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Eight of the most common (and funniest) mistakes German learners make

The German language is filled with false friends and words that sound dangerously close to something else with a completely different meaning. Here are some of the most common mistakes non-native speakers make.

Eight of the most common (and funniest) mistakes German learners make
A dispenser for 'Leitungswasser' in Cologne in summer 2019. Photo: DPA

Let’s face it, German is not an easy language to master. Most of us who have made Germany our home and managed to get to grips with the language have unwittingly made fools of ourselves along the way by making ridiculous-sounding errors to native speakers.

Here are some of the best mistakes I have heard, been told of and made myself.

Ich will, ich werde

Another common pitfall for native English speakers, is using the word will instead of werde thanks to the falscher Freund (false friend) that is will

READ ALSO: The 10 false friends English and German speakers keep muddling up

In German, ich will means “I want”, whereas ich werde means “I am going to”. This mix up can lead to a lot of confusion, especially when it comes to making plans. 

The only tip I can give is to try to think of the word will in German meaning “I have the will” 

Leistungswasser or Leitungswasser?

Asking for tap water can be a bit awkward at the best of times, so it doesn’t help if you throw a confusing mispronunciation into the mix. 

The German word for tap water is Leitungswasser meaning water from the Leitung (pipeline). If you insert an “s” into the word, you are creating a brand-new German word, which translates into English as “performance water.” 

It may not be correct but it could certainly be a great name for an energy drink, right?

Trying to speak German can be thirsty work. Photo: DPA

Ich bin heiß

For native English speakers, this is a mistake which comes naturally, as it is a literal translation of how we would say “I am hot.”

If you say this to a German, however, you may find the conversation taking a risqué turn, as you will have in fact told them that you’re horny. 

heiß is however, one of the adjectives which are used with the dative mir (others examples are “kalt – “cold”, langweilig – “boring”, peinlich – “embarrassing”). 

So make sure you say mir ist heiß instead.

Versorgt or besorgt?

This is a tricky one which I have seen trip up many competent German language-speakers, much to the hilarity of the natives. 

The problem is, that in the infinitive, the verbs versorgen and besorgen have very similar meanings: besorgen is to obtain, or to provide, versorgen is to provide for, to tend to. 

But the past participle is a different story, if you want to say “I am well taken care of/I have everything I need” the correct word is versorgt. If you choose besorgt then you are saying “I am worried”.

An example of how this mistake typically arises in an exchange like this:

“Hast du alles, was du brauchst?“

Do you have everything you need?

“Ja, ich bin besorgt, danke.“

Yes, I’m worried, thank you.

Don’t ask for financial advice in a bike shop. Photo: DPA

Pleiter Reifen?

If you turn up to your local bicycle repair shop and declare “meiner Reifen ist pleiter”, as a friend of mine once did, expect confusion. What you will be telling them is that your wheel is bankrupt. 

What you need to say is “ich habe einen platten Reifen” – using the word platt meaning “flat”, as most bike shops won’t be able to help you with matters of financial insolvency. 

schwül oder schwul

Watch out for this one. A failure to pronounce your ü umlaut correctly will have you calling weather homosexual (schwul) when you want to say it’s humid (schwül). 

READ ALSO: Funniest mistakes that Germans make in English

Entspannt or gespannt

This is another case where two German words with the same Stamm (stem) alter the meaning of the word significantly.

A common phrase in German is “ich bin gespannt“, which is a way of saying “I’m curious” or “I’m looking forward to it”. This is a common and polite way to round off a conversation about a planned date or announcement. 

However, if you say instead “Ich bin entspannt” (relaxed) it may sound like you’re not that interested. 

Mixing up trays and tablets can become a problem. Photo: DPA

Tabletten, Tabletts

Another friend of mine, whilst working as a waiter, once loudly asked a colleague in a packed restaurant:

“Wo sind die Tabletten?” 

The German customers must have thought that he was suffering from a bad headache.

What he meant however, was to ask where the trays were. These words are almost identical – a tablet or pill in German is die Tablette and the plural is die Tabletten. A tray, on the other hand, is das Tablet (plural die Tablets). Oops.

Member comments

  1. My favourite is “Ich bin gefüllte” which doesn’t have the same meaning in German… in fact I’m not sure what it makes a native German speaker think! In English “I’m stuffed” is pretty clear… just not like a stuffed pizza apparently!

  2. I find that about six times out of ten, Germanifying or even just inserting an English word will get you understood, but don’t try this with the English word ‘gift’as in Germany if you say you’re going to give someone this, they may call the police. (Das Gift=poison)

  3. Interested to see this list as most of the examples are ones I used to use when teaching German to teenagers!

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The seven stages of learning German every foreigner goes through

German is a notoriously difficult language to learn and the path to fluency is marked by milestones that every budding German speaker will recognise.

The seven stages of learning German every foreigner goes through

Stage 1: Terror

You’ve just set foot on German soil and are ready to begin your new life in the Bundesrepublik. While you may have left home feeling excited and full of enthusiasm for learning the German language, you now find yourself in a world of alarmingly long and confusing words containing strange symbols which are impossible to pronounce.

You’re confronted with long words like Ausländerbehörde, Aufenthaltsbescheinigung, and Wohnungsanmeldung and the prospect of having to get to grips with a language whose average word contains 14 letters slowly dawns on you. It’s terrifying.

Tip: Don’t panic. At first, learning German can seem like a daunting prospect, but as you start to take your first baby steps into the language, you’ll soon realise it’s not as bad as you think. And those long words are just lots of smaller words squashed together.

READ ALSO: 10 German words that strike fear into the hearts of language learners

Stage 2: Determination

You’ve got over the initial shock of realising the true scale of the linguistic mountain you’ll have to climb to learn German – and you resolve to conquer it.

You enrol in a language course and arm yourself with grammar books and language learning apps, and you start making progress very quickly. You realise that a lot of German words have the same roots as their English cousins and that words and phrases are sticking in your head more quickly than you expected. The flames of optimism begin to grow.

A couple practices the German language. Photo: Annika Gordon/Unsplash

Tip: Keep up that spirit and persist with the grammar books and vocab learning, ideally on a daily basis and start speaking the language as much as you can – even if it’s just reading aloud to yourself. 

Stage 3: Obsession

Spurred on by your new ability to introduce yourself, talk about the weather and tell people about your pets, you launch an all-out assault on the German language.

READ ALSO: How to remember the gender of German words

You’ve got post-it notes filled with vocab stuck all over your flat, you’ve got three tandem partners and Tagesschau is blasting 24/7 from your Laptop.

You are now officially obsessed with the German language.

Tip: Don’t be too hard on yourself once this phase of unbridled enthusiasm burns out. Though it’s great to have a period of immersion in the long-run, regular learning – even for shorter periods – is the key to progress.

Stage 4: Experimentation

You’ve now got a solid base of internal vocab and you’ve got to grips with the most important grammar rules. You can use the dative and genitive cases with increasing ease and you’re using modal verbs on a regular basis. 

You now feel ready to road-test your new language skills in the big wide world. You don’t ask Sprechen Sie englisch? (do you speak English?) any more and instead try to communicate only in German. 

Tip: Bolster this experimentation phase by consuming more German media. Listen to German podcasts, check out German TV shows and try to read the news in German. 

READ ALSO: Tatort to Temptation Island: What do Germans like to watch on TV?

Stage 5: Frustration

Just as you were starting to gain confidence in the language, you hit a brick wall. You spent an evening in the company of German speakers, or you attended a meeting at work where you found yourself fumbling for vocabulary and stumbling over grammar.

You can’t, for the life of you, remember whether it’s der, die or das Licht even though you’ve looked it up at least a hundred times. 

A German dictionary. Photo: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash

What’s the point, you ask yourself. You want to give up and just switch to speaking English permanently, as everyone you meet seems to speak perfect English anyway.

Tip: Everyone feels like this at some point when learning a new language and it’s likely to happen more than once on your language-learning journey. Keep going and don’t compare your German language skills with the English skills of German natives. Remember that most Germans have grown up listening to songs and watching films in English, so it will take you a bit longer to get to grips with German in the same way. 

Stage 6: Breakthrough

You’re not quite sure what’s happened, but something seems to have clicked. You’re suddenly using the right past participles 90 percent of the time and you’re using reflexive verbs with ease. People are rarely switching to English when speaking to you and you’re understanding almost everything you see and hear.

READ ALSO: Six ways to fall in love with learning German again

Tip: Remember this feeling when you are revisited by frustration in the future. 

Stage 7: Acceptance

You still make mistakes, you don’t know all of the words in the German dictionary, and you still mix up der, die and das – but it’s ok. You’ve come a long way and you accept that your German will probably never be perfect and that the learning process will be a lifelong pursuit. 

Tip: The more you use the language, the more you’ll improve. Keep reading, speaking and listening and, one day, it won’t even feel like an effort anymore.