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There is an upcoming conference in Germany, all the talks will be in English, however all the listed participants are also German. Only speaking English I'm wondering if it would be inadvisable to go, as everyone will speak German during non-talk times?

Is this true or am I being too paranoid?

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I suspect many attendees will speak neither German nor English as their first language, and that you will find English used by many as the "lingua franca" if the conference schedule is in English, as attendees will be a self-selected group with a reasonable grasp of the language, and will expect others to be so too. My experience of English-language conferences in Italy and Spain with speakers from many countries was that English was most common in the corridors. –  AdamV May 21 at 12:15
    
When I was a student visiting various European departments, I always found it easier to hang out with other people not from the host country — for example, French students and postdocs in Germany, or German students and postdocs in France. –  JeffE May 21 at 16:56
    
as Kate is pointing this out: listed participants = speakers? –  Zane May 22 at 17:27

3 Answers 3

up vote 38 down vote accepted

Here are some claims that I think you will agree are true:

  • Anyone who attends a conference where all the talks are in English can understand spoken English reasonably well
  • You don't live in Germany and are considering attending. You are probably not the only person considering it
  • Anyone willing to give a technical presentation in English can probably both understand and produce spoken English reasonably well

I believe these add up to you being able to find people for "hallway conversations" in English pretty easily. You might have some lonely lunches if you find yourself at a table with people who all speak German and exclude you. I have this problem with people who all discuss (in English) something I don't understand at all and don't want to learn (eg how to install Exchange on a server.) I generally try to prevent this by striking up a conversation with a fellow attendee at the end of the session that is right before lunch, and suggesting we go to the lunch line together.

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+1 for your first point. I think this sums it up entirely. –  long May 20 at 23:44
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I would post an answer if I had anything to add to this (so +1). I can offer the anecdotal evidence that I am currently at a conference in Germany, and hallway conversation takes place in many languages, but most commonly English. Then again, in my case the set of attendees is international and most of them don't speak German. –  David Z May 21 at 10:03
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Small hint from a German: Germans tend to fall back to their own language in spare time, not to exclude you, but because it is more efficient for them, and Germans just love efficiency, especially Scientists and Engineers. It is absolutely acceptable if you kindly remind them of the fact that you do not understand German. They will usually excuse for their switch of language and use English to include you. –  TwoThe May 21 at 11:08
    
+1 for all, but especially the lunch point. –  AdamV May 21 at 12:16
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@Zane listed participants are typically presenters. It's a rare conference that tells you everyone who is attending. The OP is considering attending. Surely some other nonGermans are too. –  Kate Gregory May 21 at 15:46

Don't worry, Germans are usually polite. Being polite is to include all people in a conversation. So if the common language of a group is English, they'll switch to English to accommodate you. Furthermore, Germans attending the conference will expect to have attendants not speaking German and that conversations in the hallways will be in English too.

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"Germans attending the conference will expect to have attendants not speaking German" - this. If they truly expected everyone attending to speak German, the conference talks would be given in German, as well. In my estimation, Germans are often eager to speak English (for example, readily switching to English when a single person present does not speak German), but not so exaggeratedly that a whole conference would be held in English if 100% of the audience were known to understand German. –  O. R. Mapper May 21 at 6:13
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There are some herd effects, and in my limited experience (we) Germans tend to switch when talking with each other, even though non-German-speakers are near (maybe more readily than other folks, I don't know). It is always appropriate to ask nicely if they can switch to English, though, and some may even expect you to speak up! (Who knows whether you understand and are just shy? Isn't it rude to assume no German ability just because a person looks foreign? ...) –  Raphael May 21 at 10:45
    
@Raphael: the assumption that English will work for "foreign-looking people" is not a given. I cannot really distinguish French-speaking and English-speaking people with African origin by their looks. So the first bet outside of particular contexts like a conference is German, with an offer to switch if that does not work. At a conference, it is usually embarrassingly easy to pinpoint Germans from other Western Europeans. It think it's almost harder to tell them from Eastern Europeans. –  David May 21 at 20:00

I assume that the conference attendees will be at a higher educational level, which probably means they can not only listen to talks in English, but probably are also able to communicate in English.

So yes, I thank it's safe to go to the conference and you will be able to talk to people in English with no big problem.

I guess from your reservations that you are aware that it is not always easy to get along with English in Germany. Don't expect sales agents or bus/taxi drivers to talk English. And even if people speak English, they might not be very fluent.

And I must admit that all other participants being German is strange - whatever reason there is that talks are in English, it is surprising that participants do not come from outside Germany. I'd propose to call the organizers just to make sure that talks are in English.

I don't think you're paranoid here. E.g. Universities will have lectures announced in English, but hold them in German (as long as nobody objects).

And if there are so many German speaking people, groups often will talk in German. Then you shouldn't be shy - just throw in a remark and make clear you only speak English. I'm pretty sure they will switch language then.

Note: I'm saying this as a German living in Germany, with some experience with conferences at different national levels, sometimes visiting conferences where most participants are locals not speaking German. In the last case, it's really important to not be too shy - when you try to join a discussion, make clear you do not understand what they say as soon as you get the chance - maybe a simple "hello, how are you" is already enough to achieve awareness.

I guess you will get to know some nice colleagues.

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