German is the official language of six countries, all of which are in central and western Europe.
These German speaking countries are:
German All Over the World
However, if you are in another part of the world, you might still be able to practice the language closer to home. There are, in fact, 42 countries where there are some pockets of German native speakers.
In this article, I will tell you some historical and geographical reasons for this phenomenon:
- German in Europe
- Liberal Germans who emigrated after the Revolution of 1848
- Ex German colonies
- War refugees
- Post-war Nazi emigrants
- Post-war borders
German in Europe
There are around 130 million native speakers of German globally. It is the most commonly spoken language of Germany, Austria, Belgium, and Luxemburg. Additionally, it is one of the official languages of Switzerland and Liechtenstein. So, if you are in Central Europe, you will have easy access to people whose mother tongue is German.
German in its purest form, of course, is in Germany. “Hochdeutsch” (Standard German) is probably what you are learning. You are most likely to hear that in the area of Hanover, a city in central Germany. People here will probably sound like those you hear in your German listening exercises/textbook language.
In other parts of Germany, people might speak with a regional dialect or an accent which is trickier to understand. In other countries, such as Austria or Switzerland, it sometimes sounds like another language! One summer, I worked as an au pair in Vienna, and the family spoke “Hochdeutsch” with me. I came on in strides.
Then, one weekend they took me to visit a relative in the Austrian countryside. I was introduced to an older lady, who then answered in a way I couldn’t comprehend a single word. She thought I couldn’t understand German, but when my employer explained I could speak Standard German, she made an effort, and things were easier.
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The same can be said for Swiss German (Schweizerdeutsch) or the dialects of Belgium or Liechtenstein. Written texts and official spoken language will be accessible for you – don’t worry.
But let’s now go on a journey to find out where there are communities of German speakers in the world.
Liberal Germans who emigrated after the Revolution of 1848
The Revolutions of 1848-9 across Europe, including in Germany, resulted in many middle-class liberals fleeing political persecution from a conservative aristocracy.
Many of these people escaped to the USA; seven and a half million moved there between 1820 and 1870. Where? There is a “German Belt” from Pennsylvania to Oregan. There is even a town called “Germantown” (Philadelphia). Germans first settled in Germantown in 1683, the founders primarily seeking fertile land and economic chances.
German Americans established the first kindergartens, introduced the Christmas tree and culinary treats like hotdogs.
Furthermore, Oktoberfest and other annual German traditions are celebrated in metropoles such as Chicago, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee.
So, for a German flair and the potential to practice your language skills in the States, look out for such cultural events. Or visit New Ulm in Minnesota, nicknamed “the most German town in America. The city hosts a Glockenspiel clock, and 68% of its population claim German ancestry.
On the other side of the world, in Australia, there is a town called Hahndorf. Located near Adelaide, Australia’s oldest German settlement still consists of “Fachwerk” houses and a Bavarian feel. Indeed, men in pubs serve beer and sausages wearing Lederhosen.
Captain Dirk Mainertz Hahn and 200 liberal immigrants settled in Hahndorf in 1839, and the residents have maintained their cultural ancestry to what may be a kitschy level, but hey, what’s the harm in that?
Ex German colonies
What we know as Namibia today was a German colony between 1884 and 1915. German was then the official language of the country named German Southwest Africa.
Today about 31,000 Namibians are native speakers of German, while the official language is now English. Many still learn the language at school, the newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung is much-read, and Namibian Broadcasting Corporation is also transmitted in German. It has cultural and intellectual relevance.
It is predominantly still white people who speak German as a mother tongue in Namibia, but many black public sector workers, particularly in the tourist industry, are competent speakers.
Namibia had the strongest and longest German colonial link, but other African countries were part of the Empire. Examples include Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, Central African Republic. However, other countries took them over after the First World War, and so they now have more French or English connections.
Further afield, the German colonial empire reached as far as part of Papua New Guinea, some parts of China, and even a coastal town in China called Tsingtau. I saw a picture of it, and it looks very German and hence very abstract in the middle of the Asian continent.
The Argentinian Gold Rush
In 1890, an area of Argentina needed workers to build on and populate the land. Much like the Gold Rush in the USA, an initiative invited immigrants to come and work on the land. The payment was 200 hectares of land to build on privately. This incentive created an influx of European immigration, over 50 years, around 100,000 German speakers settled there. German newspapers, schools, and social clubs were quickly established.
Due to immigration to the US becoming more restricted, many Jews and anti-Nazis sought political refuge in Argentina during the Second World War. And then…
.. their counterparts!
Ante Pavelic, Adolf Eichmann, and Josef Mengele are just three examples of high-ranking Nazis who used the so-called “Ratlines” (Rattenlinien) to flee to fascist sympathizing countries in South America. Primarily Argentina, but also Brazil and Chile welcomed Nazis who would have faced execution back home. Hundreds of war criminals and thousands of Nazis escaped their fates and continued living as Germans, not hiding their fascist beliefs. Sometimes even side by side and shopping in the same stores as German Jews.
Another significant effect of both World Wars was that Germany became smaller in geographical size and political power. It lost most of its colonies, and its European borders changed. So, where people once lived in what was formally the German Reich now found themselves under the control of Poland or the Czech Republic.
Many Germans were expelled from areas such as Silesia, but the population shifts resulted in a dialect comprising a mix of German and Polish. This is also the case around many of Germany’s bordering countries (9 in total).
So, now you know where you can go to practice your German skills. Unfortunately, not as far-reached as Spanish or French, for example, due to the historical factors mentioned. However, you are not confined to Europe, so get out there and get talking!
Viel Spaß (Have fun!)