How to Start a Conversation in German

How to Start a Conversation in German

For most of us, the last thing we learn is how to converse. This makes sense during those first few weeks where you just learn how to say hello and introduce yourself - that's not a real conversation. By the time you are two months into the learning process though, you should be able to hold a basic conversation - beyond just saying your name and asking how someone is.

Even small talk is a starting point. However, German speakers aren’t known for being good at small talk.

Here are a few tips to help you start a basic conversation that won’t be too difficult for you in terms of vocabulary.

people on bench

Top 4 Tips for Talking to Anybody in German

Most of us want to learn to speak German so that we can talk with any Germanic speaker. After all to learn German isn't about memorization; it's about conversing more comfortably. While we've got a lot of study tips, this blog focuses on the best tips to converse in German.

The following are the top things to consider to help you determine when someone is willing to talk, and what kinds of topics are more likely to engage people in conversation.

How to Start a Conversation with a Stranger

German speakers aren’t known for being particularly friendly, but they are willing to engage with strangers who use the right approach. There are several things you can do to help get the ball rolling.

  • Start with a few concrete questions that aren’t too personal.
  • Make eye contact before you approach them and smile.
  • Start with Entschuldigun, then get right into the conversation. Don’t start with a lot of filler words, like “I would like to ask a question.” If you are approaching them, they expect that you probably have a question, so starting with Entschuldigun is all you need before asking your question.
  • Know what question you want to ask before you attempt to engage in conversation.

If you make eye contact before you approach, then say Entschuldigun, most German speakers will be prepared for a question. If they look away when you try to make eye contact, then you know not to approach them.

You can also say things like Guten Tag or Hallo, but these are best used with people you have at least met before.

It is usually easiest to talk to someone who is closer to your age.

women talking at train

Good Conversation Starter Questions

There is a difference between engaging in a conversation and simply asking for directions. When you ask for directions, a couple of sentences is all you need, and those can largely be memorized. Conversations require a little more than a passing question, but sometimes what you need to break the ice are those few basic questions.

Once a person is engaged in answering a question, they are more likely to be open for further conversation.

The following are some basic questions that could lead to conversation if the person seems interested in talking.

Excuse me, what time is it? Entschuldigung, wie spät ist es?
Where is …? (Use this to ask where something is.) Wo ist …?
Is there a restaurant nearby? Gibt es ein Restaurant in der Nähe?
How far is it? Wie weit ist es?
Can you show me on the map? Können Sie es mir auf der Karte zeigen?
Is this seat free? Ist dieser Platz frei?
Does this train stop at…? Hält dieser Zug in…?
How long does the trip take? Wie lange dauert die Fahrt?
Which station is this? Welcher Bahnhof ist das?
Are you still serving food? Gibt es noch etwas zu essen?
Excuse me, can I please see the menu? Entschuldigung, kann ich die Karte sehen?
What would you recommend? Was empfehlen Sie?
How big are the portions? Wie groß sind die Portionen?
That was delicious! Das hat hervorragend geschmeckt!
Can you wrap that up to go? Können Sie das einpacken?

Depending on how the person responds, these questions may lead to other questions, especially if you are taking public transportation and will be stuck in one place for a while.

With the ice broken, you can start getting a feel for whether or not they want to talk and subjects that might interest them.

at coffee shop

Subjects to Keep a Conversation Going

Some subjects are pretty common talking points because people tend to have opinions about those subjects. The following are some of the most popular subjects that might engage someone in a conversation beyond just the weather.

Do you have a favorite band? Hast du eine Lieblingsband?
Do you play an instrument? Spielst du ein Instrument
Where are you from? (informal) Woher kommst du?
Where are you from? (formal) Woher kommen Sie?
Which type of sports do you like? Welche Sportarten magst du?
What’s your favorite food? Was ist dein Lieblingsessen?
Are there any good movies around? (bakeries/pubs/restaurants) Gibt es hier ein gutes Kino…? (eine gute Bäckerei/eine gute Kneipe/ein gutes Restaurant)
That’s a very nice jacket! (bag, necklace, or other article of clothing or items they are carrying) Das ist aber eine schöne Jacke! (Tasche/Kette)
That dress looks good on you! Dieses Kleid steht dir sehr gut!

As you can see from some of these topics, there could be a good bit of passion behind them, especially sports. People tend to be very passionate about their sports teams. If you want to talk about sports, take some time to learn more phrases as people tend to talk faster as they get engaged in the conversation.

talking at pub

Event Focused Conversations

While it can be harder to get people engaged in conversation when you are just out and about in the village or town, when you are at an event or get together, people are usually looking to have conversations.

Remember to be picky about where you try to have conversations. Places like clubs and bars really don’t lend themselves to conversation since you may not be able to hear over the noise. These are places to go either to dance or when you have a good grasp on the language – they are not places for beginners and intermediate speakers.

The following are some great conversation starters when you know that people are more likely in a mood to talk.

What’s on tap? Was gibt’s vom Fass?
I’ll buy you a drink. Ich gebe Ihnen/dir einen aus.
I’ll take care of the beer. Ich besorge das Bier.
Another beer, please. Noch ein Bier, bitte.
Cheers! Prost!
What would you like? Was möchten Sie/du?
It’s my round. Diese Runde geht auf mich.
Do you know how to play billiards? Kannst du Billard spielen?
Can you recommend clubs? Können Sie Klubs empfehlen?
You have a sharp tongue. Du hast eine scharfe Zunge.

To Learn German, You Need to Converse

As hard as it is, conversation is the whole point when you set out to learn German. Getting out of that comfort zone can be rough, so focusing on subjects can help you get out of your head and into a real discussion.

Don’t forget that you can take a more targeted approach. If there are subjects that you enjoy discussing that are common topics for conversation, such as wines, beers, music, or hobbies, you can do research into the terms you need to know.

There are benefits and drawbacks to being selective about your own subjects. It can definitely motivate you to learn and you are more likely to push forward with learning. However, it could narrow your ability to chat with people if they aren’t interested in the same subjects.