The basic textbook formalities can certainly come in handy.
But what about when you’re seriously craving a delicious ice cream cone?
Or when you’re starving and would kill for a kebab?
Then the little niceties go out the window.
You need survival vocabulary.
This goes beyond the basic words that lists of travel vocabulary usually leave you with.
If you want to know how to talk about ice cream, kebabs and other urgent necessities of daily life abroad, then keep reading.
That’s what you’ll learn in this post!
Why You Should Pack Your Mental Phrasebook Before Traveling
Sometime during your studies, you might want to take the plunge and go for a full-on German immersion experience by living abroad, either through a student exchange or via long-term travel.
It can be exhausting to try to speak in German. By having some basic phrases in mind that you can fall back on—as well as frameworks that you can augment with more specialized vocabulary—you’ll feel a lot more comfortable when using German to navigate everyday life.
While knowing basic vocabulary is a good start, the phrases outlined in this article will help with everything from greeting people you meet to grabbing a Döner (kebab) to go.
Sometimes you won’t even have to think about how to construct certain sentences—the words will come out naturally, like muscle memory. Additionally, if you don’t have to focus your mental energy on figuring out how to piece together a phrase, you’re more likely to be less nervous and more confident when speaking in German.
And, even if you don’t live in Germany or plan on doing so, you can still gain a lot from learning these phrases. They give insight into German life, language and culture.
Plus, many of them are simply fun!
How to Have Fun with Your Important German Phrases
Many Germans speak English well.
Sometimes, you’ll be super proud of your German skills when you walk up to a counter and order something auf Deutsch (in German), only to have the cashier switch over to English.
Even with this roadblock, try not to get too nervous when speaking to people in German.
This is easier said than done, particularly if you’re shy. That said, gradually trying to talk to people can be the catalyst for massive improvements. In addition to the previous link, check out these tips for boldly speaking auf Deutsch.
Although this article will share some important phrases, you should also make a habit of memorizing relevant vocabulary for your particular errands and needs—such as knowing the word for “burn” (Brandwunde) if you’re going to the drugstore for anti-burn ointment. (Sadly, that’s speaking from experience—hot tea can be dangerous!)
Try to memorize other set phrases you come across in readings, on TV or in music.
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More than just memorization, FluentU facilitates your understanding of the German words and phrases in its native-speaker videos. With interactive captions that give you instant definitions, pronunciations and usage examples, you can easily grasp all the nuances of the German in the videos.
Adaptive quizzes, bilingual video transcripts and multimedia flashcard decks ensure that you learn thoroughly—and FluentU remembers everything you’ve studied, prompting you when it’s time for review.
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Get Real: 21 Important German Phrases Your Textbook Won’t Teach You
Was Machst Du: Phrases for Making Small Talk
If you want to meet new people, you’ll have to say hallo (hello). These phrases are the social glue that will help you get to know your neighbors and classmates. There are several more ways of meeting and greeting in German, but here are some notes about a few phrases you definitely need to know.
1. Wie heißen Sie?
2. Wie ist dein Name?
3. Was ist dein Name?
It can be tempting to phrase things in a way that translates naturally to English. After all, German and English share a language family, so there are plenty of cognates, or similar-sounding words. But sometimes it’s a little more nuanced.
When asking someone for their name—or asking what something is called—instead of saying “Was ist dein Name?” (“What is your name?”), you can ask “Wie ist dein Name?” (“How is your name?”).
To English-speaking ears, using wie (how) here might seem a little strange, but wie crops up in another useful phrase: “Wie heißen Sie?” (“What is your name?” literally “How are you called?”).
This StackExchange thread talks a bit about the differences in phrasing.
“Wie heißen Sie?” is a great way to politely ask for someone’s name. On the other hand, if you’re a student and want to keep it casual, try the informal version—“Wie heißt du?”—or one of the other two phrases above, both of which are also common.
4. Was machen Sie in der Freizeit?
5. Was sind deine Hobbys?
There are multiple ways to ask people what they like to do for fun. “Was machen Sie…” is a useful phrase in and of itself, meaning both “What do you do?” and “What are you doing?”
Although it may be tempting to use the word tun (to do), machen (to make, to do) is more commonly used in this phrase.
By appending “in der Freizeit,” or literally “in the free time,” you can (politely) ask someone about their hobbies. The informal or familiar equivalent would be “Was machst du in der Freizeit?”
If you’re just hanging out with new buds, you can ask “Was sind deine Hobbys?” (“What are your hobbies?”).
Note that this phrase includes both deine, a more familiar term of address, as well as the loanword Hobbys. Like other English loanwords that end in a Y, Hobbys is pluralized with an S, not changing to “Hobbies” as it would in English.
6. Was denkst du von…?
This phrase is useful for getting to know what people “think about” specific things—that is, their likes and dislikes. Translated literally, it means “What do you think about…?” This page talks more about combinations with denken (to think) and prepositions.
Note also the use of the more familiar personal pronoun du; the formal equivalent would be “Was denken Sie von…?”
For example, if you ask someone “Was denkst du von ‘Game of Thrones’?” and they confess they secretly want to be die Mutter der Drachen (Mother of Dragons), presto! You now have a binge-watching buddy when the next season rolls around.
Doing Hausaufgaben and Getting Grub at the Mensa: Phrases for Studying Abroad
While some German universities tout strong English-language academics, it’s still important to memorize some school-specific phrases in German. If you rely on English for everything, you’ll find yourself hanging out with just Austauschstudenten (exchange students). Challenge yourself to use German, and you’ll improve quickly.
7. Sehr geehrte Herr Professor Doktor Schmidt
8. Guten Tag, Herr Schmidt!
When dealing with formal and familiar terms of address, there’s a deeply-rooted idea of respect. This is true anywhere, of course; Southerners in the U.S. are told from a young age to say “sir” and “ma’am,” for example. That said, when in college, your professors deserve respect, and an “Eh, Alter!” (“Hey, [old] man!”) won’t cut it.
In the U.S., professors are usually called by the title “Professor” or “Doctor,” depending on their terminal degree. In Germany, titles can get pretty long. So, the equivalent of “Dr. Smith” in the U.S. might be “Herr Doktor Professor Schmidt” in Germany.
Usually the full title can seem a bit stuffy, so it’s used mostly in writing, paired with the respectful Sehr geehrte (dear; literally “very honored”) salutation. In this StackExchange thread, one of the commenters gives a rundown of various options for addressing a German professor.
More old-guard professors might prefer a full greeting address, with each title included, but younger professors seem to opt for simply Herr or Frau. Regardless, Guten Tag (good day) is a nice, neutral greeting.
Above all, don’t worry too much about it: even natives have trouble with their Korrespondenz (correspondence).
9. Kommt das in der Klausur dran?
The ultimate quip for any egghead, this phrase means, “Will this be on the test?” Whatever the response, don’t take your teacher’s answer at face value. Just doing the minimum and studying “was in der Klausur kommt” can leave gaps in your knowledge.
Additionally, note the word for test used here: Klausur. The word “Klausur” usually refers to a written test, often at the college level. In Germany, final grades (Noten) are given in addition to Scheine, or course credit.
Course credit is often earned based on a final exam (Examen). There are many words for “tests” and “exams” in German, with a third option, Prüfung, acting as the most generic term. This excerpt from the book “Mastering German Vocabulary” does a good job of breaking down some of the differences.
10. Ich würde gerne zu Ihrer Sprechstunde kommen.
This one means “I would like to come to your office hours.”
Professors want you to succeed. As such, many professors will offer times when you can stop by their office to discuss class materials and get clarification on course expectations. When making an appointment with a professor, it’s important to check their office hours (Sprechstunden).
Whether spoken aloud or written in an e-mail, this phrase is a good lead-in to scheduling an appointment. Adding the word um (at) followed by a time before the final verb will specify exactly when you’d like to meet.
If you ever injure yourself and need to visit the doctor, doctor’s offices have Sprechstunden as well.
11. Der Aufsatz ist morgen fällig.
If you’re only able to catch 80% of your German-language lecture, at least listen out for the important bits: due dates. This sentence, meaning “The essay is due tomorrow,” might not be something you want to hear (wait, what essay?!), but the word fällig (due) is useful in multiple contexts. For example, bills can be fällig on a certain date.
This phrase can also be turned into an important question: “Wann ist die Hausaufgaben fällig?” (“When is the homework due?”). When in doubt, check your syllabus.
Wo, Nelly: Phrases for Getting Around
Thanks to Google Maps and smartphones, it’s now less of a challenge to figure out where you’re going while wandering the Innenstadt (downtown area). Additionally, German guides written for travelers are a huge boon for getting around. But if you want to actually talk to the locals—or if your battery’s dead—here are a few phrases to keep in mind.
12. Wo ist das WC?
“Wo ist die Toilette?” (“Where is the toilet?”) is staple phrasebook German. It’s up there with “Hallo,” “Wie geht es Ihnen?” (How are you?) and “Entschuldigung” (Excuse me). But just like with English, a toilet’s not always a toilet. It can be a throne, a john, a restroom, a lavatory, a powder room and… a water closet?
Das WC means “the bathroom,” but the abbreviation really stems from the term “water closet.” This antiquated term isn’t used much in the States, but it’s permeated the vocabulary of many European countries, even those that don’t speak English as a first language.
Although you might still opt to use the standard “Wo ist die Toilette?” as you’d be perfectly understood, knowing the word “WC” is especially handy given that “WC” is written on signage in stores and restaurants. Remember, too, that it’s pronounced the German way, like “Vay-Say.”
13. Können Sie bitte langsamer sprechen?
As you’re traveling, odds are high you’ll run into a fast-talking person you don’t quite understand. Even the speed of normal speech may be beyond your understanding. If someone says something to you in German and you only catch one or two words, try asking, “Können Sie bitte langsamer sprechen?” (“Can you please speak a little slower?”).
This phrase is polite, so it’s good to use when you’re out and about. That said, many Germans speak English well, so you might get a response in English if you ask someone to speak slower, particularly from those working in front-facing positions in places like train stations or tourist areas.
14. Dieser Zug endet hier.
You won’t be the one saying this phrase, but you’ll certainly be hearing it a lot if you ride on the S-Bahn (Stadtbahn; literally “city train,” but similar to a tram) or the U-Bahn (Untergrundbahn; the “underground train,” or subway). If you hear the announcer’s voice in your train car saying “Dieser Zug endet hier” (“This train ends here”), you’ll know you’ve reached the end of the line.
Depending on your stop, this announcement may play before you happily disembark at a terminal station. But if you were expecting the train to end a little further down the track, it might be time to check the transit map again!
15. Drücken oder ziehen?
Although you’re likely not to say this phrase aloud, it’s extremely important to distinguish between these two terms.
This pair of verbs, meaning “push” (drücken) and “pull” (ziehen), might be what stands between you and the exit. Tourists and international students often make themselves obvious by running into doors that should have been pulled, not pushed.
It’s often a good idea to learn words as pairs of opposites. Having a memorable hook can reinforce vocabulary. Internalize these words—and the other navigational pair, Ausgang/Eingang (exit/entrance).
Take special note of the word “drücken,” as it often signals that you need to a push a button—or, as you’ll see in elevators or crosswalks, “Bitte Drücken Sie den Knopf” (“Please press the button”).
16. Lass mich in Ruhe!
This retort means “Leave me alone!” Hopefully you won’t need to use it, but like knowing how to yell for help (“Hilfe!”), it’s handy to have these and other German exclamations in your mental phrasebook, just in case.
Out on the Town and Chatting at the Kneipe: Phrases for Socializing
It’s all well and good to understand practical German phrases for making sure your homework’s turned in on time, figuring out where the bathroom is or saying hello to the average Herr Schmidt on the street. But ideally, you’ll also be having loads of fun, and that can mean having long conversations at the Kneipe (bar or pub) or going out to do other social activities.
That’s where these phrases might come in handy. Although you’ll also want to memorize vocabulary specific to your hobbies, these phrases will help you out when you’re hanging out with new friends.
17. Was meinst du?
At first glance, this phrase looks like it means, well, “What do you mean?” And in certain instances, meinen means just that. But in this specific phrase, “Was meinst du?” is actually a familiar way of asking someone for their opinion—that is, a way of asking “What do you think?” This phrase can be a part of your advanced conversational toolkit.
For example, your friend might turn to you after looking at a local theater’s movie listings and say, “Ich will einen Film im Kino gucken. Was meinst du? Willst du mitkommen?” (“I wanna see a movie at the theater. What do you think? Wanna come with?”) In this instance, you’re being asked what you think about a choice.
“Was meinst du” is similar to “Was denkst du über…” in the sense that both phrases seek an opinion, but each has a specific purpose.
With “Was meinst du,” your opinion often helps to pick between two or more choices. You might choose between going out for pizza or a schnitzel, or watching a movie or a BVB game.
With “Was denkst du über,” on the other hand, your opinion is more explanatory, and the phrase often leads into conversation, rather than just a decision.
By the way, if you want to say, “What do you mean by that,” then adding “damit” (with/by that) at the end makes all the difference: “Was meinst du damit?”
18. Ich hab’ ‘nen Kopfschmerzen.
Hopefully you won’t have to use this phrase too often—although it can be a handy excuse if you don’t feel like going out! “Ich hab’ ‘nen Kopfschmerzen,” a familiar, somewhat slangy version of “Ich habe einen Kopfschmerzen,” means “I have a headache.”
In spoken speech, or even in written dialogue, you’ll sometimes see or hear “habe” (have) as “hab’” or just “hab.” This reflects the way the word is spoken aloud in relaxed speech, dropping the final “-e” sound.
Additionally, just as “habe” sometimes transforms in spoken German, so can “eine” be abbreviated to “’ne,” with the initial “ei-” sound being dropped. Again, this is occasionally seen in written German—much like English-language authors will transcribe some characters’ speech with a dropped “-g” in gerunds like “hangin’ out”—and can be heard in casual speech in certain areas of Germany.
19. Möchten Sie Eis?
“Would you like some ice cream?” It would be pretty rad to encounter ice cream so often that these three words were considered a survival phrase! It’s probably debatable if this phrase will actually keep you alive, but there are two great things you should know about “Möchten Sie Eis?”
Firstly, this phrase isn’t just an invitation to eat dessert. At some German movie theaters, the previews run long, even longer than those in the United States. In fact, over a decade ago, when the ads and previews got longer and longer, ultimately lasting nearly an hour, moviegoers started protesting, which led some theaters to decrease the number of ads and previews.
In any case, after sitting through many, many trailers and commercials, the lights will turn on. As you look around, wondering what’s going on, you’ll see a theater employee wandering up and down the aisles, calling out “Möchten Sie Eis?” while carrying around a basket or portable thermos of ice cream bars and other frozen treats. Only after this sales pitch is over will the movie itself begin.
These days, many theaters may not do the ice cream thing so much anymore. Still, “Möchten Sie…” is a useful phrase on its own, as you’ll often hear it in sales situations. In addition, take care to memorize its twin, “Ich möchte…” (“I’d like…”), as this handy phrase will allow you to request everything from food to train tickets. And speaking of food…
20. Einmal Döner, bitte, mit scharf.
In Germany, most stores are closed on Sundays. Restaurants often close early. When there’s nothing open, what’s a hungry traveler to do?
This phrase is particularly useful when all the shops are closed and there’s only a single Imbissstand (snack stand) up and running at the train station. Meaning “A kebab, please, with spicy (sauce),” these four words will net you one tasty kebab covered in a tangy, tomato-based sauce. Although some liken the Döner to a gyro, it has its own special flavor, and if you’re not a vegetarian, it’s an amazing late-night party food. It was even immortalized in a song.
Follow up with a “zum Mitnehmen” (“to go”) as needed.
21. Die Rechnung, bitte.
In the United States, tipping culture runs rampant. Due to the way that restaurant workers are paid, tipping is expected when dining in—never mind the tips expected for everyone from hairdressers to valets!
Regardless of how things are in the States, tipping isn’t an expectation in Germany.
Perhaps due to these differing service styles, restaurants in Germany won’t provide you with your final bill until you flag down your waiter to ask for it directly, with a polite but succinct, “Die Rechnung, bitte” (“The bill, please”). If you don’t ask, you’ll likely remain stuck at your table long after you’ve finished eating.
For more handy restaurant phrases, check out this article.
Build Your Own Mental Phrasebook of Important German Phrases
These phrases are all starting points. While they touch upon many aspects of living and studying abroad, it’s a good idea to study up on specialized vocabulary and make flashcards of terms you find personally useful. Rote study strategies are helpful, but only by mixing them with your own daily experiences can you improve your fluency.
These phrases will get you some grub, allow you to have fun with friends and help you be polite to your professor—not a bad start!
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