Every language has its little “word crumbs” that pop up all of the time in conversation, and you’re not always going to find an explanation in a textbook. They are words that make you sound more native, more relaxed, more confident, even if other mistakes abound.
This actually worked to my detriment more than not, since when a native speaker hears a “native” word, they assume that I can understand more German than I do, and let loose with unpunctuated conversation that leaves me smiling and nodding my head, wondering when I can break free and whether they’ve caught on that I’m lost. Oh, and I’m sweating. Always sweating.
To quickly trick Germans into thinking you’re better at German than you actually are, try out these little gems:
Genau – Literally meaning “exactly,” this one is worth its weight. You can use it to mean “yes,” “sure,” “right,” “I totally know what you mean,” and “ain’t that the truth!” to name just a few. Many of the German speakers that I know tend to overuse the word “exactly” in English, and after hearing just a little bit of transactional/conversation German at the local farmers market, it’s easy to see why.
Leider – For the amount of German I speak, I don’t feel like I should know the word “unfortunately.” But it’s everywhere, because in Germany, everything is unfortunate.* It’s most frequently heard as “Leider nicht,” (unfortunately not) which civil servants and salespeople will happily toss out in response to your every request.
Also – This is pretty much equivalent to “Aha!,” “I see!,” “That makes sense!,” “Hmmm,” or other moments of understanding, whether negative or positive. For most accurate usage, start with a low “Ah” and end with a higher, elongated “sooooooo,” leaving out the “l” entirely. Like “leider,” this is generally in response to the unexpected and sometimes-unwanted, and can be adjusted to be highly dramatic, if necessary.
Mark Twain famously noted that this one was everywhere, even in his day: “Every time a German opens his mouth an also falls out; and every time he shuts it he bites one in two that was trying to get out.”
Oder – Literally “or,” tagged onto the end of a question, it functions like “…right?” i.e. “You’re going to the brauhaus tonight, oder?”
*In reality, things are not any more unfortunate than they are anywhere else. But you will meet a certain amount of frustration/unhappiness/woe when something is “amiss,” whether it is your fault or something that is not your fault but causes your request to go unfulfilled. Show up at the visa office on the wrong day? Leider, we can’t help you, dummy. Want to buy 5 apples but there are only 4 left? [Insert huge sigh and general air of malaise] Leider, I cannot do that!