So is Vienna an English speaking city? Well not quite but it certainly is a city in which, as an English speaker, you can feel comfortable. It’s also a city where you are likely to encounter English being used beyond the usual tourist venues.
As an English speaker with very, very little German, I can sometimes frustrate German speakers I encounter in shops, offices, as well as in social and cultural locations. However, the more common reaction – especially when they realise that I’m an ‘English’ English speaker – is that many simply switch to English. This is often driven by practicality but in equal measure can spring from a desire to engage in conversations with a native speaker. Unlike myself and many of my compatriots back in the UK, a significant proportion of Austrians in the city, and many others who make their home in Vienna, speak more than one language. Many of the people I encounter, as I wonder around the city, speak good or moderate English, but even those with only a more limited knowledge of the language will seek to make use of their English skills.
In part, of course, my experience of life here is skewed by my lack of German. I’m simply more likely to find myself channelled towards those who can and want to speak English.
If German can be said to be the language of Vienna’s main act, English would be the support band – a small but useful part of the concert that creates the city’s sound. It is also, I suspect, becoming a more significant part of day to day life, certainly more so than it was twelve years ago when I first visited the City. For instance, Vienna’s public transport is extending the use of English in public announcements and signage. English is often used in advertising and can be found in other areas of life including, of course, as a shared medium of communication between different nationalities in Vienna’s coffeehouses. English is also the working language for a range of companies and educational institutions in the city.
One notable exception, in day to day life, is to be found in the instructions and packaging for many goods. They often come with information in six or more languages’, but one of them being English is generally the exception rather than the rule. This can, in so many little ways, create real challenges in day to day living.
Alongside the growth of English in various parts of Viennese life, the language has a long tradition of usage in the city which can be encountered in some surprising places. For instance, if you go along to see a First Vienna football match you will hear a significant amount of English sung and chanted. The club were the first team to be established in Austria and were founded by English and Austrian gardeners working for the Rothschild’s in 1894. It’s a tradition of the fans to sing many of their club songs and chants in English – on occasion accompanied by the sound of bagpipes.
So traditions and increased usage all leaves the English speaker able to function and enjoy life in Vienna. However, to fully appreciate life in the city I will have to continue my German lessons each week before I can join those other Brit’s living here who can happily converse in both languages.