When you first start learning a language, you have the linguistic capacity of a myna bird—you mostly only utter little chirps and squeaks.
You fill out your Arbeitsbuch, study your flashcards and practice vocabulary.
You can even write a mostly readable German text, when absolutely forced.
But the minute an honest-to-goodness German person comes up to you, everything you know turns to Kartoffelpüree.
“Guten Tag! Ich bin Monika, wie geht es Ihnen?”
“Ahhh…eesh-ick-ighhhh. Um. I’m sorry I don’t speak German.”
After months of studying and tackling simple conversations head-on, you may work your way up to toddler-level.
German is such a complicated language that even after years, you might only reach the level of a somewhat literate second-grader.
It’s easier to practice with classmates, because you’re all on the same, not-that-fluent level. But when it comes to speaking with actual German people, well, that can be slightly terrifying. Especially because Germans tend to have no hesitation whatsoever towards correcting every single mistake you make, which can be more than a little discouraging.
But why are you learning German if not to one day speak with actual German people? With that in mind, here are a few tips to help you get over the German jitters and start speaking.
13 Ways to Boost Your Confidence and Start Speaking German
1. Text and Chat with New German Buddies
If you really are mortified by your accent, a simple way to get around it is to send messages instead. Start texting people in German. This is an especially good option for people who don’t live in a country where German is the common language.
If you’re in need of German-speaking buddies, a great way to connect with people is through HelloTalk, which is a social media site (and app) designed specifically for language learners to set up language exchanges.
Meeting native German speakers is beyond simple here, as users are a particularly enthusiastic and dedicated crowd. You can search for a fellow language learner who fits the bill (someone who’s a native German speaker) or plug in your information and let them find you (or both)!
German is one of over 100 language options offered here, so you can chat with someone in German and offer them interaction in whatever other language you know well. Send messages back and forth, make free phone calls and connect yourself with the German-speaking world.
Not sure about making phone calls to a new person right away? HelloTalk is made for modern social media users—it will read every text message you receive out loud in standard German pronunciation, so you’ll get a great sense of the natural flow of German even if you never ring someone’s phone.
You can also speak German directly into the app and have it typed out properly for you. HelloTalk will even go so far as to correct your grammar and spelling along the way—hoorah! And if you’re at a total loss, simply speak or write in English and HelloTalk will pop out a perfect German translation.
You can add a German keyboard to your smartphone or computer with only one tap or click. Bonus: the keyboard includes spellcheck.
2. Set a Timer
When you already have German friends with whom you’ve only spoken English, it can be especially difficult to make the switch. But these people can be some of your greatest teachers. To get started, suggest switching to German for a set time: 10 minutes, 20 minutes, one hour—whatever you’re comfortable with. Increase the time each day.
3. Be Expressive
One of the most common fears that gets in the way of speaking is that people won’t be able to understand what you’re saying, or that your real personality won’t come through with your limited vocabulary. Make yourself clearer by being animated and expressive. Speak with emotion and gestures. Vary your tone, the same way you do with your mother tongue.
Tip: When you’re unsure of whether or not you’re saying something correctly, wiggle your eyebrows and look uncertainly at the person you’re speaking to. They’ll most likely jump in and help you, and then you can carry on. Plus, people will find you endearing.
4. Talk to Strangers
The best part about talking to strangers is that they have no idea who you are, and you never have to see them again. Striking up conversations with people on trains, in bars, in restaurants, etc., can be a great way to test your German chops. People are usually charmed by non-native speakers trying to learn such a complex language. You might even make some friends out of it.
5. Tell the Truth…or Not
A friend of mine has been living in Berlin for two years, but she only started studying German in December. She’s got three months of solid Deutschlernen under her belt, but when she meets people, she fibs and says she’s only been learning for a month. People respond with a chorus of “Echt!?” and “Dein Deutsch is wirklich gut! Wirklich gut!” Sometimes you just need the confidence boost.
6. Make Peace with Your Accent
It’s yours. You can’t change it any more than you can change where you grew up. Very few people achieve a German accent that’s 100% perfect, making themselves indistinguishable from native Germans.
There are always going to be people who think your accent sounds silly, and there are always going to be people who think your accent sounds cool. Unless you learned German as a kid, you are always going to have one—even if it’s practically untraceable. You can’t let that stand in the way of talking. Most people think the German accent sounds lächerlich, anyway.
Your grammar might not be perfect, but your inhibitions are definitely lower when you’ve been drinking. It can make it easier to open up and speak when you’d otherwise be too timid. Plus, drinking German beer counts as a cultural experience. Just don’t try this tip in class.
8. Baby Talk
The littlest Germans are actually the ones on your linguistic level. Plus, little kids say the funniest things. If they’re too little too speak well themselves, they definitely don’t care if you make mistakes. Just don’t start going up to random children on the playground—make sure the parents know you’re a trustworthy, if grammatically-impaired, individual.
9. Make Circumlocution Your New Best Friend
You can’t say everything in German as specifically as you can say it in your mother tongue. It’s frustrating, embarrassing and a huge deterrent from making German conversation.
Once you give up trying to make a one-to-one translation out of everything, a whole new horizon opens up to you.
With the words you do know, describe what you’re getting at. If people still aren’t understanding you, go around a different way. Eventually, someone will either catch your drift or tell you to Google it. And once you have the German expression, commit it to memory.
10. Build a New Favorite Word
One of the coolest things about the German language is that if there isn’t already a word for what you’re saying, you can make one by sticking other words together—Luftschlosstraum (“daydream,” literally cloud-castle-dream) for example. How cool does that sound? Don’t you want to try it?
11. Raise the Stakes
Almost by accident, I ended up at a fashion week party in Berlin, meeting writers and businesspeople with whom I desperately wanted to network. They were polite to me, speaking a few words of English in the beginning of the evening. But as the night went on, they started chatting amongst themselves in German, and I was left standing alone with a pocket full of my own business cards.
I’m usually a shy and introverted person, but there was no way I could leave that party without forming some decent German business connections.
I had to take the plunge.
Off I went with the ol’ “Tut mir leid, mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut, aber…” and my cute little anecdote about studying jeden Tag at the Volkshochschule. People were charmed by my effort and the business cards started flying. Try putting yourself in situations where choosing not to speak will have far worse consequences than a little embarrassment.
12. Consider the Circumstances
How often do you meet a non-native speaker of English and think, “God, this person is so stupid for learning a second language. What a waste of my time to sit here listening to all their mistakes.”?
People will understand that you’re new at this. Sometimes in restaurants or cafes, they might roll their eyes and switch to English, making you feel like a big goon. But that’s just because people in the service industry are busy and stressed. The people that would be rude to you for being new at German would find something else to be rude about, even if you were fließend. So don’t take it too hard.
13. The First Word is the Hardest
You aren’t going to wake up one day saying “Heute kann ich perfekt Deutsch reden. Ich kenne jedes Wort und ich mache niemals Fehler.”
Nein. Das passt nicht.
It’s a gradual thing, and you have to start somewhere. Once you get past the first uncomfortable sentences, you’ll get used to it. And then you’ll get better. The sooner you start, the sooner those pesky nerves will disappear.
Genevieve Van Voorhis is a writer and editor, living and learning German in Berlin. To read more by Gen, check out her blog at www.genvanvee.com.
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