to open communication in the local language, if only to say you don't speak it, makes people more accommodating because at least you're not one of THOSE native-English-speakers who just walks around the world expecting English. You're asking, and you took the time to learn how to ask properly.

Beyond that -- Hello, Please, Thank you, Goodbye, Toilet (and men/women -- WALES YOU'RE SO CONFUSING), and Exit. It is helpful to know how to order a couple common foods you like, hotels and museums and so forth are used to catering to tourists but not all restaurants are. It's okay in a place where you're sitting down and can look stuff up on your phone or in your phrasebook, but if you're at a counter place ordering quickly it's helpful to know how to blurt out "ham and cheese no mayo" or whatever.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:34 PM on August 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you will have signal, let me strongly, strongly recommend the Google Translate app, which also allows real time voice translation.
posted by corb at 4:38 PM on August 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

Also the Google Translate app will let you hold your camera up to the sign and it will translate them. Seriously I cannot recommend it enough.
posted by corb at 4:39 PM on August 26, 2017 [8 favorites]

Most people in the Netherlands will speak some English, but you are totally right that not everybody does. It really depends on where you are and the kind of people you meet. People working at a hotel reception will speak English, people who work in stores probably will (or they can call a colleague who does) but it's possible that the person who cleans your room doesn't. A bus driver might also not speak English. They might understand "a ticket to X please" but they probably don't sell tickets in the bus, and their English might not be good enough to explain to you where you can buy tickets (it might also be fine, this just differs a lot).

If you're in a very touristy place, like a hotel reception, a ticket desk of a large museum, a store or restaurant in the center of Amsterdam, etc. I would not hesitate to start in English and assume that they'll speak English. That's really a reasonable assumption and not impolite. But if you're in, say, Zeeland and try to buy seaweed from a local farmer, it's probably appreciated if you stumble in your best Dutch. It's likely that the farmer or cashier then switches to English, but there's no downside to starting with Dutch. If you want to do more than buy a bag and ask something about it, it's perfectly fine to ask "spreekt u Engels" and they probably do.

Seconding corb that Google Translate is really useful. It also lets you download languages to use offline. I also agree with kariebookish that a handful of words and small sentences go a long way.
posted by blub at 4:42 PM on August 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

There is a difference, though: everyone in the Netherlands speaks amazing English and enjoys speaking English. In Germany it depends on where you are and who you are talking with but you will be able to manage just fine.

This. As a general rule of thumb for traveling through Europe I've taken the "dubbing/subtitling dichotomy" to heart: in countries that dub Anglophone movies I start my conversation with "Excuse me, do you speak English?" (or something to that effect) and in countries that use subtitles I have no qualms about addressing folks in English without asking first.

This rule isn't perfect, obviously, and suitable only for Western-/Central- and Northern-Europe (Wikipedia infographic on dubbing in Europe), but I found it to be helpful, nevertheless.
posted by bigendian at 6:06 PM on August 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

On the off chance someone in the Netherlands addresses you in Dutch, you can say "Sorry?" which is Dutch for "excuse me?" When they hear your accent, they'll continue the rest of the conversation in English.
posted by humboldt32 at 6:30 PM on August 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

bigendian: True! In the Netherlands we've had subtitling for ever, and a lot of English language music.

People who are actually trying to learn Dutch and speak it (or hear it) while trying to practise have told me repeatedly that that just does not work at all because people in the Netherlands will automatically start speaking to you in English. Some have found it a bit annoying, even. But that will be a good thing for you then!
And I agree with what others have said: talking to people above 50 it can be different and outside the cities, but usually even in those situations there's always someone around who can translate. If you want to be polite and break the ice etc you could thank Dutchies/Germans for talking to you in English or trying understand you (dankje / dankuwel, hartelijk dank, or German: danke, vielen dank). Also, people are very direct here, so they may appear to come straight to the point, not a lot of words or exchanges out of politeness. We possibly make up for that in eyecontact, and thank you's, I think. You'll be fine in any case, and I hope you have a great trip!

These might help:
Excuse me, do you speak English? :Sorry, spreekt u Engels?
I'm sorry, I don't speak Dutch: Sorry, ik spreek (helaas) geen Nederlands.
Good morning: goedemorgen
Good afternoon: goedemiddag
Good evening: goedenavond
Thank you: dank je, (or a bit more formal: dank u)
Thank you very much: hartelijk dank
Have a nice day (when leaving): "fijne dag" or just "dag!"
Where are the bathrooms? Waar zijn hier de wc's (weecees)?
Where is the exit? Waar is de uitgang?
posted by Mariemma at 6:36 PM on August 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

English speaker with disappointing levels of other languages here. I agree with the suggestion above to learn how to say "I'm sorry I don't speak $language, do you speak English?" in the languages for where you are travelling, along with excuse me, please, sorry and thank you, as a minimum.

If you have an Android phone, download the relevant Google translate language packs for where you're going, preferably while you're on wifi before you go, so that you can use it even if you don't have data access. If you end up in a situation where you need to communicate something beyond your level with someone who doesn't understand English, you can use Google translate to figure out what to say, and then read it out to the person, or even show it to them if the pronunciation is a bridge too far. It's primitive, and google translate isn't perfect, but I used this to ask for change at a market and to communicate that we were next in line for the laundromat at a town in rural France, and it worked fine - I think it shows you are taking responsibility for communicating in the language of the country, rather than expecting people who live there to speak yours.
posted by Cheese Monster at 6:50 PM on August 26, 2017

Umpty-squillionth person in here to say exactly the same things about most people speaking English and to learn some basic phrases.

Also, you will learn that most people really genuinely and sincerely do want to help, so even if their English is shakey, they may still go to great lengths to try to make sure you understand. I've had people resort to charades when they didn't know English but still really, really wanted to try giving me directions. And people will also forgive you for halting ability in their language - I once was in Rome and wanted to ask someone what street I was on, but all I could think to do was to ask someone (in Italian) "what street?" while gesturing wildly at the pavement beneath us. She didn't even bat an eye, she just answered my question.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:49 PM on August 26, 2017

I've managed with basic phrases in France, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Italy, but gave up in the Netherlands after "sprekt u engels?" was met with the dutch equivalent of "huh?" In Antwerp (Dutch speaking part of Belgium) the conductor refused to acknowledge me until I spoke to her in French.
posted by brujita at 10:19 PM on August 26, 2017

After greeting in their language and English, if they respond in their language, I ask in their language 'Do you know some English?' As a language learner, I know the gap is huge between knowing some and speaking the language. Maybe my question makes it easier for them.

Obviously, when speaking English don't use idioms or slang. Use simple sentence construction until their fluency level is apparent.
posted by Homer42 at 10:24 PM on August 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Heh. I'm fluent in Dutch, but even with just having an accent everyone immediately switches to English. You can find older Dutch people whose English isn't any good, particularly in the South, but as a tourist you would probably need to look for them.

It is always polite to ask if English is okay before you begin to speak in either Dutch or German.
posted by frumiousb at 10:31 PM on August 26, 2017

frumiousb: It is always polite to ask if English is okay before you begin to speak in either Dutch or German.

Seconded. It may be superfluous at worst but it never hurts and it can be really appreciated. Personally I dislike it if people just assume that I know a foreign language, and start talking to me like they don't even realise (or care) which country they're in.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:04 AM on August 27, 2017

Being polite really goes a long way. Practice your numbers before you go, because if you're managing to stumble along in the local language, it's easy to get confused at the cash register when they say, "Four-and-twenty eight-and-seventy" as they do in both Dutch and German when saying, "24.78 €"
posted by colfax at 5:00 AM on August 27, 2017

Let me add that plenty of Germans, especially if they're older, will say Nein when you ask them if they speak English. Don't let that stop you from fumbling ahead with what little German you've got, peppering in English words where you don't know the German ones. They do know some English, they just don't feel fluent enough to say Ja; so usually in these situations you can still make yourself understood in a shambling and apologetic patois.
posted by Beardman at 8:09 AM on August 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

You'll be fine, just learn a bit of each language and do your best and they'll love you.
posted by Sebmojo at 8:02 PM on August 27, 2017

Thanks all! We'll see how it goes.
posted by Upton O'Good at 9:15 PM on August 28, 2017

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