Berlin′s English Problem | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 07.02.2005
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Berlin's English Problem

As Berlin hopes to further boost foreign tourism ahead of the 2006 World Cup, an undercover report by DW-WORLD's Sonia Phalnikar suggests that lacking language skills in the service sector might be the biggest problem.


Still a harsh environment for people who don't speak German

As the countdown to the 2006 Soccer World Cup begins, the German capital is buzzing with new-found confidence. Six games including the opening and closing ceremonies and the final are set to take place in Berlin next summer. The usual moaning over the cash-strapped city's staggering €60-billion ($77.23 billion) debts and its embarrassing failed bid to host the 2000 Olympics has been replaced by a new industrious spirit.

Lehrter Bahnhof Berlin

The Lehrter Railway Station during an early construction phase in 2002

Berlin's legendary Olympia stadium has received a €250 million facelift and the gigantic glass-domed central railway station is being readied to welcome the world. City authorities expect a million foreign World Cup tourists next year, taking Berlin's existing tourism record to new highs.

With 13 million foreign guests -- mainly from Britain and the US -- visiting the city last year, Berlin is now the third most popular tourist destination in Europe after London and Paris.

But amidst the World Cup hoopla and marketing campaigns, there's little talk of improving the city's international image, particularly when it comes to catering to the needs of the English-speaking traveler.

City in need of reality check

I realized belatedly that a cold, rainy Monday morning probably wasn't the best time to carry out a reality check posing as an English-speaking tourist, given the fabled links between the weather and its effect on Germans' disposition.

Schweigeminute für Opfer der Flutkatastrophe - Berlin U-Bahn

English still isn't spoken within Berlin's U-bahn system

At Alexanderplatz, the main transport hub in the eastern part of the city, I waited ten minutes in line to speak to two scowling officials of Berlin's unpopular BVG company that runs the underground train network, bus and tram system. But once I got to their window that read "Tickets and More” and "City Tour and Welcome Card Available here,” they abruptly killed my first attempt at undercover journalism with an "Englisch? Nein, nein.”

It seems they hadn't heard Berlin's politicians gushing about tourism and particularly the World Cup "providing an adrenalin shot for the city's economy."

Marco Fereira, a 19-year-old Brazilian studying in London who was in Berlin for two days, was also in the line and ended up ticket-less.

"It's a bit frustrating," he said. "I don't have the "Lonely Planet" with me which has all that info. All I want to know is which ticket's the best. The touch screen machines down in the underground don't explain (in English) how long the various tickets are valid.”

Is that our train?

After a few variations of the Alexanderplatz scene with more misses than hits in buses, a tram and with two cab drivers on prime touristy stretches, I tried the Zoo Station, one of the main railway stations used daily by hundreds of tourists.

Wiedereröffnung S-Bahn Ring Berlin

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit (center) as a train conductor

Skirting the long lines for information, I had a particularly bruising encounter with an official at the customer service counter of Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national railway, who failed to understand that I couldn't read her German "no service at this counter at the moment" sign.

Diane Rawley and her husband Timothy from England, who were trying to locate the tourist information center, (which as it happens isn't directly in the Zoo station) said that Berlin was "fascinating" and "quite friendly." But they added that if there was one thing they'd like to see changed it would be the introduction of a few English language announcements at train stations.

"We're straining our ears trying to figure out whether that particularly long German announcement had anything to say about the train we're waiting for,” Timothy Rawley said. "We're worried we might miss something important like a delay or change in platform.”

"Serious deficits"

Berlin's tourism boss, Hans Peter Nerger, who has admitted in the past that if it was up to him, he would prescribe crash courses in English for all of Berlin's service industry personnel, conceded "there are serious deficits.

Hennes & Mauritz am Kurfürstendamm

Berlin's Kurfürstendamm shopping boulevard

"It's not just about being able to speak English or French or Italian. It's attitudes that need changing,” said Nerger, who pointed to the refusal of certain stores in tourist areas to accept credit cards as an example. "After all, it's well known that American tourists prefer to pay by card.”

But Nerger, whose office runs three tourist information centers in the city where you can get a bagful of free brochures and book hotels but expect little by way of politeness (forget about a smile or an "enjoy your stay in Berlin"), said schemes like the one announced by Madrid -- future cab drivers in the Spanish capital will have to learn English as part of the city's 2012 Olympics bid -- would never work in Berlin.

Getting better but not quite there

Love Parade in Berlin Siegessäule

The Love Parade in Berlin

Of course, things aren't all bad. Department stores like the famous KaDeWe have personnel fluent in five languages and many restaurants too now print their menus in English. Most visitors take back overwhelmingly positive impressions with them reinforced by the city's relatively low prices, its café and party culture -- as well as its remarkably efficient transport system despite all the gruffness.

"There's a general lack of information in English in museums and the like but it's all so much better than it was a few years ago," said Francis Hartnett, owner of Insider Tour, a company organizing English-language tours. "There are definitely fewer complaints now from tourists. Many are also much more well-traveled nowadays, many of them have been to eastern Europe so Berlin isn't bad. Paris is probably more unfriendly."

It may not be the most flattering of comparisons, but there's general agreement that Berlin could do more to spiff up its international image.

Petra Reetz, spokeswoman for the BVG company, summed it up.

"What we really need to do is just try to be nicer, friendlier and more open to strangers," she said.

Sounds like a plan.

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