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GERMAN LANGUAGE

Four common mistakes English speakers make when learning German

German is a notoriously challenging language, not least for its complex grammatical system. Just remember to avoid the following common pitfalls as an English speaker, and you'll sound like a native in no time.

Four common mistakes English speakers make when learning German
Like Yoda you must sound. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Jens Kalaene

From false friends to tricky word order, learning German can feel like navigating an obstacle course sometimes.

But don’t worry: we’re here to take you through some of the most common pitfalls for English speakers. Steer clear of these, and your German friends are bound to be sehr beeindruckt (very impressed) at your incredible progress in learning their notoriously difficult language. 

  • Keep your friends close, but your false friends closer! 

It’s easy to get caught out by false friends in the German language. Sometimes a word sounds similar to something in English, so we deduce it must also mean something similar. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, which can lead to a whole world of confusion.

Below are some examples of common false friends to watch out for:

Ich werde vs Ich will 

The first person present tense form of wollen is misleading for English speakers – the first person conjugation will may appear to be the same as the English verb ‘will’, just with a slightly different pronunciation.

READ ALSO: 5 beginner German language mistakes to avoid

In actual fact, ich will means ‘I want’, whereas it is ich werde which means ‘I will’. It’s a bit of a muddle, but nothing some memorisation can’t fix!

Ich werde = I will

Ich will = I want   

Das Gift

This one is particularly important. In English, a gift is a present which we very kindly receive or give, but this is known as a Geschenk in German. Das Gift, which in actual fact means poison or toxin, is something we definitely don’t want to give to any of our closest friends on their birthdays. (Though for those of us whose cake-baking skills are particularly bad, it has been known to happen.)  

Das Gift = poison

Das Geschenk = present/gift


Mixing up your gifts could be the difference between a delicious birthday cake and a terrible stomach ache. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Philipp von Ditfurth

Wer

Particularly when asking a question, the word wer is sure to come up at some point. To English speakers, this is yet another misleading piece of vocab – sounding like the English ‘where’, it actually means ‘who’.  

Wer = who

Wo = where

Wo gehst du?
Where are you going?

Wer ist Julian?
Who is Julian?

The above are just a few examples of some false friends in the German language – they can cause confusion but just keeping an eye out for them will help! See the website link below for a longer list of false friends in German:

https://germangirlinamerica.com/german-false-friends-list/

  • Haben or Sein? Time to toss a coin! 

German grammar is probably one of the trickiest parts of learning the language. We know that when using the perfect past tense we need to combine an auxiliary (helping) verb with the past participle (e.g. gegessen). Deciding whether to use haben or sein as the auxiliary verb can be confusing, though.

Simply speaking, haben goes with transitive verbs, while sein is used with intransitive verbs. 

Important to remember, is that intransitive verbs are those associated with movement from A to B, for example laufen (‘to run’), as well a change of state or condition, for example einschlafen (‘to fall asleep’). 

Tut mir Leid, dass ich deinen Anruf verpasst habe – ich bin eingeschlafen!

Sorry that I missed your call – I fell asleep!


Ensure your little ones fall asleep on time by reminding them of the difference between German transitive and intransitive verbs. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Patrick Pleul

As with anything, there are exceptions. Despite not conveying movement or changing state specifically, the three verbs bleiben (‘to stay’), werden (‘to become’) and sein (‘to be’) are also intransitive and must also take sein as their auxiliary. 

Er ist lange bei uns geblieben.

He stayed with us for a long time. 

Some more detailed guidelines can be found here.

  • Speaking like Yoda from Star Wars…

With your standard Ich mag Kaffee (‘I like coffee’) sentence, word order follows the same rules as English – Subject-Verb-Object. 

Ich mag Kaffee. 

SUBJECT – VERB – OBJECT

I like coffee.

SUBJECT – VERB – OBJECT

However, as you start to develop complexity in your sentences, word order rules begin to change too. It’s important to remember that the verb is pretty important when it comes to constructing German sentences, so focus on that. As demonstrated below, certain conjunctions and time phrases shake things up a little…

Coordinating conjunctions such as und, aber and oder have no effect on word order. (That’s something to be grateful for… right?) 

READ ALSO: Ten German abbreviations that will have you texting like a true native

However, subordinating conjunctions – which generally add more information to the main clause of a sentence, like how or what or why – cause the verb (or first verb if there are more than one) to move to the end of the clause.

Some examples of subordinating conjunctions include weil (because), dass (that) and obwohl (although). Think of these subordinating conjunctions like footballers that kick the ball (in this case, the verb) right across the pitch. 


KAPOW! Lob your verbs to the end of your subordinate clauses like a second-league footballer trying to score from the halfway line. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

Ich mag den Winter nicht, aber ich mag Weihnachten.

I don’t like winter, but I do like Christmas.   

Ich mag den Winter nicht, weil er mir zu kalt ist.

I don’t like winter, because it’s too cold for me.

The verb is also sent to the end in other linguistic scenarios, such as when using a modal verb like can, should, could, or will

Ich werde die Milch kaufen.

I will buy the milk.

Or in a relative clause:

Die Milch, die wir für das Rezept brauchen.

The milk, which we need for the recipe. 

Das Rezept, das wir heute Abend kochen werden

The recipe, which we will cook tonight.

As in the example above, sometimes a relative clause will have more than one verb. In this case, it is the first verb which will appear at the end. 

READ ALSO: Eight unique words and phrases that tell us something about Germany

Inversion, in which the verb is brought in front of the subject into a VERB – SUBJECT – OBJECT order, is also a regular feature of German sentences. Inversions are caused by temporal adverbs or prepositional phrases:

Heute gehe ich ins Kino.

TIME – VERB – SUBJECT – OBJECT

Hopefully this gives you a brief overview of some word order particularities in German. This is by no means exhaustive, so watch out for other changes in word order, such as when using adverbs

  1. Like this? No, like that! 

We know that the German wie can mean various things, including ‘like’ as a conjunction. Don’t fall into the trap, however, of translating the English phrase ‘like this/that’ literally, to ‘wie das’. 

It doesn’t work this way in German, so if you want to talk about something being ‘like that’ or doing something in a particular way, use so 


Bossing around your German friends is much more fun if you don’t mix up your likes and your so’s. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

Du musst das so machen!

You have to do it like that!  

Es sieht so aus.

It looks like that. 

The above German language tips are not at all exhaustive and just cover a few areas of difficulty that most of us learners struggle with from time to time. It’ll come together with practice, so keep going! And don’t get discouraged if your Yoda impression a little time takes. 

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

EXPLAINED: How to pick the right German language school for you

From the Goethe Institute to online tutors, there are countless ways to learn German. Here's how to navigate all the different types of language school and pick one that suits your needs.

EXPLAINED: How to pick the right German language school for you

If you’re hoping to brush up on your German, or even start learning it for the first time, you may be wondering exactly where to start.

Whether it’s the countless language-learning apps or dedicated schools subsidised by the German government, there are a huge number of options for getting to grips with your der, die and das. But how do you decide which one is best for you? 

Here are some of the different types of language schools you might encounter in Germany and the key things to know about each of them. 

Private tutors 

Private language tutors are self-employed teachers that offer tuition to individuals or small groups. These are often native speakers of German who are qualified and experienced in language teaching. 

Unlike normal language courses, working with a private tutor tends to be a lot more flexible and based around the student’s goals and needs. For example, if you’re working towards your B1 exam for citizenship and simply need to know you can pass, a private tutor might help you with your exam prep one-on-one. 

READ ALSO: Which countries in Europe impose language tests for residency permits?

These days, there are plenty of ways to find a tutor to help you learn German both online and in-person. Online platforms like Italki and Verbling are a few examples of places to search for a German tutor online, but you can also find listings on websites like Craigslist or Ebay Kleinanzeigen, and also on local Facebook groups.

Generally, one-on-one tuition is a fair bit more expensive than a group language course, with most tutors costing between €30 and €55 per hour. But the amount of competition online has meant that you can still get good deals if you look for them.

You can also use platforms like Italki to look for what’s know as a “Community Tutor” – a native speaker who isn’t a qualified teacher but can still help you with your German. This tends to be a more affordable option than working with a professional. 

Right for you if… you’re looking for flexibility and a more personalised approach to learning German.

Not for you if… you want to learn German on a tight budget. 

Private language schools 

German language course

Internationals take part in a German integration course at a language school in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

Private language schools are probably one of the most popular choices for foreigners who want to learn German – and there are some good reasons for that. Especially in international hubs like Berlin and Frankfurt, expats are spoiled for choice. These schools usually offer a range of courses from intensive (fast-track) language courses to evening classes, as well as specialised courses like exam preparation, integration courses and Business German. 

Most language schools run their courses in relatively small groups of 5-10 people, which makes it easy to get to know your fellow students. You can also find private tutors there that can offer one-on-one classes, though these will obviously be more expensive. Depending on where you live and which school you pick, a four-week intensive group course at private school will generally set you back between €300 and €600. 

Right for you if… you enjoy working in small groups in a laid-back atmosphere. 

Not for you if… you don’t have much time to dedicate to learning German right now or prefer a less structured approach. 

READ ALSO: Are these the best German cities to learn a foreign language?

Goethe Institute 

Named after Germany’s most famous writer and thinker, the Goethe Institute is a non-profit dedicated to promoting German language and culture all over the world. Like private language schools, they offer a wide range of course options between levels A1 and C2 as well as Business German and exam preparation.

Since the pandemic, the Goethe Institute has been running a lot of courses online as well as at their brick-and-mortar schools in places like Dresden, Freiburg and Berlin. Though their courses do tend to be comparatively pricey, studying there can be quite a special experience. That’s because they have great language learning facilities on-site and also offer a rich social and cultural programme for students visiting from abroad. 

A three-week intensive course at the Goethe Institute costs around €850, while in-person evening and weekend courses are around €750. 

Right for you if… you want to study at the most famous German language institute around.

Not for you if… you’re looking for the most affordable option.

Volkshochschule 

German language school

A teacher writes on the chalk board during a language lesson. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

Germany’s Volkshochschulen (VHS) are essentially community colleges that offer heavily subsidised courses for adults. Most of them were founded right after the end of the First World War in 1918 to make learning more accessible to the general population, and thankfully they are still thriving to this day.

Whether it’s Japanese cookery or basic IT skills, you’re bound to find a course on it at the Volkshochschule – and, yes, they also teach German. 

If you live in any relatively large town or city, you can find German courses and integration courses at your nearest Volkshochschule for bargain prices. Usually these are geared at working adults so classes tend to take place on at least one or two evenings in the week. 

Class sizes tend to be a little larger than at the private language schools, but this is sometimes offset by the fact that, with such low prices, a lot of students simply don’t turn up. You’ll also likely find that courses for the higher levels (C1/C2) tend to have fewer students than the lower ones (A1/A2). 

To complete a full language level at a Volkshochschule (24 classes), you can expect to pay around €200-250. Shorter courses cost around €40-50. 

Right for you if… you’re looking for a cheap option and a way to get to know people in your local area.

Not for you if… you don’t want to give up too many of your weeknights and don’t like larger groups. 

READ ALSO: The best ways to improve your German for free

Online language courses:

German language class online

A man logs onto an online language class at home. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Acer Computer GmbH | Acer Deutschland

Since the pandemic, many language schools have started offering both in-person and remote options for their courses. But there are also online platforms that offer group classes in a slightly less structured way.

A few examples of these are Babbel Live, which is linked to the language-learning app of the same name, and Lingoda – though new ones are springing up all the time. These tend to differ from traditional language courses by allowing learners to pick and choose which modules they take and which classes they join. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany

They’re often run in a kind of subscription model where you pay for a certain amount of class credits a month and book a class as and when you want to. Lingoda also runs language challenges known as marathons, where you can get your tuition for free or at a discount if you manage to attend a certain amount of classes per month for a certain amount of time. Beware, though, you do need to be especially dedicated and organised to nab the discount. 

Class sizes tend to be restricted to 4-6 participants, depending on the platform. Prices vary but you can expect to pay between €50 and €90 per month for a subscription.

Right for you if… you don’t want to spend time travelling to class and want classes to fit around your schedule. 

Not for you if… you enjoy in-person learning and need a more structured course to reach your goals. 

What are my other options? 

Of course, the above options are nowhere near an exhaustive list of what’s out there. If you’re a student at a German university, there may be cheap courses available there, and there are also many options for self-directed learning.

Apps can be a helpful way to pick up some extra vocabulary while on the go, though they aren’t really a substitute for a proper language course.

Some other options for self-directed learning include:

  • Finding a tandem partner to practice with
  • Self-study courses like the Michel Thomas method, Pimsleur and Teach Yourself 
  • Coursebooks like TELC, Aspekte Neu and Sicher 
  • Free exercises and lessons on websites like DeutschAkademie and the Goethe Institute 

Of course, if you’re really stumped by the options, there’s no harm in mixing and matching – for example, by taking a group course and booking a few private lessons to consolidate your knowledge. In fact, that may well be the perfect recipe for success.

Viel Glück! (Good luck!)

READ ALSO: From Moin to Tach – How to say hello around Germany

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