Common mistakes English speakers make when speaking German

Learning a new language can be tricky when it comes to finding the right words to express what you’re trying to say. Whether you’re dealing with words that have multiple meanings or incorrect placement in a sentence, some mistakes are more common than others. In this article, we will look at some examples that English speakers commonly get wrong when speaking or learning German. Being aware of these pitfalls will help you on your journey to mastering German!

Let’s dive right in with the first example.

1. Mixing up “to know” – kennen vs. wissen

When looking at a vocabulary list, you will see that “to know” translates to both kennen and wissen. So, how do you make sure that you are using the right option in German? This explanation should help you to distinguish which translation to utilize when speaking German:

The verb kennen usually refers to knowing a specific thing or person and is answered with a noun or pronoun.

Wissen, on the other hand, refers to more abstract knowledge, meaning something that you don’t fully know. Here, you answer with a relative clause.

Examples:

I know Peter; he is Simon’s friend.

Ich kenne Peter, er ist Simons Freund.

We know something is wrong.

Wir wissen, dass etwas nicht stimmt.

2. Mixing up viel and sehr

Viel and sehr are close in their translation as “much,” but there are some slight differences to keep in mind. The word viel is an adjective that is normally connected to nouns: it describes a thing or person. Sehr, however, is an adverb that is usually used in connection to verbs and describing an action.

Whenever you are describing something that is happening, you must use sehr. When speaking about a noun, you should use viel.

Examples:

Es hat mir sehr gefallen.

I liked it very much.

Es hat viel Spaß gemacht.

It was much fun.

3. To mean: meinen, heißen or bedeuten?

It truly is confusing when one word translates to three different words. To mean can be translated into meinen, heißen or bedeuten. How do you distinguish those?

Bedeuten and heißen refer to an explanation or meaning of a word itself.

Examples:

What does “inflation” mean? Was bedeutet “Inflation”?

What does it mean? Was bedeutet das? Or: Was heißt das?

In many ways, bedeuten and heißen can be interchangeable. When it comes to a person’s name, however, that is not possible. There you only use heißen: Sie heißt Maria. You cannot say “Sie bedeutet Maria.

When referring to a concept, intention, or the bigger picture that you may not understand, you would use meinen.

Example:

What do you mean by that? Was meinst du damit?

4. Wrong articles: der, die, das

This is one of the biggest obstacles for anyone learning German. Articles can be very difficult to master, as they sometimes seem to be quite random, especially when there is a gender assigned to inanimate objects. For example, der Tisch (the table) is masculine, whereas die Tür (the door) is feminine and das Buch (the book) is neutral.

The best way to get these articles right is to properly memorize your vocabulary and study as many words as possible. You will notice over time that some words have certain endings in common (for example, -keit, -ung are usually feminine; -ling, -or are normally masculine; and -lein-, -chen or -ment should be a noun with the article das). The word Mädchen for girl is neutral, even though the subject it describes is female.

5. Numbers

Numbers are one of the first things you will learn when studying German. This is true for any language, as counting from one to ten or one hundred and more introduces a lot of vocabulary and is a fun way to get started with German.

Whereas English is straightforward when it comes to numbers beyond twenty, German is a bit different. Let’s look at some examples:

NumberEnglishGerman
43forty-threedreiundvierzig
78seventy-eightachtundsiebzig
81eighty-oneeinundachtzig
105one hundred and fivehundertfünf
532five hundred and thirty-twofünfhundertzweiunddreißig

As you can see, in English the larger number is followed by the smaller one: forty-three (40 - 3), whereas in German the smaller one will come first: dreiundvierzig (3 and 40). This is the case for all numbers from 21 to 99.

6. Describing where you work

German speakers, when asked where they work, will tell you: Ich arbeite bei Aldi.

This would translate to I work by Aldi, which is obviously not the correct wording in English. The prepositions at and for which are used in that case are translated with bei in German (I work at Aldi / I work for Aldi).

7. Use of present continuous tense

English has multiple present tense forms, while German has one which is equal to all English present tense forms.

Example:

-I am learning German. -Ich lerne Deutsch.

The above example, therefore, could also be translated back to English in the following way:

-I learn German.

Another example:

-Ich höre Musik.

-I listen to music. I am listening to music.

8. Forgetting to use the accusative case

In German, you use the accusative case when the object in the sentence has a masculine article. It then changes to den/einen.

Example:

-Er möchte einen Tisch kaufen. He wants to buy a table.

-Sie hat einen tollen Haarschnitt. She has a great haircut.

9. Not using negative articles

German has a fantastic article that can be used in many ways: kein/keine/keiner

To illustrate this example, we will use these sentences:

I did not buy a car. Instead of translating this word by word and saying, “Ich habe ein Auto nicht gekauft,” you simply say, “Ich habe kein Auto gekauft.

Another example:

-She does not want help from you.

-Sie möchte keine Hilfe von dir.

10. Dass vs. das

This is a mistake that can happen to the most proficient German speaker. While das is an article or pronoun, dass is a conjunction and is only used to start a relative clause.

You would use these as per the examples below.

Demonstrative pronoun “das”:

-Das habe ich nicht erwartet.

-I did not expect that.

Relative pronoun “das”:

-Ein Auto, das nicht fährt, ist nutzlos.

-A car that doesn’t drive is useless.

Definite article “das”:

-Das Brot schmeckt super.

-The bread tastes great.

Attributive clause “dass”:

-Die Annahme, dass er mehr Geld bekommt, ist falsch.

-The assumption that he is earning more money is wrong.

Subjective clause “dass”:

-Es freut uns, dass es dir besser geht.

-We are happy that you are feeling better.

Objective clause “dass”:

-Ich glaube, dass Sie lügen.

-I believe that you are lying.

Learn from failure - Image source

How to avoid these common mistakes when learning German?

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to studying German. What might work for you is difficult for someone else. But the first step toward learning German is to be aware of its many pitfalls you might come across.

Make sure you always pay attention to the article of a noun when studying vocabulary. Raise questions if something is unclear, such as why “dass” is being used in a specific sentence. Consume German-speaking media, such as movies, music, and books to get a better understanding of the language and culture.

Lastly, don’t get demotivated by focusing on these common mistakes. Rather, focus on what you have learned and are doing correctly to keep your spirits high. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes – even German native speakers don’t always get it right, and some mistakes might be down to regional dialects or accents. So don’t worry and instead use Lingvist to improve your German skills step by step with easy-to-use lessons that you can tailor perfectly to your needs. Download the app for free today and get started learning German or pick up where you have left off.

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