01 April, 2014

Tips for people who want to speak to me in German

Off-topic intro: I've discovered that riding my bike provides an excellent opportunity for reflection and thinking, and while biking home last night from an evening of socializing, I decided to write a short list of tips for people who want to speak to me in German. I think this list will also apply to most people speaking to someone for whom the language of conversation is newly acquired.

1. Speak slowly and clearly

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I would like to believe that I can understand everything being said (and I can understand a decent amount), but most of the time you really can't talk to me in the same way and at the same speed as you would to a native German speaker. This piece of advice does not mean, however, that you need to speak to me like a small child. Slowing down slightly is sufficient, but other than slowing down a bit please try to speak as normally as possible. I need to learn what "real" German sounds like. 

2. Talk to me one-on-one. 

(Photo: pixabay.com)

If possible, find the time and space to talk to me one-on-one. Within a large group of German speakers, I get very overwhelmed and all of my energy goes into understanding. In this situation, even of I want to contribute something, the pace of the conversation is just too fast and hectic for me to keep up. To avoid this overstimulation, try engaging me in conversation when it's just the two of us. That way I only have one person to focus on and I will be much less stressed. 

3. Don't be afraid to ask me if I understand what you are saying. 

I have a tendency to pretend I know what's going on even when I don't. If I haven't responded to something you've said or I've been quiet for much of the conversation (which, let's face it, happens a lot), check in with me and ask me if I understand. If I do, then I will say so and everything will be fine, and if I don't, then you've given me the perfect opportunity to tell you, and to get clarification or to ask what that strange word I don't know means. 

4. Ask me questions that aren't yes-or-no. 

(Photo: pixabay.com)

If you ask me a question with a yes or no answer, chances are high that you will get either a yes or a no as my entire contribution to the conversation. If I've expended energy understanding the question and then answered with a yes or a no, I see my job as complete. It often requires an overwhelming amount of work to try to formulate an entirely new idea, above and beyond the yes or no that was required. Asking a question that is not yes-or-no forces me to actually put together a sentence in order to answer you. This is very good practice for me and will result in a greater amount of conversation.

5. Be prepared to do most of the talking. 

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This won't happen all the time, but anyone talking to me in a language other than English has to be aware that there's a good chance that I will not be the one talking everyone's ear off. If it seems like I'm not participating much, it doesn't mean I don't like you, it just means I'm having trouble processing everything. Don't give up on me.

6. Give me time to answer. 

(Photo: pixabay.com)

This goes along with the previous point. Sometimes I need short pauses in the conversation to collect myself, think of something to say, and actually start saying it. Pauses are OK, but if the pause enters awkward territory, feel free to refer back to #5.

Now having said all that, I can assure you that you don't have to keep all of these points in your head at all times in order to talk to me. I'm a friendly person and like talking to people, it just may require a bit more effort on both of our parts to keep a conversation going in German. Even if you don't follow all of these tips all the time, being aware of them can help both of us, and will hopefully give you a better idea of what I think about during the average German conversation.


  1. "If I've expended energy understanding the question and then answered with a yes or a no, I see my job as complete."

    ^ Real talk tho

    I think its kind of surprising how many people just don't get this concept. In Japan I used to excuse them saying that they have never really spoken to foreigners before (there are many people who have gone their entire lives without ever speaking to someone who isn't Japanese). However, here in Germany, I don't understand WHY they don't get it.

    Good tips!

    1. I think here in Germany there may be the opposite problem as what you experienced in Japan. Rather than going their whole lives never speaking to someone who isn't their nationality, Germans are used to people speaking languages that aren't their natives ones, and they are used to people speaking several languages well. Since they start learning languages so young here, once they are our age they can reasonably expect to speak a foreign language fluently. I think many people here expect that from everyone else, too, even when they know consciously that we've just started learning.

      I've found that many people expect casual social situations to be the easiest to speak German in, when in fact for me that is often the most difficult. It's easier for me to speak German in situations that are more structured, i.e., in German class or when talking to someone in a store or office. In these situations, it's clear what I am supposed to say and there is always a specific goal in mind. Since the idea I want to communicate is already established, I just have to come up with the words. But in social situations, I have to come up with the ideas first and then put them into words, and that's at least twice as much work. That to me is what I think most people I talk to may not understand.

  2. Hej,
    I really hope I get a chance to talk to you when I am back :)
    Right now I really know how it feels to hear a conversation and only to grasp words and a hint of whats going on.
    Nice "rules" maybe I share them with some people ;)

    1. I'm glad you like the "rules," I was hoping other people would find them useful, too :)
      I hope we get a chance to talk when you are back, too. That reminds me, I think I'm a post or two behind on reading your blog, I'll go do that now!