10 typical mistakes made by German speakers who are learning English

10 typical mistakes made by German speakers who are learning English

(The ideas from this post were also featured in one of my podcasts. You can listen to it here.)

I teach students with a variety of native languages but most of my students are German speakers. There are some errors that I come across regularly and I’m going to post them here so that other German speakers can avoid making the same mistakes.

If I ask my German-speaking students why they haven’t done their homework, they won’t follow the German grammar rules and reply “because I very much to do had and unfortunately no time had, my homework to do!” However, it’s natural that our native language influences our thought processes at times and this causes us to translate expressions literally or to express things in a way which isn’t right in the language that we are trying to learn.

Things that you shouldn’t say

1. In the near of

We can’t use this expression in English. It’s enough to say:
“I live near London”
Or
“the station is near the library”

2. For three years (if you mean “vor drei Jahren”)

“For three years” means that something has been going on for three years. The duration was three years.
I have been learning Turkish for three years. I began this activity three years ago and I am still learning Turkish.
I lived in London for eight years. We know that this is an action that has finished because we have the word “lived” in the sentence. So I moved to London, stayed there for eight years and now I live somewhere else.
“Vor drei Jahren” = three years ago.

3. In our English class we were five

“When I was five = als ich fünf war but this isn’t what we are talking about here.

There were five people in our English class.

We won’t all fit around that small table. There are five of us.

But avoid “we were/are + a number”.

4. I feel myself happy

When describing how you feel, don’t make the verb reflexive. I feel happy/sad/tired etc.

5. The dog of my friend

In English, the ‘ has several functions and one of them is to show possession:
My friend’s dog.
My sister’s birthday.
My friend’s uncle’s cat!

6. If I would have enough money

Perhaps I will write some other posts which look at conditional sentences in more detail but “would” does not belong in the part of the sentence which gives the condition. Depending on what you want to say, there are various ways in which we can write this sentence, but “if I would have” is not one of them.

If I have enough money, I will go on holiday.
If I had enough money, I would go on holiday.
If I had had enough money, I would have gone on holiday.

7. She slammed the door angry

In German, we don’t have to think about adjectives and adverbs but in English, using an adjective where you need an adverb is wrong.

Adjectives describe nouns: his singing was loud.
Adverbs describe verbs: he was singing loudly.

Our sentence needs an adverb because it is describing how she slammed the door. She slammed the door angrily.

8. I was in the bus

I know it sounds illogical that whilst we can be in the car, we have to be on the bus or on the train. After all, we don’t sit on the roof and ride on top of them! However as a general rule, “on” is used for many larger forms of transport:
On the bus
On the train
On the plane/aeroplane.

9. BR, KR etc

It’s not a case of avoiding abbreviations – we just don’t write these things! When I saw this for the first time, I had to ask what it meant. If you mean “kind regards”, you have to write “kind regards” if you want your English speaking reader to understand you.

10. How does it look like?

How does it look?
This is usually used if someone wants to know whether or not something looks ok. Maybe I’m trying on a dress in the shop and I ask a friend “how does it look?” What I really mean is “does it look good on me/do you like it/shall I buy it?”

What does it look like?
This is used when you want somebody to describe something to you. What shape is it? What colour is it? How big is it? You want to know about its appearance.

Can you think of any more?

I finished my list when I got to number 10 but if you have any more ideas, you can write them in the comments section!

As this post was so popular, I decided to write another one and look at 10 more mistakes. You can find the second post in the series here.

If you would like help to make sure that you are not making these or other mistakes, I offer one-to-one English lessons online.

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30 Comments on “10 typical mistakes made by German speakers who are learning English”

  1. Nicole says:

    Some mistakes I come across regularly when teaching clients whose native language is German:

    1.) “I remember me…” instead of “I remember…” this happens because in German the verb “erinnern” is reflexive: “Ich erinnere mich…” whereas in English, it’s not.

    2.) “For three years ago…” instead of “three years ago…” again, because in German you would say “Vor drei Jahren…”

    3.) Confusing numbers; e.g. saying 97 “seventy-nine” instead of “ninety-seven”, because in German you start with the rightmost digit of a number “Siebenundneunzig” instead of the other way round.

    4.) There are a lot of false friends in for German speaking learners of English:
    For example, once one of my students told me: “The ticket was guilty” meaning “The ticket was valid” because of the German word “gültig”.

  2. Mailin Klaas says:

    All these mistakes are common ones, and of course, I can add some more:

    “Let’s meet us” is a very common one as “sich treffen” is reflexive in German, too.

    “Next to….” instead of besides is another one.

    And a funny one is the word “roundabout”. The price is roundabout (instead of about/approx./ca.) 8 €.

  3. Thanks Nicole – I might do a separate post on false friends!

  4. Thanks Mailin! Actually they may have picked up “round about” from native speakers as I’ve heard that before. It’s one of those cases where two similar words are used (around and about) whereas only one is necessary because they mean the same thing. I think there is a name for that but I don’t know what it is!

  5. Tanja Biermann says:

    Wow, Kirsty, that really is a great idea following this topic. :-) At the moment I don’t remember typical mistakes but I’m sure there are many of them. I really like your page! Keep on doing it. Thank you

  6. Thank you Tanja for your encouraging feedback :)

  7. Tanja Biermann says:

    Hi Kirsty, you are very welcome! Thank you very much for all your help!! I’m happy to know you :-)

  8. Nice article! I hear the ‘present simple should be present perfect mistake’ and mixing for with since everyday. For example, ‘I work here since 3 years’.

  9. O yes, I see sentences like this all the time, too!
    Actually I have noticed a number of mistakes which have something to do with time. Another example is
    “You need to have this finished until Friday” (instead of by Friday).

  10. Sandra says:

    Thank you for these. I hear too much of the verb ‘make’ with my German speakers (probably because machen seems nigh on universal in German).
    “I make a party, I make holidays ” are the worst offenders but stuff like “she makes a crossword”. Its a difficult one to teach as although there are general rules, they seem to be constantly broken by loads of exceptions. Maybe I will write an article and send it to you to publish….

  11. Joseph King says:

    One of the most common mistakes made by Germans when speaking is the pronunciation of the letter “A”. Sometimes it’s like the German e.g. “CAT” and sometimes not like “CAME”.
    Some insisting on pronouncing it like ää or ee in German. But then again not everyone in the British Isles speak perfect English either.

  12. Yes, Sandra, I agree! The rules don’t always help.
    “Make” and “do” often appear in the wrong places and although it’s usually “make” that’s used incorrectly, I’ve seen problems with “do” as well such as “do a mistake”.

  13. Yes, Joseph, I know what you mean. I have heard the A in cat pronounced like the first E in kettle and some other learners have difficulty with the V, W and TH sounds. As for speaking the language perfectly, I think it’s the same wherever you go!

  14. As I mentioned above, I work with a range of learners but as I speak German and most of my work comes from Germany, my main objective was to begin a short checklist of tips which could be useful for learners so that something useful can come out of the common mistakes.
    It’s great that other teachers have added to this list – learners are welcome to do so too!

  15. Vera says:

    German here. :) “We discussed about [topic]” instead of “we discussed”; saying “it irritates me” when feeling confused (German “jemanden irritieren” = to confound somebody), calling it “vacation” when having 2 days off and slacking off at home.

  16. Thanks for the comments and it’s good to hear from you again :)

  17. Vera says:

    :-) I really liked your article!

  18. Zen Do says:

    Additional background information on Point 9. “BR, KR etc”
    This stems from the acceptable of “MfG” for “Mit freundlichen Grüssen” hence why Germans feel that “BR” and “KR” are perfectly acceptable and logical additions to the end of their emails.

  19. Zen Do says:

    Oh! my personal favourite (annoyance) is; “in life” .eg. We saw a band in life last night. ie. “live”
    Others include “Neues” for “New Arrivals” at the Book, CD or Movie section. “learnings” instead of “lessons” (yes, even though “learnings” is still acceptable in English, its actually the word “lessons” / “Erlernung” they want). “Backside” when “on the back” is meant and lastly, my all time favourite “informations” eg “send me the informations on it” when it should be jsut simply “information”

  20. Tanja says:

    oh yes…. information that’s a word I always wrote with an “s” when I started learning English… And also “people” and “pupil” are words I mix up when it comes to the pronunciation…. Or forming the plural forms…

  21. Yes it’s a natural assumption that KR is as acceptable as MfG and it seems to be used regularly in some German companies where the company language is English. I think that people copy their colleagues and then believe that everybody uses this abbreviation. Therefore I just wanted to point out that it’s not something that native speakers would write.
    I also come across “informations” and “infos regularly. Presumably these mistakes are made because learners have learned that in most cases, an “s” should be added in order to form the plural of an English word. However every rule has exceptions!

  22. Another common mistake is the use of ‘become’ as ‘to get or receive’ because of the German word ‘bekommen’. E.g., ‘I became my new timetable today’ :)

  23. Indeed! “To have a baby” is not the same as “to become a baby” :)

  24. abarbat says:

    Reblogged this on Abroad in Berlin and commented:
    Observing the mistakes German speakers make in English can be useful in learning German. In the same way I started out saying “Ich fühle gut” instead of “Ich fühle mich gut,” English learners will say what comes naturally before they learn the correct expression. Take a mistake a German speaker makes in English, translate it to German, and most of the time you have the correct way to say it. For example: “Where can we meet us?” (Wo können wir uns treffen?); “Five o’clock thirty.” (Fünf Uhr dreißig); “Are you living a hotel?” (Wohnen Sie in einem Hotel?)
    As mentioned in the post, reflexive verbs are pretty commonly mistaken. Learning where these mistakes are made helps you to identify differences between English and German and teaches you when it would be natural to use these constructions.

  25. Bonny says:

    A common mistake I hear in English, even from pretty advanced speakers, is in being greeted. I say, “Hi, how are you?” And eight out of ten times or so I hear “Thanks, … long pause… fine, and you?” Of course this is understandable as well as forgive-able, but normally the answer to the question comes first, as in “Fine, thanks. And you?” Just a mix up of where “thanks” normally falls in the flow of communication. Great article. Thanks.

  26. Yes, I’ve noticed that too. Thanks for the feedback :)

  27. Horgar says:

    Compounding or hyphenating nouns (in written English, not spoken, obviously). “Helpdesk” rather than “help desk.” “Chickenliver” instead of “chicken liver”.

  28. Yes, I corrected homework which included the word “trainstation” yesterday.

  29. Daniel Neilson says:

    One thing I constantly hear, even from Germans who have lived in the US for many years, is the misuse of the simple present, which works perfectly in German, but not in English, even though it probably should. Example: “I see you later tonight at the restaurant.” “I go to the store now.” For some reason, we ceased to use that simple present tense most of the time, and instead use the present continuous form: “I am going to the store now.” To make it even more confusing, we also use the present continuous tense as the future: “I’m going to the store tomorrow.” And even worse, we sometimes DO use the simple tense just like the Germans often misuse it: “I go to the doctor at 4PM today.” Why does that sound fine, when “I see you at the restaurant later” doesn’t?

  30. Thank you for your comments.
    Yes, there are more tenses in English than in German and as you have pointed out, we use a number of them for talking about events in the future. I think I would choose a different future tense for the example about the doctor, but the simple present is often used for certainty about scheduled events, such as “the concert starts at 7:30”.


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