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Four common mistakes English speakers make when learning German

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

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.

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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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