According to the latest US Census, over 63 million US citizens speak a language other than English at home regularly and 45 percent of them were born in the US. It’s becoming more common for native English speakers to learn, and speak, another language. So, it’s important to know the basics of a foreign language. For instance, if learning to German, you need to know how to say ‘do you speak German?’ in German.
“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” is the formal way to ask a person ‘do you speak German?’ in German. This is a useful question to a stranger in Germany or a German-speaking country like Austria or Switzerland. While the formal way will be most needed, the informal (“Sprichst du Deutsch?”) is good to know.
From first learning German with my dad when I was in middle school to actually living several years in Germany later, I know first-hand the frustration of getting the basics down of a foreign language, as well as just trying to converse with native speakers.
And while language books like Café in Berlin: Learn German with Stories (free with your Audible trial) are useful, and popular tools, really the best way to grasp a new language, in my opinion, is with speaking directly with others, preferably native speakers.
I’m going to explain all about asking the simple question, “Do you speak German?” in German, and its variants. As well, I’ll also share my own personal experience and tips with German to hopefully help you in your journey with the language.
What does Sprechen Sie Deutsch mean?
To get straight to it, what do you ask someone when visiting in Germany or a German-speaking country like Austria? Whether you’re ordering food, need directions, or at a club and trying to meet new friends, you’ll need to know that all important first question, and how to say it.
“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” simply means, “Do you speak German?” in German. Keep in mind, it’s the formal way to ask and commonly used as an introductory question to a stranger with whom you would like to practice your German-language skills, or to ask someone in German for assistance.
Additional Reason to ask “Do You Speak German?” in German:
- Since you’re probably a new language learner, it’s confusing to even recognize German from other similar-sounding languages (Dutch, for example). So, it’s good to know how to ask if someone speaks German or not. In that case, you want to use this question in order to ascertain where your speaking companion is from.
Another Reason to ask “Do You Speak German?” in German:
- You may be in a European country, close to Germany. Austria, Switzerland, and France all have a high population of German speakers. As well, you’re likely to find German speakers in Hungary and Poland. So if visiting there, you can try using English or German (since you’re likely learning German given you’re reading this article).
While traveling there, perhaps you have learned that someone you are trying to converse with does not speak English. So you decide that your limited German skills would be better than nothing to continue asking for directions, purchasing a product, etc.. By asking this question, in German, rather than trying to learn the phrase in the language of the country you are visiting, you are signifying that you are open to communicating in German if possible, even though you don’t speak the native language.
I wholeheartedly admit while living in Germany over several years, I’ve traveled to many of its neighboring countries, taking full advantage of the European ease of public transportation! I have visited Hungary, Poland, Austria, Czech Republic, France, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, and even Italy. While doing this, I’ve found that it’s common to ask questions of natives using English as I don’t speak Polish, French, etc., and English is the most popular second language around the world. However, when English doesn’t ‘work’, that is, the person I was speaking to didn’t know it or have an extensive enough English vocabulary for what I was asking, it’s handy to have another language, like German, to use. Sometimes, it actually does work!
These are all valid reasons to ask this question in the language itself!
Formal and Informal of ‘Do You Speak German?’ in German
Like with many other languages, such as Japanese and Spanish, German has formal and informal speech for some of the same words. English doesn’t do this.
The formal way of asking ‘Do you speak German?’ in German is “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” and used in, you guessed it, formal settings. It’s like the English equivalent of polite, professional talk. The informal way of asking this same question (in German) is “Sprichst du Deutsch?“.
When learning German, this distinction is important to learn. The formal form is meant for superiors (i.e. in a work setting or especially, in a school), individuals significantly older than yourself, and general strangers you speak to at commercial establishments like shops or restaurants or on the street.
Quite interestingly, though, there’s been some recent debate about this ‘formal and informal distinction.’ The main point of contention involves schools. Some have begun questioning whether students should start speaking informally to their teachers. In fact, a rule was created for Berlin school districts, in which students must be allowed to use informal speech with their teachers.
As someone new to teaching in middle and high schools (both in the US and in Germany), I’m not so surprised by this issue’s challenge.
There’s definitely a change in the role and relationship of students and teachers, blurring the lines between authority (teachers) and encouraging independent thinking (students), than a few years past! But I have to say I respect the formal and informal speech, despite it being one more thing to learn in a language.
It’s a topic to look into if you’re interested!
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Regardless, to be safe, I usually address everyone I meet (unless I’m speaking with children or am in an obviously friendly setting with people my own age) with the formal way of speaking (i.e. “you” translated to “Sie”).
If the person you are talking to feels that this is too informal, they will pose the question “Duzen wir?” or they may say “Wir können duzen.”
|Formal ‘You’||Informal ‘You’|
“Duzen” in this sense is a verb that means you may use the informal version of “you,” namely “du” instead of “Sie,” with this person. In this way, you are leaving it up to your speaking companion to decide, and you avoid any potentially cultural blunders!
So, though I told you of the formal mode of speaking earlier when asking the question, “Do you speak German,” there is also an informal way to say this, i.e. “Sprichst du Deutsch?”
It probably makes the most sense to use the formal way of speaking, since anyone you ask this question to likely is a stranger (evident by the fact that you lack this fundamental information about the person), but if you are addressing an obviously younger person, or are speaking with someone your own age, you can choose to use this sentence instead.
Sprichst du Deutsch?Informal way of asking, “Do you speak German?”, in German
How do you say, ‘I speak a little German’?
You have now established that your conversation partner has this language in common with you; but maybe they immediately start speaking at a rapid pace, using complex sentence structures, and unfamiliar vocabulary. So, it turns out that you’re at somewhat different levels of German.
That’s ok! You just need to quickly let them know that you can only handle the basics at this point.
To say “I speak a little German,” say “Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch.” To add some flavor to the sentence, you could add “only,” which equates to “Ich spreche nur ein bisschen Deutsch.” This is an efficient way to let your speaking partner know your limitations and they’ll adjust their speech.
When you tell a fluent German speaker that you speak a little German, they’ll know that you mean your vocabulary and understanding of German language is limited. They may immediately switch to speaking English with you (most Germans are moderately fluent in German, at least in my experience), or they may choose to lower their German vocabulary and speak simpler with you, like you’re a toddler.
To be honest, they will likely pick up on this without you actually voicing this exact phrase…with any German you speak just because of your accent.
No judgment intended – I still have an accent after years of speaking German in Germany, mind you! And this is true of most people when learning a language that is foreign to them, too!
But in full disclosure, the native German accent is very distinctive and difficult to replicate. The couple times a native German mistook me for speaking German as a first language were quite shocking, as that ‘honor’ is quite uncommon!
To reiterate: to say “I speak a little German,” you must say “Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch.” And you can add “only”, if you wish, which is “Ich spreche nur ein bisschen Deutsch” to mean “I only speak a little German.”
How do you say, ‘Yes, I speak German’ in German?
Of course, you’ll need to know the most potential responses to ‘Do you speak German?’ in German and one of those very well may be, ‘Yes, I speak German.’
To say “Yes, I speak German” in German, you say “Ja, ich spreche Deutsch. This is a simple to translate sentence, and likely uses essential vocabulary you are already used to pronouncing, so it shouldn’t be difficult once you know what to do. Of course, working on your German delivery will help too.
Just a reminder, if the capitalization in that translated sentence looks odd to you, you may remember that unlike in English, “I” is never capitalized in German, unless at the beginning of a sentence.
Furthermore, all nouns are always capitalized in German sentences.
For example, in the sentence “Ich habe die Ente und das Wasser bestellt” (“I ordered the duck and water.”), the words “duck” and “water” are what’s capitalized, besides the first letter in the sentence, which is similar to English mechanics.
How do you say, ‘I can’t speak German’ in German?
Now another phrase that goes with ‘Do you speak German?’ in German, is ‘I can’t speak German.’ And you need to know this, in German, of course.
To say “I can’t speak German” in German, you say “Ich spreche kein Deutsch.” If you have learned the word “not” already in German, you may be inclined to say something like “Ich kann nicht Deutsch sprechen” or “Ich spreche nicht Deutsch.” This is incorrect and, be wary of this mistake!
“Nicht” is used to negate verbs or adjectives in German; equivalent to the English use of “don’t” for example. “Ich trinke nicht” or “Das ist nicht schön” would be valid uses, since the first sentence is negating the verb “trinke,” and the second sentence is negating the adjective “schön.” Just know that while in English we would put the negation before the verb (i.e. “I don’t drink.”), German puts “nicht” after the verb.
So that brings us to “kein/e.” This word is used to negate nouns.
For example, in our sentence, we are telling someone that we don’t speak German, which might sound like we could negate the verb “speak,” but for Germans it makes more sense from the viewpoint that you are still speaking, yet you don’t know any German.
So the emphasis is on the lack of German level rather than an inability to speak.
If this doesn’t make sense to you, you will also simply get used to hearing when others properly use “nicht” vs. “kein/e” and it will become a subconscious skill. This is essentially what happened to me, and once I had heard both forms used enough, I got the hang of it. This is why I said earlier that the best way to learn German is to actually speak with a German!
So, again, to say “I can’t speak German” in German, one would say, “Ich spreche kein Deutsch.”
The Final Word for: Do You Speak German? In German
One thing I’d like to say, just one more time, is that to really learn German (or any foreign language to fluency), you need lots of practice, and not sheltered practice like in a classroom. It’s ideally best to immerse yourself in the language you’re learning, and the next best thing is to speak with a native speaker.
Finally, the succinct answer to how do you say, ‘do you speak German?’ in German is “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” for formal situations like speaking with a stranger, elderly, or superiors and “Sprichst du Deutsch” for informal settings like amongst friends or someone much younger than you.
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