Language is a beautiful thing.
Apart from separating us from our primate ancestors, it keeps life interesting.
Language gives us a medium for expressing ourselves and our ideas to other people, allowing us to forge relationships and experiences that can last a lifetime.
Whether you’re making small talk with your coworkers at lunch, reading a spicy Liebesroman (romantic novel) or enjoying a German-language YouTube video, language brings excitement and enjoyment into our lives.
While native speakers often don’t think twice about the beauty and complexity of their language, those who are learning a Fremdsprache (foreign language) are well aware of the amazing ways language can affect our lives.
German learners are also aware of how frightening all the ins and outs of the language can make it to practice.
There are a million worries and anxieties running through every learner’s head, because of the hours of hard work put in learning the grammar, vocabulary and mechanics of the language, as well as the time taken to build listening comprehension:
“What if I make a mistake?”
“What if I forget a word, or what if they don’t understand my accent?”
It can be a lot of stress, even for those at an advanced level.
And in no situation is this more true than in conversation.
Natural, free-flowing Unterhaltung (conversation) is one of the most advanced aspects of using a foreign language, due to the rapidly-unfolding and ever-changing nature of conversation.
Also, since there are no written words, you can never look back if you misheard a phrase. If you get hung up on trying to figure out one word, you could miss the next several sentences.
Keine Sorge (no worries)!
While some people learn a foreign language to feel closer to their heritage or to translate letters from a relative, the majority learn a language to use it in everyday life, to travel or just to understand life from a different perspective.
So in this post, we’re going to look at how you can practice and perfect your everyday, conversational use of German up to and through the advanced level.
How to Master Advanced German Conversation in 7 Easy Steps
1. Context Me Later: Learn to Identify Formal and Informal Situations
Over time, advanced German learners develop an understanding of grammar and vocabulary that only comes with experience. This experience is the foundation from which meaningful conversation can be built. Before any of it can be used successfully, however, it’s paramount that you understand the context of the conversation taking place.
That’s right, the first step to improving your conversational skills is simply understanding the importance of the context in which your conversation is taking place.
The context will define the demeanor of your conversation. Like in English, German conversations will likely mirror the relationship between the people speaking. You’re going to talk to your significant other differently than you would talk to your boss (unless your boss is your significant other). Not recognizing the context and responding appropriately could have varying consequences, from an awkward silence to an outrageous offense.
In German, the context will usually be broken down into two categories: formal and informal.
Even beginners already know that this translates grammatically to a choice in second person pronouns: du (informal) or Sie (formal). But it can take a while to really understand when to use one or the other.
Knowing which one to use is very important, but simply put: Use Sie when speaking with someone higher up in the organizational chain than you (your boss, your professor, your friend’s parents, etc.) or when meeting someone (particularly older than you) for the first time.
Here are some examples:
Herr Mauerbauer, wie finden Sie diesen Nachrichtenbericht?
(“Mr. Mauerbauer, what do you think of this news report?”)
Klaus, warst du gestern Abend mit dem schönen Mädchen in der Diskothek?
(“Klaus, were you at the club with that pretty girl last night?”)
Be careful to not slip into using du as the default just because it’s more frequently used.
The hallmark of a truly advanced German speaker is their attention to linguistic detail. The correct usage of du and Sie shows the other person an understanding of the relationship, and can convey an acknowledgement of friendship or show respect if used correctly. If used incorrectly, it can come off as offensive or rude, so pass auf (watch out)!
2. Listen with Care: Know Your Speaking Partner
You already know that it’s important to pay attention to the relationship between you and your conversation partner. But you should also be aware of the linguistic skills and background of your partner.
If you’re talking to a native speaker, you may have to adjust your style to adapt to the faster pace and broader vocabulary. This is, however, a great way to pick up some new words, phrases and the type of linguistic style that makes fluency so fascinating.
For example, in spoken contexts, many native speakers let the “e” ending of conjugated verbs drop:
Ich hab’ gestern fast nichts gemacht, bin einfach faul gewesen.
(“I didn’t do anything yesterday, I was just lazy.”)
Emulating a native speaker and dropping the conjugated ending is a nice linguistic flair that advanced speakers pick up and utilize often.
You can also pick up this type of authentic language by watching German videos on FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Make sure you don’t get hung up trying to understand one word, and keep the subject or context of the conversation in mind, as it can help you figure out unknown words. Conversing with native speakers does wonders for your conversation skills, and while it may be tough at first, once you have some practice, it comes quickly!
If you’re speaking with a non-native speaker, however, don’t let yourself get too cocky and let your guard down. Still listen actively and pay attention to the context. The context can help you if the other speaker uses a word incorrectly or a word you don’t understand.
Remember, the goal of a conversation is to exchange meaningful dialogue, and without understanding, conversation becomes difficult.
Speaking with non-native speakers is actually a great idea for practice because it’s a slower-paced situation with less pressure to perform at a fluent level.
This is an opportunity to really shine and utilize your skills.
3. Case Closed! Master Your Cases
We all already know German grammar is complex, so there’s no need to delve into the depths of grammatical structure right now.
The important point here, though, is that to be an advanced conversationalist, you have to understand case and how it affects the structure of a sentence. You need to learn your nominative and accusative, your genitive and your dative.
Proper grammar is important in any facet of language usage. Knowing the correct case to use will help your conversations immensely, and will help avoid any unfortunate Missverständnisse (misunderstandings).
Mixing up your cases, or using them incorrectly, could be the difference between the following two sentences:
Ich werde für dich Abendessen kochen. (“I will cook dinner for you.”)
Ich werde dich für Abendessen kochen. (“I will cook you for dinner.”)
4. Don’t Tense Up! Choose Your Past Tense with Care
Tense is another aspect of grammar that advanced conversationalists must master. Good speakers are able to avoid misunderstandings and use linguistic devices properly, including tense.
Present and future tenses are the easiest to grasp, and your humble author will assume you can already use them. The harder to use is the past, where speakers have two options: the Imperfekt (simple past) and the Perfekt (present-perfect).
While most people learn the present-perfect tense first, it is without a doubt easier to use the one-word Imperfekt tense in most situations.
However, German grammar seldom favors ease, which is why you are more likely to hear “Ich hab’ dir gestern in der dunklen Kneipe mit der Kristie gesehen” rather than “Ich sah dir gestern in der dunklen Kneipe mit der Kristie” (“I saw you in the dark bar yesterday with Kristie”).
The Perfekt tense, coincidentally called the conversational past tense, is not used when telling a narrative, however. That’s when it’s time to use the Imperfekt.
By and large, the present-perfect should be your go-to when conversing about things in the past. It may be a little tougher (especially when using multiple verbs, it seems like there’s a traffic jam of infinitives at the end of the phrase!), but this is the way the natives do it, so you should, too!
5. Remember, Practice Makes Perfect
Understanding grammar and context is of course important, but for advanced German learners the best way to maintain and improve your skills is simply to practice! Luckily, there are opportunities for practice all over the place:
- Find a local Deutschverein (German club) in your area and meet other people who want to improve their German. Non-native speakers are great practice partners because they can benefit from the experience too and there’s less pressure than speaking with a native speaker.
- Even if you’re not a student, university German professors are key resources for not only practice, but finding other German speakers in your community.
- Another option is to look outside your community for a Gesprächspartner(in) (speaking partner). There are several apps and websites meant to bring people together to improve language skills. Find a partner and arrange a Skype call to practice your conversation skills with a new and exciting person.
However, the best way to improve your conversation skills is to immerse yourself in the language. The easiest way to do that?
German-speaking countries are some of the most beautiful, traveler-friendly countries on earth, with millions of people just waiting to have a conversation with you.
Spending even a few days immersed in German does wonders for not only your conversation skills, but your vocabulary and grammar as well.
6. Observe and Report: Take Advantage of German Writing and Media
Television, film and books are other great ways to observe conversations between native speakers. These conversations were conceived in the minds of linguistic experts like writers and directors, so they’re excellent to study and can be great teachers.
Try reading books and short stories with lots of dialogue, or plays. A great choice is “Die Physiker,” a play about three scientists and their work. It has many great examples of well-structured conversation, as well as a compelling narrative to keep the audience invested.
You can also read “Steppenwolf” in the original German. “Steppenwolf” is one of the most widely-read books from a German author, and it’s a great opportunity to observe conversations between the protagonist, Harry Haller, and the people he encounters in his mystical life.
Another option is to check out a classic German film. German cinema is world-renowned, and there are many great options. Try watching “Lola Rennt” (“Run Lola Run”), and pay attention to the way they use slang in conversation. Even if you’re already familiar with this oft-recommended piece of cinema, remember that you’re a high-level speaker (or trying to be!), so try watching it without subtitles.
Then, as you’re watching, try to find a particular word, phrase or even style marker you like, and try it out yourself at the next opportunity! Continue doing this with more films, and different words, phrases and styles. This is one of the best ways for advanced-level speakers to broaden their vocabulary, or pick up a new conversational style.
7. Navigate Conversational Speedbumps with Key Phrases
Even if you’ve been studying German for years, you’re bound to run into speedbumps along the way. In no area is this more true than during conversations. Conversations unfold right before your eyes, and require both participants to be attentive to what the other person is saying.
But what if you don’t understand a word, or are still hung up trying to translate a phrase that’s important to the meaning of the conversation?
Negotiating meaning as part of the conversation is a crucial skill to have. This is why it’s good to know some handy phrases to help you out if you have trouble in a conversation.
We learned how to ask “Wie sagt man _____ auf Englisch?” on our second day of German class. Here are some more great phrases to use if you run into trouble and need to ask for more information, but don’t want to take the easy route and ask for a direct translation:
Was meinst du? (“What do you mean” or “What is your opinion?”)
Kannst du das bitte erklären? (“Can you explain that?”)
Bitte, erzähl mir jetzt mehr. (“Please, tell me more.”)
Like in English, topics of conversation may stray into unknown territory. You may know the words, but are just under-informed and can’t hold a conversation on something such as a news topic, or a new tech trend.
In this case you will want to steer the conversation towards something you can actually, you know…have a conversation about:
Verzeihung, ich weiß nichts drüber. Was meinst du zu der Flüchtlingskrise? (“I am sorry, I do not know much about [that topic]. What is your opinion on the refugee crisis?”)
Leider kann ich nicht viel sagen, ich bin nicht ganz informiert worden. Vielleicht könnten wir die Bundeswahl besprechen? (“Unfortunately I cannot say much, I am not fully informed. Perhaps we could discuss the national election?”)
So, now that you’ve had a crash course in advanced conversation, put all your skills together, get out there and have an amazing conversation auf Deutsch!
Practicing your skills will make them second nature, and will make conversations come easily and naturally.
In no time at all, your high-level conversations will have soared to heights you never dreamed of!
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