There is a lot of trial and error when learning a new language. Are you a native English speaker who wants to speak German with fluency? Are you saying what you mean to say, or are you unintentionally revealing too much personal information? There are some common mistakes that can be avoided if you know what to look out for.
I become a jelly donut
I once stood in line at a bakery with my ex-girlfriend’s father, who was German, robust, and did not like me very much. Suddenly, he turned to me and said, “Ryan, I become a jelly donut.”
The verb bekommen, or to get, sounds so much like become that both German and English speakers get confused. If you’re not careful, you’ll turn yourself into all sorts of things or say something that sounds very strange.
Also vs. also
The German adverb also means therefore or thus and not too like its English twin. The word auch must be used for the English too or also.
Es regnet, also bleiben wir zu Hause. It’s raining. Therefore, we’re staying home.
Es regnet und es ist auch windig. It’s raining and it’s windy, too.
Before and…oh, gross
The wordsfür and vor have different meanings but are often confused by English speakers who find that they sound similar. The preposition für means for, but vor means before or in front of. Be careful! Vor is close to its English counterpart, before, but the German word After means anus. The antonym of vor is nach or hinter.
Ich habe ein Geschenk für dich. I have a present for you.
Er kauft die Jacke für 40 Euro. He’s buying the jacket for 40 euros.
Vor dem Frühstück trinke ich Kaffee. Before breakfast, I drink coffee.
Sara ist vor mir in der Schule. Sara is ahead of me in school.
Studieren vs. to study
The verb studieren is not as broad as the English verb to study. It is limited to meaning “to be a university student” or “to major in” a particular discipline. When you’re hitting the books, you’re lernen, even if it’s review. The verb lernen encompasses the activities associated with “to study”: to learn, read, memorize, practice, and reflect on a subject.
Ich studiere Deutsch. I am majoring in German.
Ich studiere in Heidelberg. I am studying (I am a student) in Heidelberg.
Ich arbeite nicht; ich studiere. I don’t work; I am a student.
Ich lerne Deutsch. I am learning German. / I am studying German (for a test).
Wollen and werden
The conjugation of wollen (to want) can cause considerable confusion for English speakers. Because the first- and third-person singular form in German is identical to the English future tense (will), wollen is often accidentally substituted as the future tense helping verb.
Ichwill/er will morgen zur Bank gehen. I want/he wants to go to the bank tomorrow.
Ich werde morgen zur Bank gehen. I will go to the bank tomorrow.
Watch out for other little translation traps such as the adverb dann (then)and the conjunction denn (for/because).
Ich schreibe diesen Brief, dann gehe ich zur Post.
I’m writing this letter, then I’m going to the post office.
Er arbeitet heute nicht, denn es ist Sonntag.
He’s not working today because (for) it’s Sunday.
In German, each person, place, or thing belongs to one of three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. For example, friend in German has masculine and feminine forms. Use Freundin when speaking about one female friend and Freudinnen for a group of female friends. A male friend is a Freund. When talking about more than one male friend or a mixed gender group, use the plural Freunde.
English has no true equivalent to der, die, or das. They’re all the word the in English. The word der corresponds to the masculine, die corresponds to the feminine, and das corresponds to the neuter. You must memorize the gender of each noun as you learn it. Certain systematic noun endings indicate the noun’s gender. The first example sentence below is incorrect because “Katze” is a feminine noun and therefore should receive die.
INCORRECT: Der Katze ist weiß.
CORRECT: Die Katze ist weiß. The cat is white.
Note that if you know the cat is male, you may say DerKater ist weiß.
Plurals can be tricky in German. It’s not enough to just slap on an -s. Some plural forms of nouns do end in -s, but many more end in –en or -er or add an umlaut to the first vowel and leave the ending unchanged. For example, Bruder is one brother, but Brüder means brothers. You could be forgiven for thinking that the plural of bird (der Vogel) is die Vögeln, but you may not be forgiven for saying it out loud—especially to a hushed crowd of twitchers as you point excitedly at the pair of Lemon-rumped Warblers in the trees above. What you should say: die Vögel. The German verb vögeln is a colloquial term for to f#@$.
The word I in English refers to the subject in the sentence, and the word me refers to the object in the sentence. German works the same way, except that there are four different grammatical cases in German. The subject in a sentence is said to be in the nominative case, and the direct object is the English equivalent to the accusative case. Using I and me incorrectly in English can sound like nails on a chalkboard, but it is much easier to make the same mistake when learning German. Take the time to memorize the four cases of German: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive.
INCORRECT: Du liebst ich. You love I.
CORRECT: Du liebst mich. You love me.
This next tip holds the key to the single most effective way to improve your German across the board. Prepositions are extremely common in everyday language, but most beginner to intermediate students frequently use them incorrectly. If you don’t understand what the “nominative” case is in English or what a direct or indirect object is, then you’re going to have problems.
Remember that every German preposition requires the noun it precedes to be in a specific case. When der changes to den or dem, it does so for a reason. That reason is the same one that makes the pronoun he change to him or er to ihn in German.
INCORRECT: Ich gehe zu der Restaurant. Ich gehe zu den Restaurant. Ich gehe zu des Restaurants.
CORRECT: Ich gehe zu dem Restaurant. I’m walking to the restaurant.
When learning to speak German, be sure to watch out for contractions and definite articles. They can be tricky and sound very strange if you mix them up. The word im means in the and is a contraction of in dem. The definite article dem is only used with masculine and neuter nouns, and only when they are in the dative case.
Wir übernachten im Hotel. We’re staying in the hotel.
Ich kaufe im Supermarkt ein. I’m shopping in the supermarket.
Wir essen in der Küche. We eat in the kitchen.
Reiche Leute wohnen in den Häusern. Rich people live in (the) houses.
In the examples above, hotel is a neuter noun and supermarket is masculine, so im is appropriate. However, it is never used with a feminine or plural form. In German, kitchen is feminine, and houses is plural. Note that Häuser becomes Häusern because plural nouns in the dative add an -n suffix.
There are key differences in turns of phrase that you must practice because direct translations are fraught with issues. German and English often use different prepositions for similar idioms or expressions. Write them down and practice.
auf jemanden warten vs. to wait for someone
sich für etwas interessieren vs. to be interested in something
nach Hause / zu Hause
The phrase zu Hause always means at home and indicates home as a location for the activity. The preposition nach can translate as to, as in traveling to a country or other destination. The phrase nach Hause indicates movement to or toward home (going home).
Ich bin zu Hause. I am (at) home.
Harald arbeitet zu Hause. Harald works at home.
Ich will nach Hause gehen. I want to go home.
Wann kommst du nach Hause? When are you coming home?
When someone asks to meet Viertel nach fünf, one would think that they’ve asked for you to show up at a quarter to five. If you did, you’d be twiddling your thumbs for half an hour. The phrase actually means quarter after five. Viertel vor is the correct term for a quarter before.
Likewise, the phrase halb vier (half four) means a half an hour before four o’clock, or 3:30. Following the customs of your homeland would make you an hour late. Remember that when telling time in German, half or quarter always means that interval of time before the hour, not after.
It is almost always more difficult to lernen the verb endings of another language. The English language is much less complex when it comes to verb conjugation, which can make things tricky for a beginner of German.
Memorize conjugation endings and which pronoun (ich, du, Sie, er, etc.) matches up to each individual verb ending. Pay attention to the difference among verb tenses, because this also affects which endings you use. My favorite reference for German verbs is 501 German Verbs, by Henry Strutz. It shows all possible conjugated forms for each featured word.
INCORRECT: Du liebt mich. You loves me.
CORRECT: Du liebst mich. You love me.
Many German verbs require a reflexive pronoun, and it’s important to learn which ones to avoid saying something you don’t mean. One of the things that people are asked all the time is how they are doing. Novices tend to respond with ich bin gut when they want to say, “I’m good.” It’s a direct translation of English and is grammatically incorrect and sounds cocky. The proper response is mir geht es gut (I’m doing fine). Literally, it means “To me it goes well.”
As another example, it is important to note that being hot, cold, or bored in German is a reflexive thing:
Ich bin heiß.
What you think you’re saying: I’m hot. (LITERAL TRANSLATION)
What you’re really saying: I’m horny.
What you should say: To me, it is hot.
Mir ist heiß. (CORRECT)
Ich bin langweilig.
What you think you’re saying: I’m bored.
What you’re really saying: I’m boring.
What you should say: Mir ist langweilig or ich langweile mich.
As we’ve already seen, word choice makes all the difference, but word order matters even more. German syntax is flexible and relies on case endings for clarity. The subject may not always come first in a sentence. In subordinate (dependent) clauses, the conjugated verb may be at the end of the clause.
German sentence order has many complexities, but there are two basic rules. The first is that in any normal declarative sentence with only one verb, the verb is always the second element in the sentence. The second is that if there is more than one verb in a sentence, then the rest of the verbs must all come at the end.
INCORRECT: Ich das sehe. I that see.
CORRECT: Ich sehe das. I see that.
INCORRECT: Ich mag machen das. I like to do that.
CORRECT: Ich mag das machen. I like that to do.
German, like almost every other language in the world (except English), has at least two kinds of you: one for formal use, the other for familiar use. Beginners often have problems learning to use Sie (formal) and du/ihr (familiar).
As a rule of thumb, du and ihr are reserved for people you know well and address by their first names (friends and relatives), and Sie is used with everyone else (strangers, acquaintances, or Bekannte, and authority figures).
As a side note, relationships can be complicated, and in German, the terminology doesn’t help. For as specific as the language usually is, there’s no specific word for boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s all in the syntax. For the darling girl that you faithfully buy roses for on the anniversary of the day you first kissed, you would say meine Freundin(my friend). To introduce the platonic childhood pal that you hang out with sometimes on weekends in a non-mushy way, you’d say ein Freund von mir or eine Freundin von mir (a friend of mine).
Attention to pronunciation and details won’t necessarily keep you from saying something incidentally shocking, but it will help you avoid some common pitfalls. In the end, your mistakes will make for better stories.
The notoriously difficult ch sound has amused and frustrated many bus drivers and store clerks. Sometimes we find ourselves going too soft (sh) or too hard (k) to compensate. Be wary of the latter. Instead of asking if something happened at night (in der Nacht), you could be asking if it was in the nackt (nude). A useful tip is to say the word cute—the German ch is hiding between the c and the u. Say it slowly, and you’ll hear the hiss of air.
Confusing ei with ie is another common pronunciation mistake, and getting it wrong means you could be saying a completely different word than you thought.
What you think you’re saying: penalty kick
What you’re really saying: eleven meter shit
What you should say: eleven meter shoot (LITERAL TRANSLATION)
It’s only natural that you’ll think in English when you begin to learn another language. Try to avoid falling into the literal trap of translating word for word. As you progress towards German fluency, start to “think German.” If you keep using English as a crutch, you’re doing something wrong. You don’t really know German until you start to hear it in your head.
With enough practice and perseverance, you will be able to go bird watching without inciting an incident, impress your German friends with your punctuality, and have the skills to chitchat about soccer moves and not movements.
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