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Adding More German Phrases to Your Repertoire

One of the most terrifying feelings when you have a conversation with a native speaker is when they use words or idioms that you don’t know. For me, this can really set back my confidence and make me wonder what I’ve been spending all my time on. Native speakers use phrases and collocations all the time that you maybe just haven’t been exposed to yet. Beyond simple grammar and vocabulary words, these phrases are what give a language its real flavour.

No two languages are the same, either. I’m often surprised when some American English phrases appear word-for-word in something I’m watching in German. One example is “Schmetterlinge im Bauch”- or, literally and figuratively, “butterflies in the stomach”. But it happens far more often that the phrase will be just slightly different, enough that if you tried translating word-for-word it would come off strange and funny.

In this article, I’ll give you some real-life examples of German phrases that you might not easily find in lists of idioms. I’ll also share my study methods with you so that you sound like a pro the next time you have a German conversation.

Adding More German Phrases to Your Repertoire

Let’s Dive Right in to the German Phrases!

I think it’s important to learn everything in context, so I’ve provided some example sentences too. But at the same time, it’s good to understand each component of these phrases as individual elements. This is the same way I make my own notes and flashcards. I always try to link one target-language concept to two or more English words or phrases to cover the different shades of meaning. Then I come up with a parallel example sentence from a dictionary or just from searching native material.

jemanden auf die Folter spannen 

keep someone guessing, keep someone on tenterhooks, keep someone curious.

die Folter – torture, the rack
spannen – to stretch, to tighten

Wir wollen euch jetzt nicht auf die Folter spannen, also haben wir ein erstes Video schon hochgeladen.
We don’t want to torture you, so we’ve uploaded a first video already.

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auf Knopfdruck 

at the touch of a button, at the drop of a hat

der Knopf – a button or knob
drücken – to press, to push

Die neue Maschine bereitet Ihnen auf Knopfdruck eine exzellente Kaffee zu.
The new machine gets excellent coffee ready for you at the touch of a button.


schlicht und einfach 

plain and simple, just simply


Die internationalen Regulierungen sind schlicht und einfach zu schwach.
The international regulations are simply too weak.


gar nicht anders können 

can’t help but, have no choice to


Er ist immer in Bewegung, er kann gar nicht anders: Wandern, Radfahren, Schwimmen…
He’s always on the move; he simply can’t help it: hiking, biking, swimming…

Adding More German Phrases to Your Repertoire

jemanden zur Rede stellen 

confront somebody, take somebody to task

die Rede – a speech, a talk

Malta hat große Fortschritte gemacht, um die zur Rede zu stellen, die die Jagdvorschriften missachten.
Malta has made enormous progress in holding accountable those who defy the hunting rules.

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jemanden auf den Arm nehmen 

to pull someone’s leg, to tease somebody

Spoofs sind parodistische Filme die oft ganzen Filmgenres auf den Arm nehmen.
Spoofs are parody movies that often make fun of entire genres of films.


etwas (akk) sausen lassen 

to drop something, to let something go, to give something up

sausen – to fly, to zoom, to bolt, to breeze through

Die Gruppe hat sich entschlossen, ihren Sonntag sausen zu lassen, um der Familie zu helfen.
The group decided to give up their Sunday in order to help the family.


mit Abstand 

by far, by a long shot, with a clear margin

der Abstand – distance, spacing, gap

China ist heute mit Abstand der wichtigste Markt für Werkzeugmaschinen.
Today China is the most important market for machine tools by far.



They say you are what you eat. I’m no doctor, but I can tell you that does apply to language learning. You speak what you hear, and you write what you read. So what you need to do is expose yourself to a truly massive amount of native German content in order to assimilate these and other common German phrases. As you read thousands and millions of words, your brain will subconsciously register the patterns and these little turns of phrase will fall into place.

You also need to diversify your reading content. Everyone has areas of language that they’re comfortable reading content in. I’ve read so much news and Wikipedia in German that it’s practically effortless now. But learning only really happens outside your comfort zone. It takes real effort to work through a difficult piece of fiction, but that effort really does pay off. A great way to expand your language comfort zone is to watch videos and read articles on a wider variety of topics than ever before.

Just to give you an example, I like to read articles on 20th century history. I’m comfortable with the vocabulary and expressions used there, but I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and expose myself to a broader range of real-life language. So this week I watched target-language videos on magic tricks, skin care, travelogues, virtual reality, computer programming, motorcycles, and personal development – just to name a few. Each of those subjects uses different vocabulary and idioms than the rest. And even if the specific vocabulary might not appeal to your interest – I don’t even own a motorcycle – you’d be surprised what you can learn from watching videos on new subjects.

And with this kind of extensive reading and listening, the most important and most common German phrases will come up again and again. Even without looking them up in a dictionary, you’ll get a feel for how to use them. In addition, each of them has different shades of meaning that go beyond what can be captured in dictionary entries. All that information will sink into your brain over time, and your knowledge of German will be that much more complete.

So what are you waiting for? Try it out now! Go find some new and different German content to explore, and add some new German phrases to your collection! Check out LingQ today to discover how to learn German from content you love!


Alex Thomas started seriously studying languages five years ago and always finds new things to learn. He lives in Indonesia, where he uses four languages every day.

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