As a tourist, an English speaker will find it easy to tour Berlin without knowing any German, though knowing some of it goes a long way.
Most official offices speak English and Berliners usually want to practice their English with foreigners. Still, and even when all public transportation staff got English training before the country hosted the World Cup in 2006, and therefore should be able to help you find your way, you shouldn’t count on that. Berliners manage to find their way without knowing the transport schedule and their city’s geography in full detail; they improvise and, if lost, ask fellow citizens for help.
If needing assistance, approach locals -preferably groups of young people-, speak slow and use a British accent, as that’s the English they learn in school. Basic French and Russian are often spoken, since these languages used to be taught in Western and Eastern schools respectively. Also, the German language preserves some level of dialect in former East Berlin.
If you want to live in Berlin, or anywhere else in Germany, and even more if you are willing to find a job, it is very important to speak German. To get started, sign up for a language course either at universities, the local town hall, the adult learning schools (Volkshochschulen), advice centers from charitable organizations, intercultural centers or commercial language schools (Sprachschulen) – try the yellow pages. Online courses and one-on-one private lessons are also an option if you’re time restrained. Some people also sign up for language exchanges (Sprachaustausch, Tandem), where they’re paired up with a German person that wants to learn their language and they switch between them. Make sure to practice, expose yourself to German and watch German TV.
As a traveler, a bilingual pocket-sized dictionary is good enough. If you want to learn the language, the Langenscheidt Wörterbuch’s big edition will be of great help.
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