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What To Say In German When Words Fail You Posted by on Jun 13, 2015 in Language, Practice

A little while ago I wrote a post about words and phrases that’ll make your German sound more natural and ‘real’ (you can read that post here). One thing that many language learners get frustrated with is not sounding natural enough, and often that is because of the rather scripted nature of the things they learn to begin with (Hallo, wie geht es dir? – Mir geht es gut, danke. Und dir? – Ja, sehr gut, danke. – Tschüß). As this is not spontaneous (you’re unlikely to just say ‘bye’ after someone tells you how they are!), it can become boring very quickly. However, you can’t expect to be fluent straight away- but the more you talk and write in German, the quicker you’ll get there!

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Photo: leedman on flickr.com under CC BY-SA 2.0

 

While you’re learning, if you want to keep conversation going without the long pauses and silences, or without resorting back into your native language, then here are a few phrases that will keep you going in German – even when you haven’t a clue what to say next!

Looking for a word in German (example word: rabbit)

Wie kann ich ‚rabbit‘ (auf Deutsch) sagen? – How can I say ‚rabbit‘ (in German)?

Wie sagt man ‚rabbit‘ (auf Deutsch)? – How does one say ‚rabbit‘ (in German)?

Was ist ‚rabbit‘ auf Deutsch? – What is ‚rabbit‘ in German?

Was ist das deutsche Wort für ‚rabbit‘? – What is the German word for ‚rabbit‘?

 

Asking what a certain German word means (example word: Hase)

Was bedeutet bitte ‘Hase’? – What does ‘Hase’ mean, please?

 

 

When you’re confused

Ich bin verwirrt – I’m confused

Ich habe mich geirrt – I’ve gone wrong/made a mistake


Apologising for lack of words (not that you should be apologising, but it happens!)

Verzeihung – Sorry/forgive me

Es tut mir leid – I’m sorry (lit: ‚It does me sorrow‘)

Ich spreche nur ein bisschen Deutsch. – I only speak a little German.

Mein Deutsch ist nicht besonders gut. – My German is not especially good.

 

Asking someone to repeat what they said

Können Sie das bitte nochmal sagen? (formal: to a stranger/superior) – Can you please say that again?

Kannst du das bitte nochmal sagen? (informal: to a friend/relative) – Can you please say that again?

 

 

When your mind goes completely blank

Ich weiß nicht, welches Wort ich sagen will. – I don’t know which word it is I’m trying to say.

Ich kann mich nicht richtig ausdrücken. – I can’t express myself properly.

Ich habe das nicht verstanden. – I didn’t understand that.

Ich kann heute nicht auf Englisch denken/sprechen, geschweige denn Deutsch! – I can’t even think/speak in English today, let alone German!

 

The great thing about using these phrases is that they’re all things you’d say in your native tongue should you be having ‘one of those days’, so it’s perfectly natural to use them in German, too. Even though you’re stuck for words, by using them in German you’ll still feel good for having communicated your lack of words in German. That’s impressive in itself! So don’t fret – use these phrases, and your confidence in your language ability will soon grow!

If there are any other phrases you’re after, let me know in the comments!

Bis später

Constanze x

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About the Author:Constanze

Servus! I'm Constanze. I'm half English and half German. I write here because I'm passionate about my languages and my roots. I also work as a translator & group fitness instructor.


Comments:

  1. Rudolph Houck:

    Wie bitte? Oder – to tune of comin round the mountain – Ich bin Auslander und spreche nicht gut Deutsch 2x; bitte langsam, bitte langsam, bitte sprechen Sie doch langsam, repeat 1st line.

  2. Transparent Language:

    Comment received via email:

    Dear Constanze,

    Just wanted to compliment you on the tips I am receiving from your German Language Blog.
    I find them very useful and even try to implement them on daily basis. Providing such “direct to the point” tips, makes reading your e-mails very useful. Please continue the good work.

    Vielen Dank,

    Rromir Imami, a naturalized Swiss, who tries to sound meaningful in German 🙂

    • Constanze:

      @Transparent Language Hi Rromir, thanks so much for your comment. I’m glad the posts are proving useful to you. 🙂 🙂
      Constanze x

  3. A Trillich:

    Your postings are useful. I chat irregularly with Bavarian cousins. I’m an old guy and they are young females that can chat my eyeballs off without breaking a sweat. I call them my Wortschmeiderinnen (female wordsmiths comparable to a blacksmith forging words only spoken instead of heated metal).

    My highschool German teacher was from the Goethe Institut and spoke New York American. Yet when I studied under him, I seem to be easily understood by Austrians and the Germans think I’m drunk. Go figure…

    • Constanze:

      @A Trillich Hahah, I am the same. I grew up speaking Bavarian, and sometimes Bavarian-isms slip out when I’m talking to people from other parts of Germany, or trying to explain something German to an English person. Sometimes I end up confusing people! Thanks for your comment, I love reading people’s stories! 🙂

  4. CB:

    ^^ bavarianism! Da bin ich doch glatt auch dabei!✔️

  5. Beatriz:

    Very useful thanks, for give this tips, I trying to learn the German language .

    • Constanze:

      @Beatriz No worries, hope it helps! 🙂

  6. Stephen:

    Dear Constanze,
    Thank you so much for your kindness in writing this very interesting and useful blog!

    steve in Sydney