Sie war am sprechen.

English Translation

She was speaking.

I am wondering if this is a common way to express the English continuous tense in German, e.g. could I say "ich bin am Sterben/sprechen/ arbeiten etc.

“Sie war am sprechen” is bad style. It’s theoretically correct German, same as the legalese in a company’s terms of service is correct English, but nobody wants to listen to someone speak like that.

You should instead say: “Sie hat gesprochen.”

“am sprechen” is a nominalization and is therefore correctly spelled “am Sprechen”. But nominalizations should be avoided/rephrased as much as possible, not just in German but also in English (according to linguists and other experts on the “classic style” such as Helen Sword or Steven Pinker). A different word for nominalization is “zombie noun”. Compare with English:

  • Bad (zombie noun): “He made use of the tool.”
  • Good: “He used the tool.”

Thank you for your comment but you did not answer my question. Here is part of ChatGPT’s comprehensive answer to the same question:
The construction “Sie war am Sprechen” (literally, “She was at speaking”) is an example of the so-called “Rheinische Verlaufsform” (Rhineland continuous form). This structure is a regional way to express the continuous aspect in German, specifically prevalent in certain dialects of the Rhineland area. It’s formed by using the verb “sein” (to be) in combination with “am” (at) and the gerund (the noun form of the verb), e.g., “am Sprechen” (at speaking)

While the “am + Verb” construction is not standard across all German dialects and regions, it is understood by many German speakers and is increasingly used informally in other parts of Germany. It closely mimics the continuous or progressive aspect found in English.