After moving to Germany as first a high school scholarship recipient and then later a post-college graduate Fulbright scholar, I spent a lot of time traveling around Europe. One thing I always wondered was whether my English or German would be more useful. For instance, how common is spoken German in Spain?
Spoken German in Spain is quite uncommon. In fact, just over 1 percent of people living in Spain speak German, even though Germans commonly travel to Spain for business and vacation. When doing so, though, German speakers need to use Spanish or the universal English to get around in Spain.
As a native American, I’m already an anomaly of sorts, having learned a second language to fluency (German). But even with knowing two languages well, there are times when it’s still not enough, such as visiting countries like Spain. Read on, as I share what I learned about speaking German in Spain and how I handled it when I was there.
- 1 How Common Is Speaking German in Spain?
- 2 How many people speak German in Spain?
- 3 Can you get around using only German in Spain?
- 4 Spain-Germany Relations: Are Germans welcome in Spain?
- 5 The Final Word for Speaking German in Spain
How Common Is Speaking German in Spain?
Spain is a beautiful country with a rich culture, deep history, and varied scenery, though one does not often think of Germany and the German language when considering it.
Speaking German in Spain is not typical. Most speak Castilian Spanish, the official language of Spain. Other languages most spoken are Basque, Galician, and Catalan, which are all regional Spanish languages. That being said, Spanish schools are placing more emphasis on learning a foreign language.
However, you may find yourself entering the country, whether that be for work or vacation, with little to no skills in Spanish and only your other language abilities to rely on. If one of those languages happens to be German, you’ll probably find it not very useful and may want to take a translation app or book along with you (Here’s a popular one for Spanish on Amazon)!
As for me, when I visited Spain-and not being a fluent Spanish speaker- I did find a few opportunities to speak German, but other times, I utilized my native English instead. I’ll share more about this later.
How many people speak German in Spain?
So how many people actually speak German who live in Spain? Well, let’s look at the numbers.
In 2016, less than half of 1 percent of Spanish citizens (about 200,000 people) spoke German. This is quite a low number, especially in comparison with the number of English speakers at 11 million. And keep in mind, almost all Spaniards speak Spanish as their first language.
Other common languages to find in Spain are the regional languages like Catalan but even those who speak them know the official Castilian Spanish.
As said before, Spanish schools have started to emphasize the teaching of foreign languages. The biggest motivation is to prepare Spaniards for the global workforce. Others see it as evidence of a wider appreciation for international relations, tourism, and liberal arts education.
Not surprisingly, the top choice of foreign language to teach and learn in Spain is English, though this is in addition to the Spanish schools that offer regional Spanish languages as an extra. Other schools particularly secondary ones also provide French classes, and even a few, German.
But unfortunately for German speakers, German is not a priority for most Spaniards, and Germany’s distance from Spain itself makes it a rarely considered language for Spaniards.
And given the knowledge that most all Germans know conversational English, it’s easier to find English a common language between the peoples. As well, quite a few Germans speak Spanish and are much more open to learning useful phrases in Spanish to use while visiting parts of Spain than Spaniards are for the Germans who visit them.
Other Doublespeak Dojo articles on German like this one:
- All About Asking ‘Do You Speak German?’ in German
- What Is The Deal With Saying Girlfriend In German?
- How To Use The Word They In The German Language
As part of my time living in Germany, I was privileged to visit lots of neighboring countries, being that it was not very expensive to travel or to find reasonable places to stay in Europe. Some of the places I traveled to are Austria, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, on the eastern side of Europe, as well Netherlands, France, and even Spain to the west of Germany.
Below I’ll share some of my experiences in Barcelona and Mallorca, Spain and whether or not I found speaking German at all applicable.
Speaking German in Mallorca, Spain
Mallorca, if you are unfamiliar, is an island off of the coast of Spain, in the western Mediterranean Sea. This island is an extremely popular tourist destination, known for its beautifully blue waters, expansive beaches, and exciting nightlife scene. Germans, in particular, are fond of Mallorca!
If you mention Mallorca to a German, you are first bound to hear the beloved, and overused, joke “Achso, der 17te Bundesland?” (Oh, the 17th state of Germany?). [Germany has 16 official states; a few of the ones most known to non-Germans are Bavaria, Berlin, and Saxony.]
Next you are sure to hear that German’s story of either relaxing in or partying on their adopted island, depending on the age of your conversation partner.
Case in point: Just a month after being in Germany during my senior year of high school (I won a study abroad scholarship from the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program, a.k.a. CBYX), my host family took a vacation to Mallorca, and I was happily included.
The highest rate of outside visitors to Mallorca (i.e. visitors not from Spain) comes from Germany. In 2020, about 33% of all visitors were German, a far greater number than all other nationalities. For example, the next highest percentage of visitors comes from England at 7.5%.
Because such an extraordinary amount of Germans visit Mallorca every year, you can genuinely hear and use the German language on a regular basis while visiting the island. As someone visiting Mallorca who’d just begun living in Germany, I was more concerned about using German than English while there, and was happy to be able to do.
In reality, Germans are perfectly capable of getting around while using German as their sole language on the island of Mallorca, without Spanish or English. This, of course, is in stark contrast to most other areas of Spain.
The island is so incredibly infamous to Germans as a place for vacation and partying, that there are dozens of songs written solely about partying on Mallorca, or Malle as it is known colloquially. In fact, there is a subgenre of music known as Ballermann, which is a unique mix of techno and pop music, all the while being sung in German.
It is a genre of music associated with the bars and clubs of the party island; more specifically it is also the name of a specific club in Palma, the party city of Mallorca, and therefore often associated with this locale.
Speaking German in Barcelona, Spain
But as much as Germans love Mallorca, people in Germany take full advantage of their proximity to other European countries, too, and their vacationing seriously. And why not, the transportation system is so easy and accessible!
I myself visited Barcelona in February of 2022 during my Fulbright year living in Cottbus, Germany. [Cottbus is in the Brandenburg state of Germany, by the way.]
I found February a perfect time to visit the city by the way if you are looking to beat the normal crowds! It is a bit chilly this time of year, and therefore maybe not the best for beach days or the like, which means typically tourists don’t visit at this time. However, having just come from Northeastern Germany, the 40-60 degree Fahrenheit weather of Barcelona in February was lovely from my perspective!
Visiting a large, international city like Barcelona, you are bound to hear some German around you, just as I did during my trip. Participating in group tours, tourist attractions, etc. we encountered this often. You can also find tours led in German relatively easily, especially to the largest attractions, like a visit to the Sagrada Familia, the most iconic symbol of Barcelona and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
If you are unfamiliar with the Sagrada Familia, it is a massive, unfinished Basilica designed according to plans by Antoni Gaudi, a renowned architect who contributed to several of Barcelona’s standout buildings. And if you wave this attraction off as just yet another ornate European church, don’t!
I have visited dozens of beautiful German churches; the ones most typically imagined when one thinks of ancient history and Christianity and Catholicism. But this building is easily one of, if not the, most beautiful structures I have stepped foot in.
Its style is incredibly unique and surprisingly “modern,” yet not distastefully so, since Gaudi took on the project in the 1880s and continued to work on it until his death in 1926. But for these reasons, it stands out from pretty much any other church you will see.
So when going to attractions such as this one, you can book tours in most languages, including German.
Yet, to be clear, on a daily basis, you are unlikely to hear an abundance of German, for example, from retail workers or service people in restaurants and hotels.
However, since Barcelona is such an international, major city as aforementioned, you can keep an eye out for German speakers as you get around there, in other areas or parts of the city.
We attended an English-speaking comedy show, which actually featured a German, amongst many other Europeans. At various flea markets we heard Germans both selling and buying items.
In these ways there are opportunities to meet and speak with Germans, though it is unconventional and you’ll need to be creative and perceptive to find and notice it. But for these reasons, and the rarity of hearing the language, you cannot expect to rely on this language alone to get around in Spain.
Can you get around using only German in Spain?
So given all this information, what’s the prognosis for getting around using only German in Spain? Is it possible?
It’s not practical to get around using only German in Spain. Except for extremely popular places frequented regularly by Germans like Mallorca or very large, metropolitan cities like Barcelona, you’re very unlikely to find German speakers in Spain and you’ll need some Spanish or even English.
It’s just not realistic to think you can get around using only your German.
In almost all of Spain, however, it’s very unlikely to find German on road signs; on TV; on menus; or used in hotels.
Unless you are visiting a special location, like Mallorca as mentioned above, it is unlikely that you can rely solely on your German speaking skills to get around in Spain. Your best bet is to use English, if Spanish is not an option, as most major cities have many workers who can speak English so as to accommodate tourists.
Over 11 million residents of Spain are estimated to speak English, which is a reasonable estimate considering it is compulsory to learn English in Spanish schools from a young age.
That’s not to say that a German who does not speak another language cannot get around in Spain, though; one can always make do with a lot of gesturing, pointing, and maybe a few learned phrases in Spanish. But of course this is not ideal. It’s best to be prepared to put in some effort to make yourself understood!
Spain-Germany Relations: Are Germans welcome in Spain?
Considering that Spaniards don’t typically learn German, despite Germans being a frequent visitor to Spain, you’d wonder how relations are between the two peoples. Do Spaniards like Germans, and vice versa?
The relations between Germans and Spaniards is friendly. Given that both are members of the European Union, transit and trade between them is encouraged. Both are also members of the defense council, NATO, further aligning their goals and values. Thus, Germans are welcomed into Spain and vice versa!
Living, working, or visiting the country can be a very safe and enjoyable experience for any German, and I found my time in both Barcelona and Mallorca friendly and among my most favorite (and I’ve been to more countries than I can count on two hands!).
The Final Word for Speaking German in Spain
The final word for speaking German in Spain is that most Spaniards don’t. That is, spoken German in Spain is highly unlikely to find and experience. While areas like Mallorca and Barcelona may have some German speaking opportunities, German speakers should be prepared to use Spanish or even English in most parts of Spain. And if you know anything about Germans, then you know they like to be prepared!
For more about speaking German, I recommend these Doublespeak Dojo articles next: