Having taught English to native German-speaking adults before, I’ve been there.
Not only are you expected to be a psychologist on the days your students feel the need to bare their souls to you, and an entertainer on the days they’re lazy or don’t feel like reviewing grammar, you also have to endure hearing the same mistakes over and over again.
Though this list could easily contain as many as 20 or 30 points, here are the ones that made the top 10.
1. The phrase “in former times”
One of my old colleagues once said that if you hear yourself saying this phrase, you know it’s time for a trip back to the homeland for a language top up. I couldn’t agree more.
The phrase “in former times” is sneaky because initially, it sounds like it could be right. After some mulling over though, you start to ask yourself whether many English speakers actually say it. The bottom line is it’s just not widely used in everyday spoken English.
Plus you can’t just translate in früheren Zeiten from German into English and expect it to outdo common phrases such as “in the past” and “used to” to talk about things that happened back in the day.
2. ‘Persons’ instead of ‘people’
This mistake was so firmly embedded in some of my students, it nearly came to a point where I stopped correcting them whenever they said it.
Sure, the word persons exists in English. But you will probably only ever come across it on signs such as the ones in elevators or in formal texts. No one ever really says it out loud.
Since the plural for person is Personen in German, I assume German speakers simply translate one-to-one, thinking that ‘persons’ rather than ‘people’ must be fine to say even when speaking English.
3. ‘We’ and ‘us’ in the same clause
The one thing that was guaranteed to happen at the end of all of my lessons was that one student would blurt out “we see us next week” despite me highlighting this error lesson after lesson. Facepalm.
After correcting them by responding with “we’ll see each other next week,” I’d explain that, unlike the German language, the words ‘we’ and ‘us’ in English are like oil and water - they repel each other and cannot be used in the same clause. Ever.
Photo: Deposit Photos.
4. The phrase “in the near from”
Even German speakers with an advanced level of English that I come across today cannot seem to shake the habit of saying “in the near from.”
In English, I’d tell my students, you have a variety of ways to express that something is nearby, for instance by saying close to or closeby. But you cannot directly translate from the German phrase in der nähe von and say something like “I live in the near from the stadium.”
5. Overuse of the verbs ‘to drive’ and ‘to make’
As efficient and practical as Germans are, they need only one verb, fahren (to drive), to describe a million types of movement. Machen (to make) can similarly be used in a plethora of situations.
If you were once a rookie German learner, I’m sure you remember how delighted you were when you realized these two verbs could be used in pretty much any circumstance to describe activities and actions.
But it doesn’t work the same way in English, sorry. You cannot make a holiday, but you can go on a holiday. You also can’t make party, but you can have a party. Similarly, you cannot drive a bicycle or a skateboard, though you can ride one.
6. Confusing ‘since’ with ‘for’
While you would be widely understood if you told people you’ve lived in Munich since four years, if your aim is to perfect your English and get on board with the native speakers, you could instead say you’ve lived in Munich for four years.
Germans use the word 'since' in sentences like these because they’re translating directly from their native language. In a sentence like Ich lebe in München seit vier Jahren, they translate the German word seit into the English word 'since'. Which is technically a correct translation, but not in this context.
7. Questions that start with “what means…”
A scenario English teachers in Germany likely face dozens of times a day is when students want to know the translation of a certain word and ask something like “what means ‘discombobulated’?”
They forget that when forming questions in English, the helping verb 'to do' is necessary and asking “What does ‘discombobulated’ mean?” would be correct.
8. Using adjectives in place of adverbs
This one is so tricky, even the most advanced English learners I’ve taught have never actually mastered it.
In German, there's no difference between adjectives and adverbs, with some exceptions. This might be why native German speakers learning English tend to describe verbs using adjectives, saying things like “I’m flying direct to Japan” or “the woman can sing perfect.”
Tacking on that -ly at the end of adjectives so that they become proper adverbs may be hard to remember, but it just has to be done.
9. Confusing ‘until’ with ‘by’
Hearing sentences like “I have to finish this until tomorrow” still makes me cringe to this day.
English learners very often opt to say 'until' instead of 'by' (or vice versa) probably because in German, bis translates to both those words and they don't know which one to choose.
The easiest way to distinguish between the two is to keep in mind that in English the phrase “not later than” can in many cases replace the word 'by' and the word 'until' answers a question that begins with “how long.”
Question: How long will you be at the shops? Answer: Until noon.
10. Pronunciation of the word ‘clothes’
Of all the words that exist in English, clothes comes in first place for the one that Germans most often mispronounce. Despite the fact that the word only contains one syllable, Germans tend to break it into two syllables and emphasize the second half of the word, incorrectly pronouncing it clo-thes.
The only theory I can come up with for this is that since silent letters don’t exist in German and every letter seems to be succinctly pronounced in German-language words, native speakers take the same approach with the word clothes.