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Fact Scan #3: Most Germans speak little or no English

Anyone who has seen the funny clip about a German coastguard talking to a man on a sinking ship via microphone knows it contains the truth. If you haven’t, take 40 seconds to watch it now:

That was more than 10 years ago. And still, the Germans and their English proficiency – although evolving – is somewhat a particular issue. Compared to their European neighbors, it depends on several factors you should acknowledge when targeting Germans as potential consumers or business partners.

Today, Education First (EF) – a global provider of educational programs and travel services – released the 8th edition of their EF English Proficiency Index.

What are the study’s key messages?

First of all, the English language skills of Germans improved slightly compared to the previous year. Among the 88 nations tested, Germany ranks tenth. However, many European neighbors are doing better. Not only the Swedes speak English better than the Germans, but also Dutch, Slovenians and Danish.

Differences between the federal states

And then there are very pronounced regional differences in Germany, with the new federal states of East Germany – Thuringia, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Saxony-Anhalt – on the lowest ranks. On the top ranks Berlin and Hamburg.

Proficiency is a matter of age

Another factor is the connection between English language skills and the age. The study shows that the older Germans are, the worse their English gets. This is not so surprising at first but in an international comparison, however, there is a difference. In Germany, the 18 to 20-year-olds speak and understand English much better than those over 40 but internationally, the difference between the age groups is very small.

English proficiency of German employees

Regarding the question to what degree German employees and managers – as potential business partners – speak English, a study by the Gesellschaft für Konsumforschung and Wall Street English showed that 65.5 percent of employees state that they have little or no knowledge of English. This number should be taken as an indication as the proficiency level differs among industries and job positions and of course, managers are on average more proficient than employees.

So when you want to enter the German market as non-German-speaker, keep in mind that

  • English proficiency varies throughout Germany and its regions,
  • depends on the age,
  • you need or a native/near native German speaking country manager when doing business in Germany

About the EF study

For the EF EPI study, the data from two different English tests were evaluated, both of which included grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and listening comprehension. The tests were taken by a total of 1,3 million adults in 88 countries worldwide.

Since the participants decided to participate in the survey themselves and most of them are likely to learn English, the results are not necessarily representative for the whole country. However, they provide an indication of the level of English proficiency in each country.

Do you want to know more about the Germans as your potential future customer?

Follow our weekly fact scans and read our previous posts about German consumer behavior.