Survive a German Conversation With Minimal Vocab

Trapped in a German conversation that’s way above your ability? Stay cool and ride it out with our picks of generic yet authentic conversational responses.

Survive a German Conversation With Minimal Vocab image

As a language learner, you’re likely to find yourself sooner or later being flung head first into a fully-blown foreign conversation with someone who has totally overestimated your proficiency in said language. We all know the type -

‘oh, I hear you’re learning German!’

‘well, I’m still a beginn-’

-cue in depth German discussion on the current state of housing prices-

Fortunately, we’re here to help you avoid waiting awkwardly for your enthusiastic acquaintance to stop speaking before responding to them sheepishly in English.

Armed with the following set of German words and expressions, you can keep most conversations flowing nicely, without actually having to do much of the talking. In some cases, you don’t even have to understand exactly what the other person is saying - tonality, body language and context can be enough to work out a passable response. With a little practice, you’ll be getting through conversations that would usually trip you up and therefore gaining exposure to the language you otherwise wouldn’t have - fake it till you make it, as they say.

Let’s start with an expat favourite:

Genau

‘Genau’ means ‘exactly’, and can be used pretty much universally to indicate general agreement. It’s pretty easy to over-use this one and end up sounding like a one-trick-pony (a one-word-pony?), so luckily there is:

Stimmt

A practically interchangeable alternative to ‘genau’, ‘stimmt’ means ‘that’s right’. You can also mix it up slightly with ‘das stimmt’, and there you go - you’ve got three perfectly passable ways to agree with someone, even if you don’t quite know what you’re agreeing with. Let’s just think of these as ‘conversation extension tokens’.

Ja

Okay, an obvious one here - but bear with me. Fortunately, the way German speakers communicate through intonation is more-or-less equivalent to that of English speakers. This means you can modulate simple words such as ‘ja’ just as you would when speaking English - a rise of pitch to signal that you’re questioning what the other person just said, for example. Combine this with a bit of ‘mmm’ and ‘ahh’ and you’ll be half way through a conversation before you know it.

Ach, so

The best translation here would probably be ‘oh, I see’, but you can really play with the emphasis depending on the significance of the thing which has just become clear to you (or not, as the case may be). This is also a chance to flex your comically exaggerated German accent - really go for that ‘achhhhh’.

Echt?

‘Echt?’ means ‘really?’ and is a good way to respond to any vaguely surprising or interesting statement. If you don’t understand, not to worry - you can usually sense when someone is pausing for this kind of reaction. Stick a ‘wow’ on the end to further convince the other person of your intrigue. Or, better still, ‘mensch!’ (basically ‘man!’ or ‘jeez!’).

Warum? / wieso?

Even the beginners amongst you will likely be aware of these words, which mean ‘why?’ and ‘how come?’ respectively. While you’ll need to have roughly understood what the other person has said to use them correctly, it’s a great way to ping-pong the conversation back to their side, prompting them to elaborate further on what they’ve just explained. Meanwhile, you can be listening out for hints as to what on earth they were talking about in the first place…

Geil!

Those who have been learning German for a while might know that ‘geil’ can have very different connotations depending on context (Google it…). However, as a standalone expression, you can use it safely as ‘cool!’, as long as you’re not in a formal setting (in which case you should use ‘toll!’). If you want to colloquialize further, throw ‘voll geil’ or even ‘hamma geil’ into the mix, although you’ll probably sound like a teenager.

Voll Geil, Alter!

It’s probably best to avoid this one at a job interview.

Bonus - also

While less useful as a standalone expression in our case, ‘also’ can be an invaluable part of your conversational arsenal, in that it allows you to buy time while you think of what to say next. It can take on various meanings, but important here is its usage as a filler word when starting a sentence, just like ‘well…’ or ‘so, …’. Just stick it in front of what you’re about to say: even if the context doesn’t quite fit, you’ll sound much more German than letting out an extended ermmmmmmm.

And there you have it, your complete guide to speaking German, without really speaking German. Now of course, we don’t suggest you employ these tactics every time you’re faced with talking auf Deutsch - after all, the best way to improve in a language is to, well - speak it. Think of this rather as a safety net for those times your brain has involuntarily turned off. That way, you’ll be more confident when speaking, and with confidence comes progress.

Do you have any other techniques for making it through those daunting conversations? Let us know on Twitter - @chatterbugapp. Be sure to check out our Instagram, too - we post a load of more language learning fun there.