10 ways learning German completely ruins your English

So you've mastered German, but now it's time to learn English all over again.

10 ways learning German completely ruins your English
Incorrect to speak like this it is. Photo: DPA.

1. Giving you a Yoda-like sentence structure

In German the main verb often goes at the end of the sentence. There isn't enough time in the world to explain German grammatical rules but chances are, German has started messing up the grammar of your English sentences too.

You might have started subconsciously back loading sentences with verbs and greedily withholding them until right at the end of your point. Before you know it, you sound like Yoda.

2. Saying 'or'?

The river Oder in Germany. Photo: Dellex / Wikimedia Commons.

Putting “oder” (or) at the end of a sentence is common throughout Germany. It's a way of asking whether the other person agrees with you. The best English equivalent would be “right?”, so “Trump is all just a bad dream, right?” or “Trump ist nur ein Albtraum, oder?”. 

But if you've been speaking a lot of German recently, you might notice the literal translation of oder creeping into your English.

Don't blame your colleagues for their bemused expressions when you walk into the office and shake the rain off your umbrella, only to exclaim, “Terrible weather, or?”

3. Mixing up your ei's and ie's

Photo: DPA.

You may be staring at a word document, wondering why the spellcheck has decided to highlight the words 'recieve' and 'decieve', which you're sure are spelt right. In fact, you haven't gone insane. You've just been focusing too hard on German pronunciation.

The way that the 'ei' in English words like receive and deceive sounds, is the same as the 'ie' sounds in German. You've been writing out an English word in phonetic German and that's why English spellcheck doesn't like you. All very complicated.

4. Getting your numbers the wrong way round

Numbers can be hard, just look at this Mental Arithmetic World Championship contestant. Photo: DPA.

Asking your local greengrocer for “five and twenty” potatoes may get you an odd stare, but this could happen if you spend a little too much time learning your German times tables.

In German, once you get past ten, the rightmost digit comes before the first. Twenty-one in English is one and twenty in German. This may sound odd to English speakers, but it is common in other languages, such as Arabic.

The only time you're likely to use the German numbering system is if you're reading an old nursery rhyme to your children, for example Sing a Song of Sixpence's “four and twenty blackbirds” baked into a pie.

5. Conflating your V's and F's

A fampire. Photo: DPA

A while back you learnt the golden rule of German pronunciation. You can forget your previous notions of what a W was meant to sound like. W now sounds like the English V sound, and the German V sounds like the English F.

Lately, you're holding onto that rule so hard that it's starting to infect your English speech. Before you know it, you're asking where the facuum cleaner is, your children are telling you what they learnt about the fikings at school today and you're dressing up as a fampire for Halloween.

6. Na?

Did these German Hells Angels greet each other with a 'Na'?. Photo: DPA.

You bump into an old friend you didn't expect to see at a party and in a moment of excitement, keen to know how they've been, you blurt out the German “Na?”

“Na?” is a shorter, more all encompassing way of asking what's going on with someone. The best English translation might be “what's up?”.

For example, a slightly more antagonistic use of the phrase would be if a German Nicki Minaj had asked Miley Cyrus “Miley, na?” at the 2015 VMA's, rather than “Miley, what's good?”

The shorter, catchier nature of “Na?” means it's always easy to slip back into German and use this monosyllabic word when you're interested in how your friends are doing.

7. J's and Y's

The actress known to Germans as Yulia Roberts. Photo: DPA.

This is yet another problem with pronunciation. The German J is pronounced the same way as the English Y. Perhaps it took you a while to realize that the Julia you met in Germany doesn't have quite so exotic a name as you imagined, and actually spells her name the same way as the Julia you know from home (not Yulia).

So when you ring up someone in the English-speaking world whose name begins with a J, and German is playing with your English skills that day, they may not recognize the person you're after.

8. Asking for fire

Photo: DPA.

Stepping out into the cold English winter night for a cigarette, you ask someone if they have fire. They look at you oddly because they have neither wood, nor kindling. Then you realize that German is once again messing with your mother tongue. What you're actually looking for is a lighter.

When needing a lighter, a German would ask “Haben Sie Feuer”, literally translating as “Have you got fire?”

Chances are, if you're a chain smoker learning German who also forgets their lighter a lot, you've been asking after fire so much it's crept into your English too. Don't worry, Germans learning English are also struggling to light their cigarettes.

9. Everything is suddenly 'super'

Friedrich Liechtenstein, of Edeka Supergeil fame. Photo: DPA. 

Germans are inclined to use the word super before anything that they think needs enhancing. For example if something is very cool it is super Geil, as witnessed in a viral advert for the supermarket Edeka. Once you've heard super used in conversation for the nth time, it might start sneaking into your English speech.

You might have had a super good time at that party last weekend, the chest of drawers you had to move might have been super heavy, or you could be super stressed about your upcoming German test – all contributing to you starting to sound like a lame American teenager.

10. Using German words when English escapes you

Photo: DPA.

“Could you pass me the… urm… Gabel and Messer… please?”

When you're back in the English-speaking world and for some reason you can't quite remember the name of what you're after (fork and knife), you might have to resort to German. This can also be a symptom of another issue: pretentiousness.

This happens when a German-learner likes the sound of a long German word they've just learnt so much that they slip it into conversation without feeling the need to translate it – because it has das gewisse Etwas, that je ne sais quoi, that certain something. Academics are particularly at risk of this.

By Charley-Kai John

For all The Local's guides to learning German CLICK HERE


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10 ways to express surprise in German

From woodland fairies to whistling pigs, the German language has a colourful variety of phrases to express surprise.

10 ways to express surprise in German

1. Alter Schwede!

You may recognise this phrase from the cheese aisle at the supermarket, but it’s also a popular expression in Germany for communicating surprise. 

The phrase, which means “old Swede” comes from the 17th century when King Frederick William enlisted the help of experienced Swedish soldiers to fight in the Thirty Years’ War.

Because of their outstanding performance in battle, the Swedish soldiers became popular and respected among the Prussians, and they were respectfully addressed as “Old Swede”. Over the last three hundred years, the phrase developed into one to convey awed astonishment. 

READ ALSO: German word of the day – Alter Schwede

2. Holla, die Waldfee!

This curious expression literally means “Holla, the wood fairy”. It can be used both as an exclamation of astonishment and to insinuate that something is ridiculous.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Mareike Graepel

There are various explanations as to how the forest fairy made it into the German lexicon. Some say that it comes from the Grimm’s fairy tale “Frau Holle,” while others say it comes from an old song called “Shoo, shoo, the forest fairy!”

READ ALSO: 10 words and phrases that will make you sound like a true German

3. Das ist ja ein dicker Hund!

Literally meaning “that is indeed a fat dog!” this expression of surprise presumably originates from a time in the past when German dogs were generally on the thinner side.

4. Ich glaube, ich spinne!

The origin of this expression is questionable, because the word “Spinne” means “spider” and also “I spin”. Either way, it’s used all over Germany to mean “I think I’m going crazy” as an expression of surprise.

5. Ich glaube, mein Schwein pfeift!

The idea of a pig whistling is pretty ridiculous, and that’s where the phrase  – meaning “I think my pig whistles” – comes from. Germans use this expression when they can’t believe or grasp something, or to express that they are extremely surprised.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

6. Meine Güte!

This straightforward phrase simply means “my goodness” and is a commonly used expression of astonishment.

7. Oha!

More of a sound than a word, this short exclamation will let the world know that you are shocked by something.

READ ALSO: Denglisch: The English words that will make you sound German

8. heilige Blechle!

Often when surprised or outraged, we might let slip an exclamation that refers to something sacred. This phrase fits into that bracket, as it means “holy tin box”. 

The peculiar expression comes from the Swabian dialect and refers to the cash box from which the poor were paid by the Church in the Middle Ages.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

9. ach du grüne Neune!

This slightly antiquated expression literally means “oh you green nine!”, or “oh, my goodness!” and is one you’re more likely to hear among the older generation of Germans.

The origin of the phrase is disputed. One explanation claims that it comes from the famous 19th century Berlin dance hall “Conventgarten” which, although it was located in Blumenstraße No. 9, had its main entrance in “Grüner Weg”. Therefore, the locals renamed it as “Grüne Neune” (Green Nine).

Another explanation is that the phrase comes from fairs where playing cards were used to read the future. In German card games, the “nine of spades” is called “green nine” – and pulling this card in a fortune telling is a bad omen.

10. Krass!

The word Krass in German is an adjective that means blatant or extreme, but when said on its own, it’s an expression of surprise. Popular among young Germans, it’s usually used in a positive way, to mean something like “awesome” or “badass”.