mistakes in German

Common Language Mistakes in German to Avoid

In the beginning, German seems to be a relatively easy language to learn if you are a native English speaker.

Many essential words are similar in English and German: das Wetter = weather,  trinken = to drink, die Mutter = mother, etc. 

However, sometimes words look the same in the two languages, or you translate word for word, and you make mistakes because they are misleading. 

In this article, I will take you through some common mistakes English speakers make in German.

7 Common Mistakes in German

  • False friends (Vocabulary)
  • Use of capital letters and lower cases
  • Numbers and telling the time
  • Verb collocations
  • Genders of nouns
  • “Fettnäpfchen” = embarassing faux pas
  • “Denglisch” = Germans misusing anglicisms in modern-day language

1. False friends

Let’s begin with some examples of “false friends” – words that look similar in English and German but have entirely different meanings and hence can cause misunderstandings:

Sensibel – “Heike ist eine sensible Frau” = Heike is a sensitive woman NOT sensible. The correct translation of “sensible” is vernünftig.

Sympathisch – “Paul ist ein sympathischer Mann” = Paul is a likeable man. Maybe he is also sympathetic, but then in German he is mitfühlend.

Eventuell – “Wir können eventuell am Freitag schwimmen gehen” = Perhaps we can go swimming on Friday. “Eventually” is letztendlich in German.

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Aktuell – “Aktuell ist das Wetter sehr warm” = The weather is very warm at the moment/ currently. The German title of the film “Love Actually” is, in fact, “Tatsächlich Liebe.”

Bekommen – “Ich bekomme eine Wurst” = I’ll take a sausage, when ordering fast food for example. If you do want to say you become a sausage, which I very much doubt, you use the verb werden.

Engagiert – “Johanna ist eine engagierte Frau” = Johanna is a dedicated/ commited woman. If she is planning her wedding, she is verlobt, and if the restroom isn’t vacant, it is besetzt.

Irritiert – “Du irritierst mich” = You’re confusing me. I wondered for a long time why my friends were irritated by me. But, they didn’t look annoyed, and after a lot of confusion, I realized the misunderstanding and was relieved they weren’t genervt with me.

2. Use of Capital Letters

First of all, every noun is written with a capital letter, i.e. die Frau  (the woman), der Hund (the dog.) Then, like in English, you write days of the week, months of the year, and proper nouns beginning with an uppercase letter.

On the other hand, you write all adjectives in lower case, including nationalities. So, the English man in German is der englische Mann.

One other significant difference concerning capital letters is starting a letter or email:

Sehr geehrte Frau Schmitz, Dear Ms Schmitz,

wir schreiben um…. We are writing to…

The reasoning behind this is that we use a comma after the greeting. We don’t use capital letters after commas in other correspondence, so why would we in this instance?

3. Numbers and Telling the Time

After nearly twenty years living and working in Germany, I still have difficulties with the pesky  Numbers in German! They are back to front! Vierundsechzig, literally four and sixty, i.e., sixty-four, dreiundvierzig (three and forty = forty-three) I have to double-check this as I am writing. When someone tells me a number to write down, I always write the first number in the second place.

And if you are talking big numbers, eine Billion must be a billion, right? Wrong! 

€100,000,000 = eine Milliarde €100,000,000,000 = eine Billion

That’s a big difference. 

Ok, you are getting on well learning German, and you arrange to meet a friend at halb sieben. That’s half-past seven, isn’t it? Sorry, no. It’s half an hour before seven, i.e., six-thirty. This is really important to remember because you will turn up an hour late if you get it wrong. And we all know Germans love their punctuality. 

4. Verb collocations

Occasionally there are different verb-noun collocations:

Ein Foto machen = make a photo, not nehmen, meaning take. I made this mistake very often, asking people to take a photo away from me!

Erhöhen means “to raise,” but only in the sense of prices. Die Kosten wurden erhöht (the costs were raised.) But you cannot use the same verb when talking about raising children. You use another verb here: Ich erziehe meine Kinder. 

5. Genders of nouns

When you learn German vocabulary, it is vital to know the gender along with the meaning. Der, die or das? For native German speakers, this comes naturally, and they don’t need to think about it. But for learners of German, it’s extra hard work that you need to put in when studying vocabulary. 

The three genders are der, which is masculine. So when you look up “dog” in the dictionary, you will see Hund n,m (noun, masculine.)

Katze n,f (cat, noun feminine) = die Katze

Mädchen n, n (girl, noun, neutral) = das Mädchen. Note here that something that is in the real-life feminine (the girl), the grammatical gender is not. That is rarely the case, I must say, but it is something to watch out for.

6. “Fettnäpfchen” embarrassing faux pas

I’d like to end my article on common language mistakes with some amusing and potentially embarrassing errors.

“I am” = ich bin, so “I am hot” must be ich bin heiss, right? Wrong! You should say mir ist heiss  (literally me is hot) when talking about your physical state. Ich bin heiss means “I’m horny.” This is not something you want to shout out at a job interview, for example! 

The opposite, “I’m cold,” is also mir ist kalt. So if you say ich bin kalt, you tell people you are frigid.

So, you’ve just finished a delicious dinner at your friend’s house. Your host offers you dessert, but you are full. “Nein, danke. Ich bin voll.” Your friend will laugh because you are announcing that you are, in fact, drunk! “Ich bin satt” is the correct way to explain you are satiated.

And be careful with your pronunciation. For example, “Ch” can be challenging for non-native speakers. It’s a guttural sound, like when you cough. For some, it sounds like a hard “k.” But if you say “ Gute Nackt” and not “ Gute Nacht,” it means “Good naked,” not “Good night!”

7. “Denglisch” = Germans misusing anglicisms in modern-day language

I’m going to end here on a slightly different note. That is, mistakes Germans make due to anglicisms used in modern-day German.

Das Handy is a cell phone. Of course, they are handy/ practical, but it is an adjective, not a noun in English.

Ein Beamer doesn’t have anything to do with Star Trek or a BMW. Instead, it’s what Germans call a projector.

In reality shows or competitions, die Jury is the judging panel and candidates go for ein Casting, meaning an audition.

My current favorite, though, is that many people are working from home at the moment. When Germans want to tell someone they are out of the office, they say, “Ich bin im Home Office.” Well, in Britain, the Home Office is a governmental institution that deals with domestic intelligence. The British equivalent of the US Department of State. 

I hope you found this article both entertaining and educational, and I would like to end by wishing you all the best with your German. Hopefully without embarrassing mistakes 😉 

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Sarah Chadwick

Sarah Chadwick

I'm predominantly a teacher of English as a foreign language, with over 15 years of experience in this field. I've lived as much of that time in Cologne, Germany. I speak fluent German, which I am also qualified to teach.

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