Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Ways to Better Engage in a German Conversation

Games-for-German-conversationWhen in a German speaking country, you certainly want the skills to deal with daily, practical situations: ordering in a restaurant, asking directions, greeting friends or strangers, introducing others, purchasing, paying a check, checking into a hotel, etc. But you also want to be able to engage in conversations with locals. To do this, you must swallow your anxiety about speaking up and find ways to start, sustain, and eventually end a conversation.

Conversing with strangers can feel a little awkward in any language. A recent blog post: 12 Ways To Make Talking To Strangers Less Awkward has some good tips on braving such a challenge. Of course, these tips also work for talking with strangers in a foreign language. I've adapted them here for conversations with German speakers. A good antidote to "conversation anxiety" is to practice some useful expressions ahead of time. You can start with the list below.

1. When initiating a conversation, act confident and  comfortable, this will put the other person at ease too.

a) Be sure that you know how to address a stranger correctly to be appropriately polite. Best to use a neutral greeting such as “Guten Morgen,” “Guten Tag,” “Guten Abend” (Good morning, Hello, Good evening) or have a a couple of polite phrases ready, such as:

  • "Entschuldigen Sie ..." (Excuse me ...)
  • "Bitte ..." (Please [can you tell me] ...)

b) Importantly, you should use the formal "Sie" (the polite form of "you") as a starter with anyone, except children. In most cases, it's best to wait until you're prompted to use the familiar: "du." That means, of course, that you also have to learn to distinguish between the appropriate German verb endings. Listen here to a German conversation where students talk about using the familiar "du".

c) By the way, in German, you would never use "How are you?" (Wie geht's?/Wie geht es Ihnen?) as part of a greeting, unless you know the person very well. Germans take such a question seriously and may be tempted to give you a literal answer.

d) Learn to ask for directions or for information; this may very well lead to a longer exchange. Start with a neutral greeting (see above) and follow up with a question, such as:

  • "Wo ist ...?" (Where is ...?)
  • "Wie komme ich am besten zu ...?" ("How do I best get to ...")
  • "Wissen Sie, wann/wo ...?" (Do you know when/where ...?)

e) Comment about the here and now. For example when you're at a café, a restaurant, a museum, in a shop, at a market, etc. Talk about what's around you, what you see; you can even mention the weather.

  • "Ein Früchte-Eisbecher? Was ist das?" (A "Früchte-Eisbecher"? What is that?)
  • "Das ist wirklich ein schönes Gebäude!" (That's really a beautiful building!)
  • "Wunderbares Wetter heute!" (Great weather today!)

2. Once engaged in a conversation, you'll want to have a few topics up your sleeve to sustain it.

a) Know some basic information about the city and a few interesting historical facts about the country. This also means that you should learn how to say dates.

b) Say something about your stay in the country, where you're going, or where you've been, etc.

  • "Ich bleibe fast drei Wochen in ..." (I'm staying almost three weeks in ...)
  • "Ich fahre übermorgen nach ..." (I'm going to ... the day after tomorrow.)
  • "Ich besuche Freunde und Verwandte." (I'm visiting friends and relatives.)

c) Learn to listen as well as talk. Be able to ask questions and make comments to show your interest in what the other person is saying:

  • “Wann wurde ... gegründet?” (When was ... founded?)
  • "Wer ist/war ...?" (Who is/was ...?)
  • "Das wusste ich nicht." (I didn't know that.)

d) Obviously, the old stand-by, if you did not understand:

  • "Das ware ein bisschen schnell!" (That was a little fast!)
  • "Könnten Sie das, bitte, wiederholen!" (Could you, please, repeat that!)

3. Closing a conversation. 

It's always important to find a way to close a conversation gracefully. Germans are a little more formal about it than Americans and a little more resolute. Have a few exit lines ready!

a) Signaling the end:

  • "Vielen Dank für die guten Tipps." (Thank you for the good tips.)
  • “Es war nett, mit Ihnen zu reden." (It was nice to talk with you.)
  • "Oh, es ist schon spät. Ich muss noch ..." (Oh, it's already late. I still have to ...)
  • "Ich treffe mich noch mit Freunden." (I'm still meeting some friends.)

b) When you're leaving:

  • "Jetzt muss ich leider gehen." (Unfortunately, I have to go now.)
  • "Also nochmals: vielen Dank/es war richtig nett." (Again: many thanks/it was really nice.)
  • "Noch schönen Nachmittag/Abend!" (Have a nice afternoon/evening!)
  • "Auf Wiedersehen!" (Good-bye!)

Practicing some of these conversational phrases and expressions ahead of time will be quite helpful and impress your German speaking contact. While such phrases will obviously not be sufficient for an intensive discussion, they will boost you confidence in speaking. The next step will be to add a few more topics and strategies to your conversational skills.  

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