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Common mistakes a German-speaker would make speaking English
Triple nerd score!
chibirhm wrote in little_details
Setting: Modern day, if that makes any sort of difference.

So I have a character who is a native German speaker going to college in America. He's mostly fluent and knows some slang (because I am sure he's watched American movies and TV, and he's been going to college at this point for three years). Are there any common grammatical mistakes he might make or words he might mix up? I know, for instance, from my many years of taking French, that native French speakers tend to give words a "the" when a native English speaker wouldn't, or end a question with a yes/no ("You enjoy the tennis, no?"), because that's how it works in French and they're making a literal translation in their head. (And I know I make similar mistakes in French, though I have no idea what they are.) But since I've never met or had a prolonged conversation with a native German speaker, I have no idea what sort of verbal irregularities they might have besides an accent.

Help? I don't even know how one would hypothetically google this puppy.

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One thing I noticed was that at least one person got their V and W confused:

Wery for very and Wail for Vail.

Oh. When saying "excuse me", the word is the same for please (as is the word for "can I help you?"), so that could make for something confusing, especially when he's trying to get through a crowd or something.

Entschuldingen Sie is the same as Bitte?

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
Put adverbs and even direct objects before the verb. My ex-boyfriend's mother produced "I hate very much Latin" instead of "I hate Latin very much." I've also read "It will be soon dark" from an author who does dialects pretty well.

Have them ask "or?" as a tag question: "You're going to the talk tonight, or?"

If they know English very well, they probably won't make this mistake, but I have seen German speakers make it: using "when" instead of "if." They're both "wenn" in German. "When he did that, I will kill him."

I can't think of native German speakers making this mistake, but an English speaker with excellent German, produced things like "Very good was the movie," when he'd just come back from Germany and had to start speaking English again. It's hard to explain that one to a non-linguist, but basically the rule in German is that the second item in the sentence (in a main clause) has to be the verb, but you can move other items around in the sentence for emphasis. In this case "Very good" is the first item, for emphasis, and "was" is the second item. Or even better, "Yesterday was I in town," instead of "Yesterday I was in town." In English, we can have "yesterday" as the first item, "I" as the second, and "was" as the third. In German, "was" has to be the second item, hence "Yesterday was..."

If the last one's too complicated, ignore it. I'll try to think of more that German-speakers I know have produced; the problem being that most of the ones I know have native or near-native command of English.

Oh, I think most people know this, but people like to make jokes about it: "Gift" means "poison" in German.

("You're going to give me WHAT?")

"Geld" is money, not gold.

Syntactic errors are harder to write, but draw less attention to themselves than lexical errors.

I heard second-hand of a German speaker who thought his English was better than it was, resulting in some humorous usages. He used an extremely old-fashioned "wax" instead of "grow": "I wax tired." Which reminds me, they *might* use "I [verb]" instead of "I'm [verb]ing" more often than a native English speaker.

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(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
There's always the possibility of their verbs at the end of a sentence occasionally putting. On the other hand, that one might be too overused, like Russian speakers dropping articles in English constantly.

My parents are always dropping their articles, and they immigrated from Poland decades ago. Drives me nuts when I have to spellcheck my dad's work e-mails! :P

Hmm. My grandfather isn't all that good at English, having learned it in his late 40s, but is understandable and understands most things. He's probably way less fluent than your character, but here are some examples:

- saying 'you may' instead of 'can' or 'do you'- he'll say 'you may be speaking French with her?' to mean 'do you speak French to her?'

- 'with' and 'to' are interchangeable to him in things like 'do you talk to (with) her often'- it's not necessarily *wrong*, it's just not what a native speaker (in North America, to my knowledge and experience) would say. Or like in the first example, where he's talking about my niece. She can't talk yet, so you're not speaking *with* her, you're speaking *to* her.

- 'Make'. This one's a little hard to describe. He'll say things like 'you may be making a trip with the bicycle'. A direct translation of 'machen', I think, where in German you'd say 'ich [insert verb] (whatever) machen' to say 'I want to/will/like to/verb of choice do (whatever)'

That reminds me of another one:

"you must not" for "you don't have to".

A very good friend from Northern Germany - fluent in English, been here 10 years - mother teaches English - still has lapses when he's very tired or very stressed.

Most of these surround his becoming suddenly formal in language rather than his normal colloquial self. So phrases like "Shall we meet for lunch" rather than "Lunch tomorrow?" occur. He'll also say things like "I will bow to your expertise" rather than "I bow to your expertise" - there are others, but it's hard to remember the particulars :>.

When I was in Germany, I got very confused by "musst nicht" (must not), because, in German, it means "don't have to".

As in...
word-for-word translation: "You must not be home before midnight."
actual translation for meaning: "You don't have to be home before midnight."



I'd imagine, for a native German speaker, the error would go the other way (telling people they definitely must not do something, when actually, they mean they don't have to)...

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I knew a guy from Germany...he would come to Game Nights. He obviously had been speaking English a while, but honest, he did not make any of the mistakes addressed above. And he detested the German figures and politicians in the news who sounded like the sterotypical movie Germans. He never confused his Vs and Ws...I guess it depends on how much of a perfectionist your character is...my friend did it right.

But a fun thing to include, if you like, is that Board Games are HUGE in Germany. And they play to win. In fact, a lot of the games we play here, Thurn and Taxis, Agricola, Ticket to Ride...all started in Germany. Which explains why they have German instructions in addition to English ones, even on the "help cards." We would often joke about that, if it is German on one side, turn it over for the English...(the joke being that in one game it was just pictures on both sides. Honest, it was funny.)


Our game nights were mostly populated by Germans and the vast majority of the board games came from Germany and often didn't even have English translations for the rules. Which got fun for those of us roped into translation duty. :(

And, yeah, UK (and I'm guessing US) board game culture is weird. It's like they think board games are just for kids or something. *shakes head in confusion*

Germans have problems with v (wary when they're trying to say "very"), r (weely instead of "reallly") and w ("vindow" instead of "window") and th. They also tend to be more formal. And a lot of time they forget the "s" on the end of 3rd person singular verbs: He eat instead of he eats.

One particular mistake that stands out is that last semester in my American Cultural Theory class, a girl spent a 15 min presentation saying "WILD-erness" instead of "WIL-derness". Quite annoying.

Germans don't screw up sentence structure as much, but they will misuse words (self-conscious when meaning self-confident, because in German "selbstbewusst" would literally translate to "self conscious" when it means the opposite). Pronunciation can be hard as well. They also don't use the future tense as much: "ich gehe morgen einkaufen" instead of "I'm going to go shopping tomorrow", so sometimes they'll say "I go shopping tomorrow" instead.

I'm an American, been in Germany 8 years now, went to the (German-speaking) Gymnasium, studying American Studies in Berlin at a German university -- and yet I can't think of many more mistakes, other than a general lack of proper grammar and vocabulary. Oh -- in German "I don't care" is meant much stronger than it is in the states, so they probably wouldn't use that phrase. And the more stressed you are, the more mistakes you're likely to make. It's more that they lack a general fluency to what they're saying that stands out. That and the accent. They also won't pick up on nuances in language or stuff that native speakers would know -- in the same class I mentioned above, a guy did a presentation on Buffy St.Marie and completely misinterpreted a part of one of her songs because he didn't get the "America the Beautiful" reference.

In my experience, I've never meant someone who tacked on "or" to a question in English. I struggled with it a bit when I was first learning German. But people seem to just leave it when speaking English.

Germans have problems with v (wary when they're trying to say "very")

I think this is rather because we actually know quite well how the w is pronounced in English but we have to concentrate on it, and sometimes one suddenly uses the w although for once there should be a v. At least, that's what happens to me sometimes. :)

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
My father is a native German speaker, and I used to date one. Here are a few:

Ending a sentence with "yes?" as in, "We will go to the store tomorrow, yes?"

The "I hate very much Latin" example is one pattern my ex-boyfriend used to use.

In something somewhat related, I had a German roommate in college. She was an international student (I live in Florida) in grad school for communications.

We were watching Casey Kasem and I said along with him, "Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars." She looked at me in surprise and asked, "How did you know he was going to say that?"

She also asked me, after one of my rather geeky friends had left our house, if that was the definition of a nerd. :)

My sister went to school in Germany for a while and said that one of the biggest mistakes by native German speakers was overusing gerunds. Things like "what is this costing?" instead of "what does this cost?"

Another thing is using the wrong prepositions, in particular using "since" instead of "for" in phrases like "I have been doing this for thirty years."

it really depends on how well he speaks - I'm a German native speaker, and a lot of the mistakes listed aren't ones I'd make.

I tend to start messing up "w" and "v" when I get tired (if I'm _very_ tired, I might slapse into German, but it's really rare).

Phrasal verbs are a very good suggestion, as is "I [verb]" instead of "I am [verb]ing". And the false cognates are a good point, although not all of them on the list are ones that would be very common mistakes. Some of the linked lists of confusing words on that article might help, also too!

Agreed. Most of the mistakes listed are thing I would expect from a beginner or someone who only did a few years of English at school, not from someone fluent enough to attend college in the US.

I have some entries on my LJ about translating fic to German (here's the tag). Feel free to look them up. I'm German myself and so are the non-native speakers in the comment section. I'm sure we made plenty of common grammatical mistakes there. (the rest of my public LJ is mostly fic and that's beta'd so it might not be of help)

I once worked in a publishing house and a German customer wrote asking us to send him a whole consignment of books without prepayment, assuring us that on receipt he would pay "quite soon", having failed to realise that "quite" is only sometimes equivalent to German ganz and that in other contexts, as when coupled with "soon", it is equivalent to ziemlich.

Of course this is the kind of mistake that any non-native speaker might make, not only a German, but it's a good one.

"We've hardly been working on it" for "We have been working hard on it".

Uncommon after even a few months of immersion, though.

German native speaker, but I learned English when I was five so I'm quasi-bilingual and don't tend to make many of the "typical" mistakes in English. But I'll try to figure it out from all the years of ESL classes in Germany anyway.

Someone mentioned that they might not speak American English. This is true, as in German schools (at least all the ones I went to, and in all my textbooks) you learn British English. We did have sections on differences in American/British vocabulary, but in general? British English. Your char may have switched to more American phrasing, but it's something you can play with if you want.

As people have mentioned, the simple vs. progressive distinction doesn't exist in German, so there is no "I go" vs "I am going" - and the same in past ("I went"/"I have been going"), pluperfect and future (analogously). This gets confused a lot. Something I've also seen is getting if clauses wrong, e.g. using "would" in the if part - "if I would go to school I would do X" instead of "if I went to school", although I'm not sure how common this is with more accomplished native speakers.

False cognates are an excellent point - as a personal example, for years I used "muster" to mean "look at something carefully" until someone pointed out to me that it doesn't work that way in English (in German, the word is "mustern"). One I haven't seen mentioned yet is idioms. Speech is likely to be less idiomatic, and sometimes someone may accidentally think a German idiom is English or is not an idiom at all and translate it word-for-word so googling "literal translations of German idioms" or something might be a start. (I'm looking, but I can't find any long lists at the moment, sorry.) I remember going "break your head over something" for thinking really hard/brainstorming over something ("sich über etwas den Kopf zerbrechen"). Chances are it's going to be things like that, that are idioms that don't exist in the foreign language but where they're close enough to the actual meaning of the phrase that you can get fooled into thinking they're not idiomatic, that get confused. I've never been tempted to say "have a chicken to pluck with someone" instead of "have a bone to pick with someone", forex.

...although it would be pretty funny.

Confusion of prepositions I could see, but the problem with that is that you'd have to look up which English prepositional phrases correspond to which German ones and when they use which preposition and it would get very very annoying if you don't speak German.

There might be article confusion as well like you mentioned for French speakers because although we /have/ articles they work differently in some situations. Am trying to think of some examples... err, people who know what I'm talking about, help? :( I'm not sure if it happens on the same words it would for the French folks, so.

Oh, and re: pronunciation - this is actually the first time I've heard people say they confuse v and w, I previously thought it was an invention. OTOH, A very typical aspect of pronunciation for German native speakers is a) a glottal stop in front of all vowels and b) final stop devoicing, so at the end of a word the sound "d" turns into "t", "g" turns into "k", "b" turns into "p", "z" turns into "s", etc. However, representing those things in written language seems as if it would be either impossibly annoying to read and make the character seem like a caricature or impossible to do, so.

Finally, since writers like to play with this, lapses into German - if I've forgotten a piece of vocabulary, I might use the German out of sheer annoyance and then follow up with an explanation. "I want to go to the... um... um... what's the word for that again... Kirmes, damnit! The place with all the tents and the popcorn and the carousels!" or something. This (or being *really* tired and forgetting which language I'm speaking, or when talking with other Germans) is the only time I'd use German when speaking English - no random "ja" and "nein" for me, kthxbai. Um, and swearing. >> Well, and I might use German exclamations - by which I mean, if I see something incredibly disgusting I might go "Eeeeee!" or "Igitt!" instead of "Ewwwwww!" or something like that.

...holy cow I didn't realise I'd written that much.

This may not be true of all native German speakers, but I have a friend who moved to an English-speaking environment. And she picked up English but she always confused this/that/these/those. For example, she'd be talking about some friends of hers who weren't present and rather than say 'I really like those people' she'd say 'I really like these people'. And she could never really learn how to distinguish that typically 'this/these' are used when something is immediately present whereas 'that/those' are used when something is further away or absent.

But that may have just been an idiosyncrasy of hers rather than common to all native German-speakers. Sorry I can't be more help!

This translates 1:1 to German, but there are a lot of native speakers who cannot do it in German, either.

My German exchange partner kept saying 'photo' instead of 'camera', even though she knew when thinking about it it was the wrong word. And frequent use of 'make', saying "What shall we make today" rather than 'do'. I think that one's more of a learner error, but correct-but-unidiomatic verb tense use would be common - lots of people near me speak fluent non-native English and say "I go shopping tomorrow" or "I will go shopping tomorrow" rather than "I'm going shopping tomorrow"

My German exchange partner kept saying 'photo' instead of 'camera',

Along those lines, the Germany word for a mobile phone is "Handy". And it is pronounced as if it were English, so few people will remember that it is the wrong word when speaking English...

Also, the amount of words that are dirty in the US usually come as a surprise to any non-native speaker.


Pronunciation can be a huge problem, even for someone who's mostly fluent. So it might depend on your characters language abilities and the teachers he had at school on how good his pronunciation is.

Has he been at the US-college for three years? Or are you simple saying he's been to college for three years before moving to the US? Because the school system in Germany differs from the US. No colleges for one thing.

As for pronunciation problems: The first would be the th. That sound doesn't exist in German. Even today I sometimes still run through the exercises to train my tongue. Exercises I learned from an Irish family-friend who was teaching English as a foreign language and only teaching adults. Those exercises are not something taught at a normal school.

The English r especially in combination with w is another one where a lot of Germans have massive problems. It's like trying to tie your tongue into a knot. If I concentrate I can do it right and sound very posh British, but if I'm just talking I might slip sometimes.

W and V. The English V is pronunced like a German W and the English W is once again a sound that doesn't really exist in German.

'when' and 'if'. Also mixing up Simple Past and Present Perfect. But if he had a good teacher and is mostly fluent then this wouldn't happen anymore.

Preposistions! The correct use of preposistions. Is it 'at school' or 'in school'? That can be very confusing. same with 'from' and 'by'.

I'm trying to think of stuff I had problem with when I was in the US the first time because at that time I would have basically fit your criteria (fluent in English, knew some slang, several years studying English Lit at the university). The few people who didn't assume I was Irish or British, remarked on the pronunciation-thing, mostly the r and the w/v-problem. Hm, I had a tiny problem with cock and rooster, but I only made that one once *g* and it was a very funny moment.

It might also depend on whether your character learned British or American English in school, most teacher say either one or the other but not both mixed together. So if he adapted words from tv and learned British English at school your character would speak a mix of both and make the more typical British-mistakes *g*.

I had massive problems understanding some people, especially someone from New York (despite watching X-Files) and from the very deep South.

By now my main problems are usually the pronunciation of words I haven't heard before, or that are just problematic like comfortable (it's komfortable in Germany and pronounced very differently).

I rarely make grammar mistakes anymore (I think *g*), although sometimes I'm tempted to use things like "Komposita" (putting words together to create new words) in English. Aside from that, punctuation is a problem, as it also differs from German usage and depending on the school isn't even taught. At least I've never learned it in school.

Oh, if you want examples why not try listening to some Germans who are living in the US i.e. Heidi Klum, Diane Kruger, Wolfgang Petersen, etc. You might even try Arnold Schwarzenegger although he's Austrian and his Austrian dialect comes through when he speaks English. That might give you an idea on how someone would sound who's basically fluent and has spend some time in the US.

Oh, another thing. Denglish!

Germans use a lot of English expressions or pseudo-english expressions that either have a different meaning in English or don't even exist in English. A wonderful example is the German word Handy for cell-phone.

This might give you an over-view of the false friends: http://www.englisch-hilfen.de/en/words/false_friends.htm

Although mixing those up shouldn't really happen to someone who's very fluent and has spend some time around native speakers.

And something I just thought off: when I'm doing verbal translations and don't know the right word I try to describe what I mean. So lack of specific vocabulary might sometimes be a stumbling block. Or your character might also ask someone to explain a word or an expression he doesn't know the meaning of.

I'm just adding things *g*. As a German he also might cuss a lot less than Americans seem to do. But that might depend on his social bachground.

Certain slang-things you don't hear on tv might be confusing like "Don't bs me."

Ah, as you mentioned tv. US tv-shows in Germany are dubbed into German. In bigger cities it's possible to watch movies in the original version at the movies (a German might be tempted to say 'at the cinema' here), but to watch tv-shows in the English version you either need friends or the DVDs. Most US-onlineshops for downloading eps don't work outside the US. What one can watch on tv in English is stuff like CNN and BBC-News.

I don't know how big the chances are that your character is going to discuss animals, but that's something where he might slip. Nouns in German are gendered, and while it usually isn't a problem to just use "the" and "it" when speaking English, I know that I and other Germans tend to make mistakes when we talk about animals. For example a lion is masculine in German, and it might happen that your character says something like, "I saw a lion at the zoo the other day. He was very frightening when he roared." Of course, you'd need to know all the correct genders for animals if you wanted to use this. :)

The suggestion of "photo" instead of "camera" is a very good one, and the suggestion that it's quite likely he would have learned British English at school (I had a wonderful British accent when I left school. That was, however, nearly 20 years ago *g*)

Something I remembered: I think it's common that if you're doing anything related to numbers, or even counting, in your head, you'll likely do that in your native language. When I talk in English, I think in English, too (and he'd certainly do that if he's fluent and living in a country where it's the main language), but if I had to do any Maths, or even quickly count something, I'd do that in German.

With any higher maths, it depends. I have *no* idea what the proper terms for something like calculus even are in English, but if he learned calculus exclusively in English, he'd thing and figure in English, I think.

Usually, if you are even moderatley fluent, you don't make mental translations. You think in the language until you hit a concept that drops you out of the language because you do not know the word. You solve the problem (paraphrasing, remembering the word, or looking it up), then go on thinking in the foreign language. Patterns, however, often override your language knowledge, like the french "non?" where, I suspect, they won't even know they are doing it.

"actual" for "current".

If they are southern German or Austrian, putting a "the" in front of given names.

Mixing up prepositions.

Ignoring tenses. German is very laid-back when it comes to tenses, there is nothing you cannot say in present tense or present perfect. "I go to school tomorrow". "Before I have gone to school yesterday I have bought sandwiches".

Long, long, long sentences.

Wrong word order for questions: "You have been there?"

Pronounciation: speaking a "v" as a "w" and the other way around. speaking "s" as "z", and "th" as "z" or "d".

Spelling: "w" is "vee", not "doulbe-u". Most Germans have learned the BE alphabet: "What does 'ezed' mean?". Same with other strange American lettering: "Exmas? Exing?"

Answering to "How are you" or "How do you do" as if it was a question.

Desperately searching the word for the time between 9 pm and 12pm , because in Germany "morning" ends at 8:59 (or 7:59, sometimes...). All kinds of fun with the clock, actually. German "halb vier (half four)" is English "half past three". Also, in Germany it's often a 24 hour clock. IMO that is one of the things that's really hard to learn. I'm still doing it wrong.

Saying numbers in wrong order. In German, with a two-digit number, you say last-first, in English you say first-last. (Fun when you get told that it's 27 pounds, and your brain supplies an image of "72".)


Also, in Germany it's often a 24 hour clock. IMO that is one of the things that's really hard to learn. I'm still doing it wrong.

*Nod* I once tried to explain to an American when we say 14 o'clock and when 2 o'clock , both meaning of course 2 pm. As a German this whole am and pm thing is something to get used to and sometimes I still have to think which one means morning and which one means afternoon.

German "halb vier (half four)" is English "half past three".

It gets worse: in Southern Germany "dreiviertel zwei" (three-quarters two) actually means "a quarter past one".

I'm actually US born, but I picked up enough German word order from my mother (who emigrated 2 years before I was born) that I can confuse Americans. It's not super noticable, but it will happen often enough that I have been asked (and some people have picked up that it's German word order that I use).

Hmmm...I think it depends on the individual. My Oma was a native German-speaker who lived through the war, met my papa, married him, and moved to New Mexico after the war was over. So, she had to learn both Spanish and English at once. I have no idea what her difficulties were in the beginning, but I can ask her. English is a Germanic langugage, so there are more similarities between English and German than Spanish and German, though the sentence structures are still different. I do know, if I listen close enough, I noticed, "da" instead of "the" (not as explicit a lack of a "th" as Asians I've been around), and she pronounces her Ws as Vs since the W makes a V sound in German. Her spelling is...interesting. Her shopping list the other day? "Eggz" rather than "eggs," lol.

I have a friend who is from Austria, whom I met online. He learned English quite well. He says "vork," (or pronounced like "or") instead of "work" and has the tendency to say "da" instead of "the" and to pronounce W as a V, too. When he writes, his spelling and grammar are quite good (role-playing buddy, so I see him write quite frequently); I wouldn't know he wasn't a native English speaking person if he hadn't told me otherwise. I've not noticed any weird phrases. He's certainly not uber formal in his writing or speech and has picked up on phrases.

The way my oma talks, they quite frequently teach English over in Germany since it is the business language. She's in contact with her sister and brother still over there and some others in the family. I don't know if it's mandatory to learn English or if it's something that is recommended (kind of like Spanish or Punjabi are here).

Either way, I will talk to one or both of them and let you know.

I personally believe it depends on the character, though. For example, some people I know can't learn Spanish to save their lives, for example, so if he learned English in Germany (or w/e German-speaking country he's from), if he's not had much schooling in it and/or doesn't pick up on it very well, he'd be more impaired than one who has picked up on it and/or had plenty of schooling. Given that he's going to college in America, I would say he'd be pretty fluent, no? Another thing to factor in is where he is from. Some places have dialects that would affect how he's used to pronouncing a letter or set of letters that wouldn't be affected if he were from another part of a German-speaking country.

My oma is from Austria, and she uses the "become" thing a lot when talking sbout getting things. When she says something is the same as, or different from, something else, she'll use "like" for some reason; ex. "Your cousin is the same like you; neither of you eat enough!" When she says she knows all about something it's "I know from that all" or "I know all from that." (This has become my catchphrase.)

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