Hamburg calling: Don't feed the tourists

Hamburg calling: Don't feed the tourists

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Expatica columnist David Baxter puts his mind to the troublesome question “How German is Germany?”

How German is Germany? In many ways, incredibly so. People's looks, mannerisms and dress all show nuances of their national heritage. The country's difficult recent history is ever present, marking walls, statues and conversations. The food, the traditions and the sensibilities all reflect the influence of the country's unique character on the people. Nevertheless, I find myself asking this bizarre question time and time again-mainly after watching a German film, reading a German magazine or speaking to a native in their tongue. The factor, of course, is the language.

The German language nowadays is plagued by a mishmash of Anglicisms-an unsuspecting German seized by thugs has unfortunately been “gekidnapped”. People are no longer bullied; they are “gemobbt” (from the term “Das Mobbing”, to mean bullying). And if you can master this strange mix of languages and an eclectic range of other challenges, perhaps someone will talk in awe of “Das Allround-Talent” that you possess. In a country that sees English as sophisticated and cosmopolitan, and regards its own language as particularly old news, German is less Deutsch than Denglisch.

Having spent some years learning German to find it infected with my inescapable mother tongue, this is a subject I can rant about at length. Indeed, my tirades have graced the ears of many a long-suffering friend (the outbursts become long and perpetual after a time) and, in fact, the pages of Expatica, in the past.

So I won't burden anyone with another moan.

To move on from any more angry digression I'll get to the point. The thing that threatened to topple me headlong into another linguistic rage is in fact a rather large positive; as one Germany-based BBC journalist ( observed today, the fine halls of German train stations, usually another realm of German life peppered with Anglicised jargon and bizarre, dreamt up terms such as “Kiss and ride” (which is less interesting than it sounds), are undergoing a language makeover. Objects and facilities at the Deutsche Bahn train stations which were once, mysteriously enough, labelled purely in English-”Counters” and “Service points” are rife-to the extent of actually confusing native Germans, are being reconsidered. Plans are under way to give everything a real German name, with accompanying English translations to help tourists; Deutsche Bahn said that it was often thanked by tourists for such assistance.


Which made me wonder; should entities that regularly deal with tourists, such as the tourism industry and companies providing travel, have to translate everything for the tourists? The loud, incensed “NO!” that initially went off in my head may have been a moment of German-obsessed delirium, but it is a point worth considering.

The arguments for translation are clear. Tourists, as consumers, bring a lot of money to a country. A country also arguably wants to leave a good impression on such people, to encourage more tourism later on, and a similar sort of hospitality for its own batch of tourists when abroad. And companies-such as Deutsche Bahn-tend to make customer service one of their priorities, so as not to put off future trade. Persuading them to ignore a lost, helpless (and money-laden) tourist may be tricky.

But on the other hand, is it a good thing to spoon-feed tourists so much? Do people travel from English-speaking countries to Germany to stand at a “Service point”, something they could probably do at home (or near enough)? Are tourists missing out on something here?

Recently, on a brief trip away, I had a minor epiphany on the subject. Arriving in Krakow for the remaining few days of 2009, I left the airport with the same mindset behind the “Call-a-bike”, “Cancel” and “Hotline” phrases floating around German train stations; that I needed, deserved, and should rightly demand, in English. Fortunately, that wasn't quite what I got.


Photo © daspunkt


Berlin Hbf

Leaving the airport, I was surprised to encounter a bus ticket system expressed in nothing but Polish, and though hotels and museums had at least one passable English speaker later on, my first few hours in the city were navigated through mumbling, gestures and (hopefully) enlightening facial expressions/amateur dramatics. For the first time in some years, I felt completely, truly foreign.

And yet, this was a good thing; the unknown signs in an undecipherable scrawl (to my eyes at least), the lack of any real orientation and the sheer unfamiliarity of the experience were exhilarating. This was what travelling meant. Not speaking English, slowly but loudly, and in a very irritating tone, in a restaurant, or sitting in an Irish Bar listening to American hits drone on from the jukebox. Not being catered too. This was, at least partly, about the unknown.

So why not remove the “Counters”? It'll make more sense for the locals, and maybe English speakers will have a real adventure. We could even start reeling back the Denglisch, and hopefully my rants.

Dave Baxter/Expatica

Photo credit: daspunkt

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