Learn Spoken German with This Cheat Sheet of Colloquial Expressions
Having trouble understanding native German speakers?
Then it’s time to start studying Umgangssprache (slang).
Umgangssprache is an entirely different set of words than what your German textbook taught you.
Bet I’ve got you covered: This guide will help you understand the most common German phrases and colloquial expressions used by native speakers. So stick around, and finally learn how to sound cool.
- Embrace Colloquial Expressions in Spoken German
- Commonly Used Abbreviations in Spoken German
- Walkthrough of Colloquial German Expressions
Embrace Colloquial Expressions in Spoken German
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 (you), 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 (slang)is associated with being casual and not taking things too seriously, so the situation or topic of conversation might also indicate standard language.
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 (slang) will be there, lurking and waiting for you.
You can embrace this by actively watching all this German media, or seeking a program that’ll help you do just that. The FluentU language learning program, for example, provides you with authentic German videos that also have personalized quizzes and interactive subtitles so you can catch slang words in context and memorize their proper usage for your own colloquial conversation needs.
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 e ending of the verb in the first person singular form.
Ich hab’ heute Geburtstag. (It’s my birthday today.)
Ich geh’ ins Kino. (I’m going to the cinema.)
‘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.
Ich treff’ mich mit ‘nem Freund. (I’m meeting with a friend.)
Wir gehen in ‘ne Bar. (We’re going to a bar.)
But the genitive form of “ein” is not contracted: Paul ist der Freund einer Freundin. (Paul is the friend of a [female] friend).
This abbreviation stands in for es.
Wie geht’s dir? (How are you?)
Hat’s geregnet? (Has it rained?)
Walkthrough of Colloquial German Expressions
As Umgangssprache (slang) changes faster than Standardsprache (standard language) 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 (yes) is only replaced with the colloquial yo in the Hip Hop scene or in Northern Germany.
However, nö (nah) and nee (nope), the semantic doppelgangers of nein (no), 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* (to not have a clue) —often used in the short form kein Plan* (no idea) —instead of the textbook version keine Ahnung haben. (to not have any idea) The other person may respond “Kein Ding!” (no sweat) to tell you that it’s kein Problem (no problem).
A: Hat dir den Film gefallen? (Did you like the movie?)
B: Jein. Die Action-Szenen waren gut, aber die Liebesgeschichte total langweilig. (Yes and no. The action scenes were good, but the love story was a complete bore.)
A: Magst du keine Liebesfilme? (Do you not like romance movies?)
B: Nee. (Nah)
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 when expressing their affinity for something, but rather stick to a few classics such as the seemingly ubiquitous geil* (cool, awesome). Everything can be geil from a song to a horse. Be careful not to spread its usage too thin, however, as it is very informal and can also have sexual connotations, meaning randy or horny. So if you want to play it safe, you can always stick with the English loan-word cool.
Or if you don’t want to sound like you’re trying too hard to get down with the kids, stick with toll (great) or super (awesome, great).
The expressions krass* (cool, awesome) and der Hammer sein (to be off the hook, to be the bomb) can actually be used for both very good and very bad—or just extraordinary overall.
Similarly, the word abgefahren* (wicked, wack, crazy) 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 say uncool* (uncool), or use the stronger adjective ätzend* (lousy, awful). To make the point that something is stupid or senseless, use bescheuert (dumb, crazy, stupid).
Like sehr (very) in standard language, the words voll* (completely), total (totally) or mega* (uber-, super) make adjectives stronger.
A: Der neue Song von Lady Gaga ist mega-geil. (The new song by Lady Gaga is super awesome.)
B: Ich find’ Popmusik voll ätzend. (I find pop music awful.)
Regarding verbs, auf etwas/jemanden stehen* (to be into something, someone) shows off your affinity for a thing or even your romantic interest in a person, whilst etwas/jemanden nicht ab/können (to not be able to stand something, someone) means quite the opposite.
Ich steh’ auf französische Filme. (I’m into French movies.)
Sie kann Peter nicht ab. (She can’t stand Peter.)
If you’re (not) in the mood for something, the expression (keinen) Bock auf etwas haben (to be down for, to fancy something), or literally “to have goat”, works like the standard Lust auf etwas haben. (to fancy something)
Ich hab’ heute Bock auf Pizza. (I fancy pizza today)
Er hat keinen Bock, früh aufzustehen. (He isn’t down for getting up early)
A male mate is called a Kumpel, a guy is a Typ*.
Among young people it has both meanings, older speakers usually use it to imply dislike or suspicion.
The female version Mädel (gal, girlie).
If a man is overdressed and/or flaunting status symbols, he is called Lackaffe. (showboat, show-off)
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.
A: Hey Alter, wie geht’s? (Hey man, how’s it going?)
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. (Really good! I’ve just met a super nice girl at the bar. She is here with a guy, I hope it’s not her boyfriend. Look, she’s the one in the blue T-shirt.)
A: Alter, ist die hübsch! (Dude, she’s cute!)
The first question you’ll ask yourself is “Was geht?“* (What’s up?)
To another person, you’ll ask “Was geht bei dir?”*(How’s it going with you?).
Before going out, it’s common to meet at a friend’s place for the so-called Vorglühen (pre-game) 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 (to gossip, chat) or labern* (to prattle on, chat). Several prefixes can be used to add a twist to the meaning: rumlabern* (to chat nonsense, to go on and on) 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* (to chibber on). Just like the standard version ansprechen, jemanden anlabern* (to chat someone up) 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 (dough), 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?” (Can I scrounge a cigarette off you) This verb is mostly used for bumming cigarettes, but also works for money and food.
A: Was ging bei dir am Wochenende? (How was your weekend?)
B: Wir haben zuerst bei Peter abgehangen und vorgeglüht, dann sind wir auf einen Gig gegangen. Dort hab’ ich ‘nen total interessanten Typen kennengelernt. Wir haben die ganze Nacht gelabert. Und was hast du gemacht? (First we hung out at Peter’s place and pre-gamed, then we went to a gig. I met a really interesting guy there. We chatted the whole night. And what did you do?)
A: Ich hab’ nur zu Hause rumgehangen. Ich hab’ im Moment keine Kohle für’s Ausgehen. (I just hung out at home. I don’t have any dough to go out at the moment)
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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