When you teach yourself German, your experience is unique from everyone else’s.
I learned how to say “the ghost” and “the ice cave” in German before I learned how to say “nice to meet you” or “can I please pass by?”
And I’m not alone. Sometimes, especially when you start learning a language by yourself instead of in class, you can pick up interesting and fun vocabulary words at the expense of crucial information that’s essential for everyday life in Germany.
This can potentially take a toll on your German social life.
Besides knowing common phrases that you’ll need to navigate day-to-day life in Germany, it’s also helpful to know idioms and concepts, those phrases unique to a language that make no sense when translated into your mother tongue.
Knowing idioms and important phrases will set you apart from the crowd of other language learners, and you’ll stand out as someone who has clearly worked to delve deeper into the language and discover its idiosyncrasies.
Why Are Common German Phrases Important to Learn?
Sounds simple enough, right? Common German phrases are common. You’ll hear them everywhere in German conversation—you’re expected to understand them, respond to them appropriately and know how to say them yourself. Here are a few examples of when you’ll find yourself in make-or-break situations thanks to these common German phrases:
1. They’re often essential for daily life.
Shouting the wrong phrase for “excuse me” on a crowded subway car will immediately mark you as a tourist or a foreigner. Since everyday phrases are so commonly used, learning them will immediately increase your German know-how and make daily life that much easier.
2. Idioms can be difficult to understand if you don’t already know them.
As stated above, idioms often make no sense when translated directly into another language. Some German idioms are the same as English idioms, but others make no sense when translated into English. You simply have to know them—and, if you learn them, you can save yourself a lot of confusion the next time your German friend starts talking about his or her “inner pig-dog” or wisely tells you that morning hours have gold in their mouths.
3. Using phrases will make you sound more like a native speaker.
Using idioms and phrases yourself will simply make you seem like more of a native speaker, someone who has lived in Germany, experienced the culture and befriended Germans, as opposed to someone who has only studied from textbooks or other official sources.
How to Learn Common German Phrases
There are plenty of ways to learn German phrases, but the best ones typically involve consulting unofficial sources. That is, getting out of the classroom, consuming German culture or talking to some Germans.
Here we’ve provided some specific ways you can go about learning common German phrases. Try these out, and you’ll be sure to pick up some new phrases and idioms in no time.
1. Watch TV shows or listen to music.
Television shows and music are often great ways to pick up the idiosyncrasies and slang terms of a language. Check out some German TV shows or look at this list of classic German songs to find some new media to consume and learn German from.
2. Check out FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. You’ll hear actual Germans speaking their authentic, modern language, exposing you to phrases which are abundant on the streets of Berlin and absent from typical textbooks. Plus, FluentU provides plenty of tools which you can use to actively practice your newly-learned German phrases, like interactive subtitles, multimedia flashcards, vocabulary lists and more.
3. Ask your German friends for a list of phrases.
If you have German friends, pay attention when they say something you don’t quite understand and ask them to explain it. Or ask them to provide you with a few phrases and idioms that they use on a daily basis, and work on learning those.
4. Make sure to integrate phrases into your daily conversations.
As with any facet of language learning, it’s important to practice, practice, practice. Use the daily life phrases as often as possible, pick your favorite idioms and work on integrating them into your conversation. Soon, you’ll develop a German personality through your unique language patterns and vocabulary choices—just like how you express your personality through language choice and speaking style in your native tongue.
12 Common German Phrases That’ll Make You Sound Like a Pro
First, we’ll start with some of the most important, common German phrases for daily life:
1. Darf ich mal vorbei?
Many beginning German speakers think it’s proper to say Entschuldigung (sorry) when pushing through a crowd on the U-bahn or in a train station. However, you should actually say this phrase, which means “may I pass by?”
2. Einen Augenblick, bitte!
Augen are eyes. Blick is a glimpse or a sight of something. Einen Augenblick is a moment. If you say Einen Augenblick, bitte! you’re asking someone to please wait a moment—a useful phrase in many aspects of daily life.
3. Kannst du/Können Sie mir helfen?
This phrase is extremely important for tourists in Germany as well as residents. It means “Can you (informal)/Can you (formal) help me?” Essential for asking for directions or other more serious matters.
4. Schön, Sie kennenzulernen.
“Nice to get to know you,” or “pleased to meet you”—this phrase is essential for meeting and greeting new colleagues or friends in Germany, which you will hopefully do once you arrive in the country.
5. Alles Gute zum Geburtstag.
This phrase literally translates as “all that’s good to the birthday,” but of course it really means “happy birthday.”
6. Guten Appetit.
Before digging into their Essen (food), Germans say Guten Appetit, an amalgamation of German (Guten means “good”) and French (bon appétit).
7. Ich stimme dir zu.
Ich stimme…zu means “I agree with [something],” and Ich stimme dir zu means “I agree with you.”
8. Stimmt so.
Germans don’t expect 20% tips, but it’s still a good idea to leave the server or bartender a little something if you’re satisfied with their service. Say your bill comes to 18 euros—you can hand your server a 20, then say Stimmt so, which means “keep the change.”
Now we’re going to shift from daily phrases to concepts and idioms which are used commonly in German conversation.
Concepts and idioms (Sprichwörter) can be a bit more difficult to understand than simple phrases, but remember that by learning them you can increase your Deutsch expertise and impress German natives with your knowledge of their culture and language.
9. Innerer Schweinehund
You know the English language concept of an angel sitting on one shoulder telling you the right thing to do, while a little devil sits on your other shoulder, trying to persuade you to wander down his irresponsible road?
The innerer Schweinehund is the German equivalent of this concept. The phrase translates directly to “inner pig-dog.” The innerer Schweinehund is the voice inside your head that says “You don’t have to go to the gym,” or “You can take that extra piece of cake” or “You’ve studied German enough today.” Silence your innerer Schweinehund and you’ll get a lot more done.
10. Der Zug ist schon abgefahren.
This phrase is roughly equivalent to the American expression, “that ship has sailed.” If a situation is irredeemable, or there’s nothing else you can do to change something, you would use this phrase. It translates directly to “the/that train has already left.”
11. Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund.
This phrase literally means “morning hours have gold in mouth.” Nonsensical? Not if you know the idiom. This is basically the German equivalent of “the early bird gets the worm”—if you wake up, get out of bed and start work early, you’ll be a lot more productive.
12. Hunde, die bellen, beißen nicht.
This Sprichwort has an equivalent in English as well: “his bark is worse than his bite.” This means that people who make a big fuss about things or seem fearsome are often not so scary at all. The phrase in German translates directly to “dogs that bark don’t bite.”
Conveniently enough, you can use this phrase to describe the German language itself—remember, it seems complex with all those picky grammatical rules, but after you dedicate some time to nailing those down, it’s really not so challenging at all.
Emily Cataneo is an American fiction writer and journalist who lives in Berlin, Germany. She learned how to say “the ghost” (der Geist) and “the ice cave” (der Eishöhle) in German before she learned how to say “tip” (Trinkgeld) or “garbage can” (Mülleimer). Learn more about her and her work at www.emilycataneo.com.
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