Before going to Berlin I told myself I was going to learn German, even if just a few common phrases to be polite if nothing else. But as I came closer to my trip I’d failed to learn a single word. I may have ceremoniously downloaded duolingo and had a flip through my school German book but I couldn’t string together a sentence or either a simple phrase. I was ashamed, but not enough to actually change anything.
Upon arrival, too scared to actually talk to anyone, I bought my train ticket into the centre on a self service machine. Easy enough. But when it came to lunch the thought of starting a conversation in English at a German establishment worried me. I was embarrassed just at the thought. Although I’d been assured most people would speak English, it seemed rude to me to just assume that. So I choose the most western place in site for a bite to eat, dunkin donuts. I’d chosen Berlin as a holiday destination for its culture, yet I was sat in a dunkin donut drinking coffee and eating a New York bagel. It was wrong.
It wasn’t until the third day I went to a German eatery, and that was only because I persuaded my friend who lived in the city to order for me. It was probably the best meal I had throughout the whole trip. Around 12 we met in a small coffee shop hidden down some suburban street. We indulged in some homemade banana bread and coffee served in ceramics with rustic charm. On the way to the train station we passed a small kebab shop which did a falafel box for €3.50. An obvious bargain we decided to eat again before going our separate ways.
But after that it was all down hill. As I write this I’m sat in Starbucks again… although it’s a good quiet spot for people watching, and reading it does seem a waste to have come all this way, only to end up in a Starbucks. The more I think of it we really do take our ability to speak English for granted. If you’re lucky enough to have English as your native language, you’re lucky enough to have most of the world catering to your needs. Even in the less central parts of Berlin street signs would include text in both German and English. Good news for me, but what if my first language was mandarin or Russian?
The advantages you have in the world for simply being able to speak English are huge. The advantages can be seen in more than just society, but in education, employment, healthcare and freedom of speech. So maybe next time you go abroad you’ll consider your privilege? I know I will.