Why are beginner German conversation skills so important?
Well, the point of learning German is to use it! There’s no reason to wait.
Here are 10 simple beginner German conversation tips—including handy phrases you can start using right away—to get you ready for a successful parley in German.
- 1. Mind Your Bs and Ds
- 2. Know How to Say Where You Come From
- 3. Listen to German Video and Audio Content
- 4. Prepare Nice Things to Say About Germany
- 5. Practice Being Formal
- 6. Bone-up on Slang
- 7. Get Ready to Ask for Help
- 8. Concoct the Perfect Line
- 9. Stay Current
- 10. Prepare at Home
1. Mind Your Bs and Ds
Some of the first words we learn for beginner German conversation—or beginner conversation in any language—are “please” and “thank you,” or in this case, bitte and danke. They’re not only useful in a variety of real-life situations, like someone opening a door for you, but also for those instances when someone hands you a suitcase full of cash because you look like a cool guy.
You know, just normal German conversation for beginners.
Even though you probably know these words already, it still takes some effort to get in the habit of using them instead of the English variants (which our parents pounded so fiercely into our heads).
Employing bitte and danke can go a long way in showing the other person that you’re trying to speak their language, and can garner you some goodwill during any basic German conversation (which is always helpful).
2. Know How to Say Where You Come From
You’re probably not going to pass as German for very long. Once you open your mouth, your accent will betray you. Inevitably, the next question will be:
Woher kommen Sie? (Where do you come from?)
Knowing how to answer that question is like having money in the bank:
Ich Komme aus _____. (I come from___).
Congratulations. Now you’re having a conversation in German.
Note: As you become more fluent in the language you might want to consider telling the other person you’re from the future or a product of their imagination. You can practice more complex conversational German and you can witness a German trying to handle sarcasm in real time.
3. Listen to German Video and Audio Content
Listening to natural German conversations through video or audio content is a great way to prepare yourself for an actual conversation. You can learn new words and phrases to add to your vocabulary straight from native speakers. While you’re listening, you can also learn intonation easier, and watching videos gives you an inside look into natural German body language and facial expressions for certain moods and conversation topics.
So let’s look at some resources you can use to watch natural conversations between German speakers:
- Easy German: This video series on YouTube is a great resource to look for natural German conversations. The interviewers ask people on the street interesting questions, and they travel all over Germany, exploring different cities and topics. The videos include captions with English translation under the German captions. They also offer a site where you can find podcasts of these videos with transcripts.
- FluentU: FluentU is an immersive language-learning program where you can watch authentic German videos with interactive captions. By watching content that German speakers actually watch themselves, you’ll hear natural word usage, slang, language nuances and more. FluentU also uses a contextual video dictionary to find definitions for any word in a video. Plus, if you find new words and want to study them further, you can create flashcards from them.
- Warum nicht?: This podcast series was created by Deutsche Welle and the Goethe Institute. You’ll hear an engaging story that goes from the A1 level up to B1 as you listen to the series’ several seasons. It’s a funny series about a journalist who works at a hotel and his various hijinks. You’ll hear many different conversations presented in a way that beginners can easily understand. Also, you can find tons of audio and video content on the Deutsche Welle site.
4. Prepare Nice Things to Say About Germany
When in Germany, whether you’re studying abroad or just on vacation, you’re a visitor. As such, the question Mögen Sie Deutschland? (Do you like Germany?) is always going to come up. If your aim is to keep the conversation going, you’re probably going to want to say yes.
Having some compliments ready can charm the speaker and keep your conversational German flowing smoothly. Remember, you don’t have to break down the country’s political position within the EU or evaluate its film history in a basic German conversation. Keep it simple.
Here are a few more phrases that are handy in this type of beginner German conversation:
- Tell them you like the food a lot (Ich mag das Essen sehr).
- Say that the people here are very friendly (Die Leute hier sind sehr freundlich).
- Note how it is extremely clean (Es ist äußerst sauber).
Don’t get worked up over meaning what you say. In this case, the truth will not set you free. Using your German will.
5. Practice Being Formal
Some of the hardest parts of a new language include those that don’t exist in your mother tongue. As such, the two types of “you” are sometimes a stumbling block for native English speakers: the informal du and formal Sie.
Perhaps it is in our nature to want to be chummy and informal with the strangers we meet, and therefore have a tendency to slip into du when we should really be keeping it kosher with Sie.
Nonetheless, even if it seems a little silly to us, it matters to them.
Although most Germans would likely understand a new speaker doing their best, using Sie makes sure no bad vibes are given, and further earns you confidence points in the conversation. Practice using the formal conjugation at home, particularly in contextual situations where you’re likely to be speaking to someone who isn’t a peer. Again, getting the Sie and du down is simple, but takes a little work at first.
6. Bone-up on Slang
Inevitably, the conversational German you’re going to hear in Germany or Austria is not going to be exactly what you’re learning in formal study materials, especially if you’re talking with younger people. Real German, like any language in action, is full of lingo and idioms.
Throwing in some slang now and then will be the same as bonus points floating to the top of the screen in an old Nintendo game.
Prepare a few easy phrases to drop in and amuse the other speaker. If something is awesome, say “Das ist Hammer” (literally, “That is Hammer”). If you’re impressed by what the other person is saying, you can state “Das ist fett,” which literally translates to “That is fat.”
7. Get Ready to Ask for Help
“Können Sie mir helfen?”
Those words might save your life… or at least lead to a better German conversation.
“Can you help me?” (Notice the formal Sie) is something that you’ll invariably be asking, whether you’re living in a German-speaking country or just passing through. It’s also a great way to start a conversation with a German speaker on the street.
Even if you actually know where the bus stop is or which vendor has the best bratwurst in town, learning that simple line can lead to innumerable scintillating conversations.
8. Concoct the Perfect Line
When first learning German in Germany, I often sat quietly and awkwardly in the corner, trying to follow what the Germans were saying but not confident enough to butt in. At some point in every conversation someone would feel bad for me and ask how my German was coming along.
For these situations, I riffed off the motto of a grocery store: “Wie Rewe, jeden Tag ein bisschen besser” (“Like Rewe, every day a little better”).
They loved it. All of a sudden they’re trying to speak German to me.
Coming up with a utilitarian line that can be applied in many different circumstances is an easy cheat to adding flavor to your conversational German while still working with beginner skills. It can bring a spark to the dialogue and keep the party going, while still scoring mad points as a German speaker.
9. Stay Current
One element of setting yourself up for a sprightly German conversation is to have something to talk about. Whether it’s the Bundesliga, the weather or what bands are on the radio, preparing your opinion on something in German counts for some good legwork in getting ready to use the language.
My favorite way to stay up-to-date with news events is “Tagesschau in 100 Sekunden,” or in other words, the news in 100 seconds. You get all the major headlines for the day in a minute and a half, from politics to sports. Who said German efficiency isn’t a real thing?
10. Prepare at Home
Although preparing for conversations you’re likely to have that day feels like studying (okay, it actually is), your efforts will be greatly rewarded in the quality of conversation you’ll have. If you’re going shopping, learn how to ask the store worker where the scarves are.
If you’re bored, go down to a cafe and be ready to ask the waitress how her day has been or what she recommends to order. Anticipating sentences you can use that day will help speed you along your way in the great quest for fluency.
And so there you have it. The code to conversational German has been broken. You no longer have to worry about being an expert in German to carry on a beginner German conversation—although the more waitresses you bother, the quicker you’ll get there. With a few key phrases you’ll be chatting away in German like an old lady with gossip.
Follow the example of the grocery store: every day a little better.
Ryan Dennis was a Fulbright Scholar and previously taught at Pädagogische Hochschule Schwäbisch Gmünd. In addition to hating ketchup, British spelling and violence, he writes The Milk House—the only literary column about dairy farming.