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Learn Spoken German with This Cheat Sheet of Colloquial Expressions

Having trouble understanding native German speakers?

It’s not you, it’s them.

Don’t break up with German out of frustration.

We’re going to slip you a little cheat sheet under the desk.

It’s an age-old story: You’re cruising through German lessons and totally rock your vocabulary, but when Germans open their mouths it’s all Greek to you.

The solution?

No, don’t start studying Greek. Start studying Umgangssprache.

Umgangssprache is an entirely different set of words than what your textbook taught you.

Bet we’ve got you covered: This guide will help you understand the most common colloquial expressions used by native German speakers…and finally learn how to sound cool.

Learn Spoken German with This Cheat Sheet of Colloquial Expressions

For learners, it’s often difficult to judge when to use colloquial language.

The rule of thumb? In situations when you address people with the formal Sie, standard language is appropriate.

Even in a private setting, the language used depends on the speaker and the occasion. Young people tend to use more—and somewhat different—colloquial expressions than older people. Umgangssprache is associated with being casual and not taking things too seriously, so the situation or topic of conversation might also indicate standard language.

You’ll hear plenty of this while watching real-world German language videos on FluentU. 

As a matter of fact, FluentU may just be the perfect place to study spoken and colloquial German. Thanks to our huge collection of German video content—covering everything from German history to street interviews, talk shows and “The Hunger Games” cinematic trailers—you’ll find a rich diversity of German which is ideal for learning to speak like a native.

Check it out today, and be sure to play with FluentU’s tools for active German learning, such as interactive subtitles, personalized flashcards and vocabulary lists. This is a great warm up before actually testing out colloquial language on natives.

Sure, you could get through life without ever uttering colloquial German expressions. But you still need to learn them. There’s no way around it.

Whether you turn on the TV or the radio, open a magazine or listen to music, Umgangssprache will be there, lurking and waiting for you. The good news: There’s no better way to learn these expressions than head-on confrontation therapy!

Commonly Used Abbreviations in Spoken German

In contrast to colloquial expressions, abbreviations are pretty much universal—that is, everybody uses them unless in a formal setting. Getting the knack of abbreviating will make you sound much more natural to native speakers.

‘ (silent “e”)

Drop the ending of the verb in the first person singular form.

Examples:
Ich hab’ Geburtstag.
Ich geh’ ins Kino.

‘n, ‘ne, ‘nen, ‘nem, ‘ner

As all the essential grammatical information—gender, case and singular/plural—is at the end of the indefinite article, Germans drop the ei in ein and all its variations except for the Genetiv form.

Examples:
Ich treff’ mich mit ‘nem Freund.
Wir gehen in ‘ne Bar.
but! Paul ist der Freund einer Freundin.

‘s

This abbreviation stands in for es.

Examples:
Wie geht’s dir?
Hat’s geregnet?

Walkthrough of Colloquial German Expressions

As Umgangssprache changes faster than Standardsprache and differs according to factors such as age, social background and subculture, it’s more difficult to pin down in a dictionary. This glossary explains the most common current expressions. The words marked with an asterisk (*) are usually only used by people under 25 to 35.

The ones without asterisk are also sometimes used by the generation that is now 65 and over, depending on how young at heart the speaker is.

Yes and No

Ja is only replaced with the colloquial yo in the Hip Hop scene or in Northern Germany.

However, and nee, the semantic doppelgangers of nein, are quite common.

The German language also offers a solution if you’re undecided: the word jein, a compound of yes and no.

If you have no idea how to answer something, but at least want to be cool when expressing your indecision or lack of knowledge, choose keinen Plan haben*—often used in the short form kein Plan*—instead of the textbook version keine Ahnung haben. The other person may respond “Kein Ding!” to tell you that it’s kein Problem.

Examples:
A: Hat dir Twilight gefallen?
B: Jein. Die Action-Szenen waren gut, aber die Liebesgeschichte total langweilig.
A: Magst du keine Liebesfilme?
B: Nee.

Like and Dislike

Many learners ask for translations for awesome, amazing or rad.

While you can of course find equivalents in the dictionary, a lot of them are either too formal or outdated. The truth is that Germans usually don’t get very creative with expressing their liking, but stick to a few classics. Apart from geil*, people often resort to the English cool. If you don’t want to sound too street/young, stick to toll or the standard language super.

The expressions krass* and der Hammer can actually be used for both very good and very bad—or just extraordinary overall.

Similarly, the word abgefahren* works as an adjective for anything extraordinary, but only with a neutral or positive connotation.

To express that you dislike something, you can either form opposites with the prefix un and call it ungeil* or uncool*, or use the stronger adjective ätzend*. To make the point that something is stupid or senseless, use bescheuert.

Like sehr in standard language, the words voll*, total or mega* make adjectives stronger.

Examples:
A: Die neue CD von Britney Spears ist mega-geil.
B: Ich find’ Popmusik voll ätzend.

Regarding verbs, auf etwas/jemanden stehen* means that you’re totally into something/someone. On the other end of the spectrum, etwas/jemanden nicht ab/können means that you can’t stand it/him.

Examples:
Ich steh’ auf französische Filme.
Sie kann Peter nicht ab.

If you’re (not) in the mood for something, the expression (keinen) Bock haben works like the standard (keine) Lust haben.

Examples:
Ich hab’ heute Bock auf Pizza.
Er hat keinen Bock, früh aufzustehen.

Describing People

A male mate is called Kumpel, a guy is a Typ*.

As do many colloquial terms, Typ has an ambivalent connotation being either neutral or having a more or less negative undercurrent.

Among young people it has both meanings, older speakers usually use it to imply dislike or suspicion.

The female version Mädel (the ä is more pronounced like an e here) is always neutral, whereas Tussi is the standard negative word for a girl or woman. While not really being an insult, it indicates antipathy and is thus usually not said to someone’s face. The word also has the more specific meaning of a girl or woman who’s wearing a lot of makeup and/or is overdressed.

If a man is overdressed and/or flaunting status symbols, he is called Lackaffe.

Alter* means bro or pal, but is also used to express astonishment or disapproval. You might also hear the female Alte* but most people, especially women, consider it to be a negative expression.

Examples:
A: Hey Alter, wie geht’s?
B: Sehr gut! Ich hab’ eben ‘n total nettes Mädel an der Bar kennengelernt. Sie ist mit ‘nem Typen hier; ich hoff’, das ist nur ‘n Kumpel und nicht ihr Freund. Guck mal, es ist die mit dem blauen T-Shirt.
A: Alter, ist die hübsch!

Going out

The first question you’ll ask yourself is “Was geht?* (What’s going on?).

To another person, you’ll ask Was geht bei dir?”*(What’s going on with you?).

Before going out, it’s common to meet at a friend’s place for the so-called Vorglühen to have a few drinks.

Teenagers and tweens refer to hanging out as abhängen*. With the prefix rum, the verb can also take on the meaning of not doing anything, not going out or can even have a negative connotation in the sense of loitering.

A lot of clubs in Germany only let you in with the right Klamotten (clothes), which doesn’t necessarily mean aufgebrezelt (all dolled up / dressed up to the nines).

No matter where you end up hanging out with your friends, you’ll pass the night with quatschen or labern* (talking). Several prefixes can be used to add a twist to the meaning: rumlabern* either expresses that the talking seems pointless or that a person is saying a lot but there’s not much to it.

If someone is talking your ear off, you fell victim to zulabern*. Just like the standard version ansprechen, jemanden anlabern* may mean to address someone in general or to address someone in order to start flirting.

As in many countries, ordering a drink for your romantic interest is a classic move.

…if you have Kohle (money), that is.

If things are getting more serious, it’s time to switch from colloquial expressions to romantic phrases.

When you go out in Germany, where smoking is still allowed in many places, it won’t be long before someone asks “Kann ich mal ‘ne Zigarette von dir schnorren?” This verb is mostly used for bumming cigarettes, but also works for money and food.

Examples:
A: Was ging bei dir am Wochenende?
B: Wir haben zuerst bei Peter abgehangen und vorgeglüht, dann sind wir auf ein Konzert gegangen. Dort hab’ ich ‘nen total interessanten Typen kennengelernt. Wir haben die ganze Nacht gelabert. Und was hast du gemacht?
A: Ich hab’ nur zu Hause rumgehangen. Ich hab’ im Moment keine Kohle für’s Ausgehen.

Try out some of these phrases the next time you’re stepping out with German-speaking friends. You won’t be disappointed!

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