Common mistakes English speakers make when speaking German

Common mistakes English speakers make when speaking German

by Adriana Stein

Updated November 7, 2022

Are you a fluent or native English speaker and trying to learn German? As an American who learnt German, I can tell you that it’s absolutely possible if you put in consistent effort. The languages are not so different from each other as you might think. In fact, sometimes they end up sounding the same, otherwise known as “false friends”. So, here is an overview of common mistakes English speakers make when learning German with helpful grammar and vocabulary explanations.

Learn languages at your pace

Common mistakes English speakers make in German

1. Also

Even though both English and German use the word “also”, how it’s used is different. In German, “also” means “so” or “therefore”, not “in addition” or “too” like in English. Here are some examples that clarify the difference:

Es ist kalt, also bleiben wir zu Hause. – It’s cold, so we’re staying home.

Es ist kalt und es ist auch windig. – It’s cold and windy, too.

It’s also important to note that the pronunciation is a bit different. Whereas in English the stressed syllable is the “so” part of also, in German the stressed syllable is the “al” part of so and it’s also a bit elongated, a bit like if you said “all so” in English.

2. Ich bin heiß

This can be a bit embarrassing if you make this mistake. To describe our body temperature in English we would say “I am hot”. But in German you need to say “mir ist warm”, because otherwise what you’re actually saying is…well you’re a bit “turned on”.

The same goes for cold as well. If you want to say “I am cold” then you need to say “mir ist kalt”, otherwise you’re speaking more that you have a cold personality (“ich bin kalt”) than describing your body temperature.

3. Werden vs wollen vs. würden

When I was first learning German, these three verbs confused me beyond belief, especially because when they’re pronounced, they all basically sound the same. Maybe native German speakers can hear the difference, but four years later and I still can’t. Nonetheless, the pronunciation actually doesn’t make a difference when speaking. What’s more important is that you use the right verb in the right context. Let’s take a look at some examples to understand the difference:

Ich werde morgen arbeiten. – I will work tomorrow.
Ich will morgen arbeiten. – I want to work tomorrow.
Ich würde gerne morgen arbeiten. – I would like to work tomorrow.

So even though they sound similar, the meaning can be completely different. If you practice enough though, using the right one becomes a lot easier.

Learn languages at your pace

4. Werden vs. bekommen

Werden” also has a second meaning and can be confused with another verb “bekommen”. “Bekommen” is often a tricky one to use correctly because it sounds like the English verb “become” but these are considered false friends (words that sound the same but have different meanings). Here are some examples to see the difference:

Ich bekomme einen Äpfel. – I’m getting an apple.
Ich werde Lehrerin. – I’m becoming a teacher.

So, “bekommen” means “to get” (in most circumstances) in English, while “werden” means “to become”.

5. Der, die, das

Simply put, understanding the German articles “der, die, and das” is complex, even for Germans themselves. There is no clear reason why a potato is female (die Kartoffel) but a table is male (der Tisch). It’s basically something that you just have to accept when learning German and try to memorise as well as you can. 

One thing, though, that did make it a bit easier for me was to remember common word endings that mean the word is likely to be a certain gender. For example:

  • If the word ends in -or, -ling, -ner, or -smus then likely you should use “der”.
  • If the word ends in -ung, -keit, -heit, -tät, -ik, or -tion then the word is probably feminine so you need “die”.
  • If the word ends in -chen, -lein, -ment, -tum, -ma, or -um, then you most likely use “das” the neuter article.

Other aspects like a person’s gender or occupation give the word a particle gender, though words like “Mädchen” are an exception to this, because even though the person is a female, it follows the rule of ending in -chen so must be used with “das”.

6. The wrong verb order

If English is your native language, understanding German verb order, or even the word order in general can be strange. Generally speaking, the second and third verbs always go at the end of the sentence in German. This was very hard for me to learn, because it made it so I needed to think about the entire sentence I wanted to say before I spoke it, otherwise the word order would be completely wrong. In this example, the verbs are italicized to clarify the difference:

Ich möchte draußen gehen. – I would like to go outside.

I mag Schokolade, weil sie lecker ist. – I like chocolate, because it’s delicious.

There are tons of other instances where the word order differs between both languages, so this is just one example. This is another aspect of German grammar that gets easier the more you practice.

7. Numbers in German

Numbers can also be tricky when learning German and are also common mistakes, because they are also spoken in a different order than in English. For example:

32, or “zwei und dreißig”, literally means 2 and 30 in German. In English we would say it the other way around “thirty two”.

A similar concept goes for years as well when speaking German:

1987 would be “neunzehnhundert sieben und achtzig”, literally meaning nineteen hundred seven and eighty. Again, though this may take a bit to understand, practice makes perfect!

More English and German false friends

Here are a few more false friends to highlight with their correct translations:

German – EnglishEnglish – German
sympatisch – likeablesympathetic – mitfühlend
aktuell – currentactually – eigentlich
der Chef – bosschef – cook
das Handy – mobile phoneHandy – nützlich
das Gift – poisongift – der Geschenk
das Kind – childkind – nett
der Rezept – prescription, recipereceipt – die Quittung, die Rechnung
bald – soonbald – glatzköpfig
spenden – to donateto spend – ausgeben

Overall, German and English are not so different when you don’t sweat the small stuff and can be learnt quickly if you practice enough!

Learn languages at your pace

Related articles