25 Common German Phrases and Idioms That’ll Make You Sound Like a Native

When you teach yourself German, your experience is unique from everyone else’s.

Sometimes, you stray from the basics and learn strange (and fascinating) things.

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.

But don’t despair. Read on to discover some of the most important phrases that you need to function in everyday life in Germany, phrases that will make you sound like an expert German speaker.

Besides knowing common phrases that you’ll need to navigate day-to-day life in Germany, it’s also helpful to know common idioms.

You’ll stand out as someone who has clearly worked to delve deeper into the language and understand its idiosyncrasies.

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 means “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?” It’s 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’ll hopefully do once you arrive in the country.

Hear it in use in this video clip from the historical drama “Saving Mr. Banks.” 

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.”

9. Alles klar?

Klar is a versatile word in German. It literally translates to “clear” in English, but it can also be used as a synonym for fertig (finished, completed) to mean that something is ready for action: Das Flugzeug ist klar zum Start! (The plane is ready for takeoff!) Furthermore, klar can have the same connotation that “clear” has in English: it can also mean “understood.”

Alles klar? in German literally translates to “is everything clear?” in English. In this phrase, we’re generally asking “do you understand?” This can be particularly useful if you’re trying to explain something to someone in German and you’re not sure if your intended meaning is coming across well.

This sentence can also be used to ask someone, “is everything okay?” or “you good?” A standard response to this could be ja (yes) or nein (no).

10. Ich habe mich verlaufen / Ich habe mich verfahren.

There are two literal translations for these phrases even though they have essentially the same meaning. The first phrase, ich habe mich verlaufen, means “I’ve gotten myself lost” but verlaufen indicates that the mode of transportation is your own feet that got you lost.

The second phrase, ich habe mich verfahren, also means “I’ve gotten myself lost” as well, but the mode of transportation is a car. The difference between these two phrases can be easily remembered by the verbs used: laufen means “to run” (i.e. using your feet) and fahren means “to drive” (i.e. using a form of transportation).

11. Ich schaue mich nur um.

Imagine you’re in a German Laden (store) and the Verkäufer (the sales associate) comes up to you and asks, “Kann ich Ihnen helfen?” (can I help you?). You’re not looking for anything in specific, so your reply should be, “ich schaue mich nur um.”

Both the literal translation and meaning are the same: “I’m just looking around,” or more commonly in English, “I’m just browsing.” This comes from the German verb sich umschauen (to look around). There’s another variant of this verb sich umsehen. These verbs are interchangeable, so you could also say, ich sehe mich nur um (I’m just looking around).

12. Schönes Wetter heute.

Don’t you love small talk? It’s often demonized in modern society as being awkward and uncomfortable, and yet, we continue to do it. In fact, so do the Germans! So, what’s their favorite small talk topic? Why, it’s the weather, of course.

Schönes Wetter heute is a phrase that has the same literal translation and intended meaning. It translates to “beautiful weather today,” and it’s even sometimes used sarcastically when the weather might not be described as “beautiful.”

13. Quatsch!

“Learning German is impossible,” you gripe.

“Oh, pish-posh,” I retort.

For Germans, quatsch has the same meaning as “pish-posh.” It literally translates to “rubbish” in English, and it has the same meaning as the phrase “that’s nonsense!” or “that’s ridiculous!” So remember this expression the next time someone tries to tell you that learning German is impossible.

Unlike some other ways to say “nonsense!” in English (many of which include some allusion to excrement), quatsch is a rather polite way to express your disbelief or dissatisfaction with something in German.

You can hear quatch in use in this silly video poking fun at “things that hipsters say.”

Now we’re going to shift from daily phrases to concepts and idioms which are used commonly in German conversation.

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.

14. Die Nase voll haben.

Let’s say you do the same commute to and from work every day, and every time you’re on the way home, there’s a car accident on the highway and your half-hour commute turns into an hour. After a couple of months—weeks, even—it’s safe to say that you’ve had enough of your commute.

In German, we’d say that you die Nase voll haben. That literally translates to “have your nose full,” and while you might be inclined to think that this means “to have a head cold,” it actually more accurately describes the feeling of being fed up with or “sick” of something.

15. Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof.

Verstehen and Bahnhof: two German words you know, right? They respectively mean “to understand” and “train station.” Put them into one sentence, and we get, ich verstehe nur Bahnhof. “I only understand the train station.” Huh?

The intended meaning of this one is a little confusing because it’s actually supposed to mean, “I don’t understand anything.” This phrase can be used in situations where you’re confused or don’t want to get involved.

Perhaps two German friends are fighting, and they ask you to pick a side. Simply throw this idiom at them to get out of that situation, and perhaps confuse them a little bit with its literal translation.

16. Das ist nicht mein Bier.

Beer drinking in Germany is akin to the British fascination with tea. It’s no surprise, then, that Germans hold all of their likes and dislikes to the same standard that they hold their beer.

Das ist nicht mein Bier literally translates as “that’s not my beer,” and while it can be used in the literal sense to let someone know they haven’t accidentally grabbed your beverage, it’s intended meaning is similar to the English “that isn’t my cup of tea” to politely say that something is disliked or not appreciated.

17. Abwarten und Tee trinken!

Remember that awkward German friend argument I was talking about? Well, now those two friends aren’t talking to each other, and we’ll just have to wait and see if they can ever get along again.

That’s the meaning of this German idiom, abwarten und Tee trinken: Just wait and see! Except this literal translation is, “wait and drink tea” which, in my opinion, is a great thing to do while you’re waiting.

Check this phrase out in this sweet Piggeldy and Frederick short animated video.

18. Es ist mir Wurst.

Es ist mir Wurst literally translates to “it’s sausage to me.” While this literal translation doesn’t make much sense, it’s used to give the meaning of “I don’t care.” This can be used in a situation where you’re impartial to the options available to you or to express that you don’t want to get involved in a negative situation.

19. Das Leben ist kein Ponyhof.

When life gets you down, it’s easy to feel sorry for yourself. Worse, when you confide your troubles in someone else, they may not give you the reassuring niceties that you expect.

Das Leben ist kein Ponyhof literally translates to “the life isn’t a pony farm.” Its intended meaning equates to the English “life is no picnic,” and it’s used to mean that life is hard but you shouldn’t let it get you down.

Imagine if life was a Ponyhof, though. How fun would that be?

20. Leben wie Gott in Frankreich.

European history is a mishmash of rising and falling kingdoms, changing borders and enough internal and external conflict to make any historian’s head spin. As such, there was one point in time when the kingdom of France was booming, and poor German city-states struggled to feed themselves.

That’s where this phrase comes from. Leben wie Gott in Frankreich literally translates to “live like God in France,” and it’s a reflection of how fancy and rich the royalty in France was in the past while Germans lived in relative poverty.

In English, we’d say, “to live like a king.” So, next time you’re in a luxurious hotel in Berlin, remember that you’re not living like a king, you’re living like God in France.

21. Da haben den Salat.

Da haben wir den Salat literally translates to “here we’ve got the salad,” and while this would be a fantastic announcement to make at a German barbecue, it actually means something more along the lines of “everything is a mess.”

This is used to describe a situation that’s gotten out of hand or something that’s hopelessly complicated. It comes, perhaps, from the idea that salads are composed of ingredients that are all tossed together, often getting mixed up and blended with their fellow tasty veggies. That same idea can be applied to a messy situation in German.

22. 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 steers you wrong, saying “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.

23. 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’d use this phrase. It translates directly to “the/that train has already left.”

24. 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.

25. 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.

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. It’s also an incredibly satisfying way to learn, because understanding even a snippet of native-level German can give you the motivation to keep going.

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.

If that feels overwhelming, consider using a virtual immersion platform. 

FluentU, for example, takes authentic German videos (e.g. the ones in this post) and adds tools to boost learning efficiency. Each video has interactive subtitles, allowing you to instantly look up new words as often as necessary. 

screenshot from Saving Mr. Banks trailer on FluentU

After watching a video, you can test your knowledge of the material with a review quiz. These have speaking, multiple choice, and fill-in-the-blank prompts.

If you want to look up a word that you learned elsewhere, you can type it into the search bar to see a definition from FluentU’s video dictionary. It shows a word’s meaning in text and image, as well as context in written and video form.

The program is available on iOS, Android, or through the web.

2. 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.

3. 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.

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’s lived in Germany, experienced the culture and befriended Germans, as opposed to someone who’s only studied from textbooks or other official sources.

Now you’re all ready to go have conversations with these common German phrases and idioms!

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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