“False friends can occur at all language learning levels and are hard to change,” Ciaran Fleck, director of English studies at Fokus Sprachen und Seminare language school, tells The Local.
Words or expressions that look or sound similar to those in one’s native language but have a very different meaning are known as false friends.
“When a word is so closely related to a word in your native language, if you leave it for too long it can be difficult to change that wiring because you’ve already made associations with it in your head,” says Fleck, who’s been teaching English in Germany for six years.
This is why it is important that language trainers highlight the learner’s mistake and draw their attention to it often as this helps to “iron out the kinks.”
Here’s a list of the most common German-English false friends Fleck hears on a frequent basis. If you’re a native English speaker who’s learned German, maybe you’ve mixed up the following words at some point too.
1. aktuell vs. actually
“This is the one that gets them all the time regardless of how often you mention it,” says Fleck.
Contrary to popular belief, the English translation for aktuell is current/currently, not actually. And the German translation for actually is eigentlich, not aktuell.
As if that wasn’t tricky enough, the German word eigentlich isn’t used in exactly the same way actually is used in English. Whereas a speaker might use actually in situations when they want to suggest something unexpected or decline plans politely, often this isn’t the case for eigentlich.
Even advanced students sometimes choose to completely avoid using the word actually.
2. eventuell vs. eventual/eventually
Similar to the previous pair of false friends, the closeness in sound and look of these two words makes it easy to understand why it can be confusing for language learners.
Online dictionary Pons states that the German word eventuell translates best to maybe, possible/possibly or potential/potentially. On the other hand the English word eventual/eventually is equivalent to the German term schließlich, leztendlich or irgendwann.
3. mobben vs. (to) mob
“Whenever this mistake is brought up, the word bully always seems to be a new word for [native German] learners,” Fleck says.
To add to the confusion, Bulli in German is a colloquial name for a Volkswagen Transporter – a type of van produced by automobile giant VW over the past six decades.
Bullying in the workplace. Photo: Deposit Photos/Wavebreakmedia
While the German verb mobben means to harass or bully a person, according to Langenscheidt dictionary, the German terms Pack and bedrängen can communicate best the English word mob in its noun and verb forms, respectively.
Merriam-Webster defines a mob as a “large or disorderly crowd, especially one bent on riotous or destructive action” or, in a verb form to “crowd about and attack or annoy.”
4. konsequent vs. consequent
Don’t be fooled. While these two words look and sound the same, they’re used in very different ways.
English teachers often find that, when students say “consequent” in an English sentence, more often than not what they mean to say is the word consistent.
Langenscheidt dictionary states that konsequent can translate to consistent or logical in English. The word consequent, on the other hand, translates best to the German adjective folgend.
5. sensibel vs. sensible
If a German ever tells you that you are being too sensible when you take offence at a joke, they probably mean to say you are being too sensitive.
The German adjective sensibel means something far removed from the English word sensible. Sensibel can be used to describe something or someone that is sensitive or touchy. Conversely, to be sensible, meaning to have good sense or reason, translates in German to vernünftig, klug or verständig.
6. übersehen vs. to oversee
Particularly in the workplace, this mix up could get you in hot water. If you’ve ever told your German boss that “du das Projekt übersehen hast”, don’t be surprised if she gets upset with you. You just told her that you neglected or missed it.
The German word you are actually looking for is beaufsichtigen or überwachen, Langenscheidt states.
7. blamieren vs. to blame
Another pair of false friends Fleck says a lot of his students muddle up is blamieren and to blame.
Blamieren is a German verb that means to disgrace or to embarrass oneself or someone else. To blame in the English language, however, means to find fault with or to hold someone responsible for something, for which the closest German term is jemanden beschuldigen or verantwortlich machen (für).
8. Chef vs. chef
This is probably the most well-known German-English pair of false friends out there (not surprising as there's no actual difference in how they're pronounced and spelled). That doesn’t mean though, that German speakers have stopped confusing the two.
Whereas Chef (note the capital letter) in German means boss, chief or head (e.g. of a company), a chef in English is a skilled cook who manages a kitchen (e.g. of a restaurant) and is best translated to Koch/Köchin in German.
A chef in Hamburg. Photo: DPA
9. spenden vs. to spend
Despite the fact that these two words are pronounced differently in their respective languages, for language learners they can be particularly tricky as they look exactly the same.
If you’d like to communicate in German that you’ve just spent €50 in the supermarket, don't say “spenden”. Germans might be a bit confused as to why you are giving Aldi your charity.
Spenden in German means to donate (time or money) whereas the English verb to spend translates to ausgeben (money) or verbringen (time).
10. sympatisch vs. sympathetic
To round off this list, another one of the top false friends Fleck says befuddles native German speakers is sympathisch – a word which we also recently featured in an article on the most common Germans words which are impossible to translate into English.
Sure, most reputable dictionaries will tell you that sympathisch can be used to say likeable, congenial or friendly, but oftentimes these translations fall short of what the word truly strives to communicate.
And the adjective sympathetic means something completely different to likeable or friendly. Langenscheidt offers mitfühlend or verständnisvoll as translations for sympathetic, which means to show that you understand how another person is feeling.
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