A large part of knowing how to speak informal German is just knowing the difference between the two words for “you,” Sie and du.
Once you know the basics behind these two words—and the basics behind formal vs. informal German—your knowledge of the language, and of German etiquette, will be hugely improved.
In this post, I’ll give you some insight into how more casual German is spoken.
- What’s the Difference Between Formal and Informal German?
- How to Learn Informal German
- German Phrases You Can Use in Informal Situations
What’s the Difference Between Formal and Informal German?
Unlike English, German requires you to take into account who you’re talking to and what your relationship is to them. Once you know this, you’ll know which form of German to use with them (although, if you’re ever in doubt, it’s safer to stick with formal).
If you’re speaking with friends, family or children, then you need to use informal German.
If you’re speaking to your elders, people you don’t know or colleagues, then you’ll have to be formal.
As mentioned above, one of the most apparent differences between informal and formal German is the different words for “you.” Sie is formal, while du is informal. How you conjugate your verbs will depend on which word you use.
Here’s a quick example:
Hast du meinen Hund gesehen?
Have you seen my dog? (informal)
Haben Sie meinen Hund gesehen?
Have you seen my dog? (formal)
And, of course, we can’t forget ihr, the informal plural form of “you”:
Habt ihr meinen Hund gesehen?
Have you all seen my dog?
There’s one general rule to help you know when to be formal or informal with someone: Ask yourself whether you know them really well. If you don’t, play it safe and stick to formal German.
How to Learn Informal German
Formal German is widely taught in classrooms and lessons, as it’s usually the most useful form of the language for learners to learn, especially since your initial interactions with Germans will probably be interactions with strangers. Topping up your knowledge of informal German at home is highly recommended, though. It’s fairly easy to do—you just need to seek out practice.
- One great way to learn informal German is by reading kids’ books. In fact, anything aimed at kids (like German comic books, for example) will be full of informal German. Reading children’s magazines and books is a great way for beginners to get into the German language in general, as all the vocabulary and grammar will be very simple. While you’re reading, try to keep a list of any vocabulary you don’t recognize.
- Watching German TV shows and movies is another great way to see everyday German in action. You can also see how characters use the language and who they use informal German with.
If you’re not quite ready to commit to a show or movie, you can find shorter videos on the FluentU program. The authentic German videos on this platform include movie and show clips, trailers and other snippets of real German, embedded with accurate, interactive captions that offer up contextual definitions.
- If watching and reading German doesn’t help you to see the difference in use between formal and informal, try finding a tandem partner. Not only can you practice your speaking with them, but you can also ask them for help with informal German. I’m sure they’ll gladly tell you who they would speak to informally!
German Phrases You Can Use in Informal Situations
Below is a list of common German phrases you can use in informal situations. But pay attention, because all of these phrases are acceptable (in some form) in formal situations, too. Understanding the differences in usage will help you better understand the differences between the two types of German.
Servus is a common greeting in Bavaria. However, it’s not just restricted to the south of Germany and can also be heard elsewhere in the country. Even though it’s a slightly informal greeting, many people use it in pubs, restaurants and shops with people they don’t know. The only place this greeting couldn’t be used is in extremely formal settings, such as work, school or fancy dinner parties.
If you want to include servus in your speaking, you would just use it in place of hallo or hi. It doesn’t change the word order, and can be used with both du and Sie.
Tschüss (See you)
Just like Servus, tschüss won’t affect the rest of the grammar in your sentence and can be used in situations where you are using either du or Sie. It’s an informal version of auf Wiedersehen, but most people say it to those they don’t know.
If you want to be really informal while saying bye, there’s also bis bald. This translates as “see you soon,” and you would only use this with friends and family—people you really will be seeing soon!
Ciao is used just as it is in English—both English and German speakers liked this word so much, each have borrowed it from Italian! In fact, Germans use it much more than us English speakers. You can slip ciao into your speaking without being worried about upsetting the rest of your sentences—as a simple one-word phrase, it doesn’t change any grammar.
Mach’s gut (Take care)
The words above are all versatile enough to be used in both formal and informal German—just use your best judgement if you’re in a formal scenario. However, here we have one we need to be careful with.
Mach’s gut is purely informal and you would only use it with people who you know really well. If you want to tell someone who you don’t know to “take care,” you need to use the formal form: machen Sie’s gut.
Wie geht’s? (How are you?)
Here’s another phrase that has a formal and informal form. When asking friends and family how they’re doing, it’s easy to remember this simple phrase. However, if you’re in a formal scenario, you’ll need to ask: Wie geht es Ihnen?
It’s worth pointing out that wie geht’s? is a shortened version of wie geht es dir? Learn both just in case someone asks you the latter!
To answer both the formal and informal versions of this question, you only need to know one answer: Es geht mir gut, danke! (I’m well/it’s going well, thanks!)
If asking wie geht’s is still too formal for you, you can always simply ask na? In informal situations, this tiny word is used between friends as a “hey, how’s it going?” kind of greeting.
Don’t be surprised if you occasionally hear this word in formal situations, too—it’s often used in more of a “how are things going with your task?” sense.
The word Alter has different meanings depending on the context it’s used in. If you hear Alter in a formal context, then it will be meant as “the old one”—an old person.
However, if you hear this between friends, then it has a much more relaxed meaning—it’s a very close translation of “dude.” If you use this term, make sure whoever you’re talking about knows you well, otherwise it could come across as very rude!
This post is just a really quick look at the basics of informal German—it only scratches the surface, so keep learning more with the types of resources suggested above!
Once you’ve mastered this side of the language and fully understand the difference between Sie and du, you’ll be able to show off your German in many different scenarios.
After studying German and Philosophy at The University of Nottingham, Laura Harker relocated to Berlin in 2012. She now works as a freelance writer and is also assistant editor at Slow Travel Berlin.