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I spent three weeks at a German high school right after I graduated from my own high school. One day I said to my host (a student at the school): "Ich soll mehr Deutsch sprechen."

His response? (He responded in English): "Who is making you?"

Before that point I had always assumed sollen was really just "should", which in English can imply that you're doing something because you think it's best. "I should go to the store." etc.

After that I realized that it must be closer to "to be supposed to", as in "I'm supposed to be speaking more German."

Primarily I'm asking for a little clarification. Are my assumptions correct? Does "sollen" mean "should" or "supposed to" or both, or one or the other at different times?

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Indeed when using the verb "sollen" it implies that you have some external instruction to do something, translated e.g. with "you are supposed to".

In the meaning of "you should do something" we can weaken sollen by using the past subjunctive (Konjunktiv II):

Ich sollte mehr Deutsch sprechen

To further precise this, you can also say:

"Ich soll angeblich mehr Deutsch sprechen." - when someone told you to do so
"Ich sollte wohl mehr Deutsch sprechen." - in case your inner voice is weak
"Ich muss mehr Deutsch sprechen" - in case your inner voice is strong

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What about "müssen" in this case? e.g. "Ich muss mehr Deutsch sprechen". –  user508 Sep 15 '11 at 10:10
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And indeed, the translation of should is sollte. –  Phira Sep 15 '11 at 10:24
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This is true. I am a German who struggled with the English differences of these words. "Sollen" implies that one is obligated. "Sollten", implies that it is one's own thinking. I would say, "Ich sollte wohl mehr Deutsch sprechen." if I wanted to do this myself.

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I can speak both languages fairly well, but I am neither an English nor a German native speaker, therefore my understanding of the exact meaning of should and sollen could be incorrect (modal verbs in a foreign language are often very difficult to learn properly).

However, from what I know, the present form "ich soll" corresponds (from a morphological point of view) to the English "I shall". Shall is not used that often in modern English (but see its usage the Bible: "You shall not kill"). The past tense of soll / shall is (both in the indicative and in the subjunctive) sollte / should. This might explain why sollte seems to be a better translation of should.

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You are right, "Ich soll mehr Deutsch sprechen" is best translated as "I'm supposed to be speaking more German", which implies someone else is encouraging you.

If you mean to say "I should speak more German", implying that you feel it's the right thing to do, you would say "Ich sollte mehr Deutsch sprechen". It implies you want to speak more German out of your own motivation.

Note, however, that using the Konjunktiv also implies that you're not actually going to speak more German - it only says you feel like you should.

If you want to say that you feel like doing something and you're actually going to do it, you could say "Ich möchte/will/werde mehr Deutsch sprechen"

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