The point of learning German is to get to use it in action.
All that hard bookwork becomes justified when you use that foreign tongue on another person and see that look of comprehension on their face.
In a matter of seconds you’ve broken barriers and become a German speaker. It’s a brand new world out there.
Welcome Son. You’ve arrived.
Still, it can be intimidating trying out a new language you’ve just started to learn. There are so many words and grammatical elements you don’t know yet. How do you ever dare try to hold a conversation, especially with a real live, flesh and blood German?
Keine Sorgen (Don’t worry). We’ve got you covered.
Here are 10 simple tips to get you ready for a successful parley in German.
10 Beginner Tips to Prepare for a Brilliant Conversation in German
1. Mind your B’s and D’s
The first words typically learned 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 rare instances when someone hands you a suitcase full of cash because you look like a cool guy.
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 mothers pounded so fiercely into our heads).
Still, 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 (which is always helpful with these things).
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 always 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 witness a German trying to handle sarcasm in real time.
3. Check out FluentU
I’d be remiss not to mention that we’ve got the goods here at FluentU to get you chatting away in German in no time.
Designed to get you comfortable with everyday German, FluentU takes great videos and turns them into language learning experiences so that you can learn real German as people really speak it:
Watching a fun video, but having trouble understanding it? FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive transcripts.
You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used. If you see an interesting word you don’t know, you can add it to a vocab list.
And FluentU isn’t just for watching videos. It’s a complete platform for learning. It’s designed to effectively teach you all the vocabulary from any video. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
FluentU puts the language in context, makes learning German a treat, and expedites your learning so you can hold these conversations yourself sooner rather than later.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning, and it recommends you examples and videos based on the words you’ve already learned. This is a level of personalization that hasn’t been done before.
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, 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 things flowing smoothly. You don’t have to break down the country’s political position within the EU or evaluate its film history. Keep it simple.
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 conversation 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 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 German conversation 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 chat 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 (ok, 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 has been broken. You no longer have to worry about being an expert in German to carry on a 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.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn German with real-world videos.