I am a PhD candidate at a university in Germany. My supervisor, along with all of my colleagues, are German. I am a native English speaker, hired for a position that does not require German. However, I can speak some German, although it is not as good as the English of most of my colleagues.

In the 4 months I've been in this position I can tell that my supervisor and my colleagues don't like socializing in English. They try their best to speak English around me during lunch time, but I can tell that it's really taking all of their energy and effort to string a proper conversation together, to the point that it's really hard for me to understand their English. I encourage them to speak in German because I can understand more than I can speak. But of course I end up not participating in the conversation as much, which I can tell also makes my colleagues uncomfortable.

Any tips on how I can improve this situation from my end?

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    I did my (I'm from the USA) post-doc in the Netherlands. All physics was done in English. All talk at coffee was done in Dutch. I learned Dutch, well enough to participate on equal terms. Find a language school nearby, and take a week to do an intensive course, then just stick with it. Consider it a side benefit of you PhD - not everyone has the opportunity to learn a new language.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 17:24
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    They are trying, that's excellent. During my stay in france, most didn't even bother. Even at official functions, with students that they knew didn't speak french, they didn't switch to english. (I speak french, but other phd candidates didn't) Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 19:27
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    @JonCuster That should be an answer. Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 1:18
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    I think J.J below has basically the same answer, so he can get the glory...
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 1:22
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    Btw, they like to talk on English with you, because being native English speaker, it means a possibility for them for a language training. After you invested a lot of effort to learn a new language, having access to talk with the native speakers of it is priceless. If you wouldn't be a native English speaker, you probably had to learn German.
    – peterh
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 9:59

7 Answers 7


It will be much easier for you to learn German to conversational level than all of your co-workers learn English. Even if they are some-what able to talk in English, conversational English is actually pretty tough, whilst German is pretty structured and easy once you know the rules (and the many exceptions ;) )

More importantly, you moved to Germany. Whilst English is expected of all Scientists, there is probably more of an expectation in your lab that you will, eventually, learn German.

Personally, I would tell everyone you are going to German classes on Monday mornings, etc, and that should not only fix this issue, but also give you a positive perception among your co-workers as someone who is a fixer.

Also, speaking from experience as someone who didn't take their own advice when doing a PhD in Germany - if you dumb-down your English for non-native ears, you very quickly find yourself not being able to speak English with natives. Whenever i go back home my parents think I have some kind of brain damage...

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    "It will be much easier for you to learn German to conversational level than all of your co-workers learn English." That's questionable, given that the OP probably only speaks a little German currently while I would expect most / all scientists in Germany to speak at least passable English.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 17:56
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    How times have changed. When my father, a U.S. citizen, did his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering in the USA in the 1960s, the expectation at that time was that American science/engineering doctoral students would learn German because the scientific/engineering literature at the time was largely written in German.
    – shoover
    Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 19:37
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    "conversational English is actually pretty tough, whilst German is pretty structured and easy once you know the rules" As a native German speaker: I strongly disagree
    – dirkk
    Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 20:06
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    @dirkk Oh yes. I come from Austria and work in Switzerland. The notion that conversational German would somehow be easy to learn seems completely absurd to me.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 22:31
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    More importantly, you moved to Germany, and you plan to spend several years there. You are going to need German a lot in your life, not only in the lab. To go shopping, interact with offices where no one speaks English, signing a rental contract, checking local websites... So there is no excuse for not learning it. Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 7:26

You said that you understand more German than you can speak. I conjecture that the Germans on your team can understand more English than they can speak (or are wiling to speak). If so, then you can have conversations in which you speak English and they speak German. A better approach, since they're speaking German at lunch and you're just keeping quiet, is for them to keep speaking German while you speak a mixture of German and English --- German as much as you can, and falling back to English when you don't know the German word or phrase for what you want to express. Chances are they'll understand you, the conversation can keep going, and they might even tell you some of those German words or phrases that you didn't know.

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    This was much my experience and it works pretty well. I don't know if in Germany culturally it'd be as kosher to say "Hey, why don't we do this so we can talk more in depth", but I think the suggestion would generally indicate (a) I want us all to participate (b) I'd like to practice at least some bit of German. Even though you'd not be talking in German (and they not in English), you'd be amazed the level of improvement you (and they) can get from an steady stream of excellent input. Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 0:48
  • I think Andreas' Blass suggestion is short-term optimal, at least, and indeed fits with the typical situation that non-native speakers can understand at a better level than they can speak. When everything is "live", this is surely partly due to the fact that body language and affect (within cultural parameters...) aid the listeners. Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 0:56

My hunch is that this problem is more cultural than linguistic.

Do you feel left out of the conversation when your colleagues speak German? Could it be you are projecting that onto your colleagues? Normal behaviour for Germans is sometimes misinterpreted as cold and dismissive by people from Anglo-Saxon cultures. And in Germany, it's not generally considered rude to carry on a conversation in a group without actively involving everyone present.

It is natural, when conversation in one's second language is difficult to follow, to "fall off the train" -- that is, you miss a few words, and suddenly the conversation has left you behind and then it all seems like too much effort. That's when the "looking off into the distance" starts.

That's something people might notice.

Consider trying the following strategy: make an effort to follow the conversation. If you "fall off the train", get back on. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Maybe set a goal for yourself -- "I'm going to ask four questions in German about the conversation during this lunch break."

This will accomplish two things: first, you will at least appear interested. That will make you feel like more a participant, and it will encourage your colleagues to involve you. And second, it will help you learn the conversational language.

Finally, don't be afraid to talk to your colleagues about this. Judging by what you wrote about their English, they understand how challenging this is.

You are only four months in. Don't be so hard on yourself. What you are experiencing is normal. It will take time. But you are also a scientist; you can do this!

  • :-) Wonderful idea, I will also do this.
    – peterh
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 16:40

Imagine their situation. If you were a member of a native English speaking team, would all of you happily switch to German at lunch time, only because a single member of your team speaks German better?

Would you do it happily in your own country?

And, from an ethical aspect, in my opinion, you simply can't ask this from them.

I also live in Germany as a foreigner and have lived there for years. I can talk with the Germans seamlessly (both in English and in German; mostly we use German), but the lunch times are somehow still out of my reach. There, they speak fast and often dialectic between each other. This really isolates me and this is really annoying.

But, I accept it and try to do my best. I accepted this as I first stepped over the German border with the intent to remain there for a long time. In my opinion, you should also have accepted that.

(By the way: our problems are nuances compared to the problems of people trying to live in France.)

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    Yes, I would and I do. I remember one lunch at my university that started with me and another brazilian professor. When a french professor joined us, we switched to french. When another phd candidate, that didn't speak french, joined us, we switched to english. And by switched, I mean mid-phrase, as soon as the guy got to the table. I was on the other side of this, it is the least I could do. Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 19:37
  • @FábioDias Well it is a wonderful thing but it requires a team having three different common language (I think, Portuguese, French and English - and, I think, many of between you could talk on Spanish and on a fifth language as well). If you aren't on a language school, they you are highly over the typical level, even in the academical sphere. My experience is that most German in the academical sphere can speak English on a nearly native level, and a third language also very good, but this third language highly varies (French, Spanish and Italian are the most common).
    – peterh
    Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 20:12
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    Not really. The point I was trying, and apparently failed, to make is that the conversation happened in the language that was best understood by all members. The french professor didn't know pt, the phd candidate didn't speak french. I even had meetings half in french, half in english, where my advisors spoke french and I replied in english. If there is a common language, use it :) Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 20:20
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    @FábioDias "best understood by all members" You think to the language, which is best understood by the member who understands it the worst? Or do you think the language, whose meaning-level of understand is the maximal? So, you want to maximize the minimal knowledge level, or the mean level of knowledge?
    – peterh
    Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 20:26
  • Lets keep the comments civil, please.
    – eykanal
    Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 19:45

Speak frankly about this issue with your German colleagues. They will appreciate it and support your approach. I'm German and working in a global acting company situated in Munich - my situation fits exactly to yours from the other angle. In General, we are not use to have English native speakers trying to learn German; that doesn't occur very often.

  • Maybe talking with native English speakers has also a positive effect for you? I.e. it develops your English.
    – peterh
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 16:37

"Lunch-time German" is basically every-day German, but pretty hard to pick up at the university institute, where it is only spoken at, well, lunch time.

So look for opportunities to practice and improve your German outside the university. Set yourself in situations in your free-time and every-day living activities where you have to speak and listen German. I have had a couple of international PhD students who came to Germany, and this is what worked out well for them (to be taken with a grain of salt):

  1. Fall in love with a German girlfriend or boyfriend :-)
  2. Move into a shared-living place ("WG") with Germans
  3. Become am active fan and supporter of the local soccer team

Point 1 has proven to be most effective (but, of course, cannot be commanded...). However, you might seriously consider point 2, which is both doable and very effective. (Note that living in a WG is not that uncommon in Germany for people at your level, even when they could afford a flat on their own).


I'm not sure my experience compares to this situation very well but my advice is you'll get used to it. It is hard to adjust to living in a foreign country but you can learn to live being surrounded by another language that you don't understand as well.

You won't learn the language overnight but you will only progress if you keep trying. It depends a lot on the institute and laboratory but it shouldn't be necessary to progress with your research. If they agreed to you joining the lab, they should be prepared to accommodate you and speak English when you need. However, you also need to understand that they have to make an effort to speak a foreign language and there are concepts or feelings that are easier to express in their own. You will learn this as you learn German (or any other language).

I live in Japan (as a postdoc) and am still learning Japanese. I can get by in stores and restaurants but I cannot discuss technical topics and even conversation involves a lot of cultural references and colloquialisms that I don't know. There's a lot of people speaking Japanese at my institute, including in seminars and meetings with collaborators. Our research group has a lot of international researchers and our meetings are mainly held in English. Japanese is still used by our technicians, administrators, IT department, and vendors. To make sure they understand, they will talk to each other and my PI in Japanese sometimes. It is easier for them to read and write in English than to speak so often it is better to contact them by email. Even if you can meet them, emailing them ahead of time means that they will already understand what you need from them.

They also make an effort to speak English when meeting international researchers, especially to welcome new colleagues, and they encourage us to learn their language. We must also appreciate this effort. We chose to come to their country. They didn't choose for our language to become the international language used in research. Since you chose to live in a foreign country, it is expected that you will make an effort to learn the local language. They will appreciate any effort to make yourself understood in their language or taking in any interest in their hobbies. Don't be afraid to ask them to clarify things you don't understand or speak more slowly.

You get used to not understanding everything around you. It will get to the point that you feel rude understanding private conversations that you are not involved in when you return to your home country. You can and will learn the language but it will take a very long time. You need to get comfortable with living abroad and they way things are. It is also completely understandable to prefer to spend time with other foreign researchers or local researchers with stronger English skills in your spare time. You will learn who these are as you settle into your new position.

As long as you can still meet the requirements of your course, there is nothing you need to do. You can adjust to this situation but be patient. It will take time.

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