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Four common mistakes English speakers make when learning German

German is a notoriously challenging language, not least for its complex grammatical system. Just remember to avoid the following common pitfalls as an English speaker, and you'll sound like a native in no time.

Four common mistakes English speakers make when learning German
Like Yoda you must sound when speaking German. (Photo by Lukas Denier on Unsplash)

From false friends to tricky word order, learning German can feel like navigating an obstacle course sometimes.

But don’t worry: we’re here to take you through some of the most common pitfalls for English speakers. Steer clear of these, and your Austrian friends are bound to be sehr beeindruckt (very impressed) at your incredible progress in learning their notoriously difficult language. 

  • Keep your friends close, but your false friends closer! 

It’s easy to get caught out by false friends in the German language. Sometimes a word sounds similar to something in English, so we deduce it must also mean something similar. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, which can lead to a whole world of confusion.

Below are some examples of common false friends to watch out for:

Ich werde vs Ich will 

The first person present tense form of wollen is misleading for English speakers – the first person conjugation will may appear to be the same as the English verb ‘will’, just with a slightly different pronunciation.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to get free vouchers to learn German in Vienna

In actual fact, ich will means ‘I want’, whereas it is ich werde which means ‘I will’. It’s a bit of a muddle, but nothing some memorisation can’t fix!

Ich werde = I will

Ich will = I want   

Das Gift

This one is particularly important. In English, a gift is a present which we very kindly receive or give, but this is known as a Geschenk in German. Das Gift, which in actual fact means poison or toxin, is something we definitely don’t want to give to any of our closest friends on their birthdays. (Though for those of us whose cake-baking skills are particularly bad, it has been known to happen.)  

Das Gift = poison

Das Geschenk = present/gift

Mixing up your gifts could be the difference between a delicious birthday cake and a terrible stomach ache


Particularly when asking a question, the word wer is sure to come up at some point. To English speakers, this is yet another misleading piece of vocab – sounding like the English ‘where’, it actually means ‘who’.  

Wer = who

Wo = where

Wo gehst du?
Where are you going?

Wer ist Julian?
Who is Julian?

The above are just a few examples of some false friends in the German language – they can cause confusion but just keeping an eye out for them will help! See this website link for a longer list of false friends in German.

  • Haben or Sein? Time to toss a coin! 

German grammar is probably one of the trickiest parts of learning the language. We know that when using the perfect past tense we need to combine an auxiliary (helping) verb with the past participle (e.g. gegessen). Deciding whether to use haben or sein as the auxiliary verb can be confusing, though.

Simply speaking, haben goes with transitive verbs, while sein is used with intransitive verbs. 

Important to remember, is that intransitive verbs are those associated with movement from A to B, for example laufen (‘to run’), as well a change of state or condition, for example einschlafen (‘to fall asleep’). 

Tut mir Leid, dass ich deinen Anruf verpasst habe – ich bin eingeschlafen!

Sorry that I missed your call – I fell asleep!

As with anything, there are exceptions. Despite not conveying movement or changing state specifically, the three verbs bleiben (‘to stay’), werden (‘to become’) and sein (‘to be’) are also intransitive and must also take sein as their auxiliary. 

Er ist lange bei uns geblieben.

He stayed with us for a long time. 

Some more detailed guidelines can be found here.

  • Speaking like Yoda from Star Wars…

With your standard Ich mag Kaffee (‘I like coffee’) sentence, word order follows the same rules as English – Subject-Verb-Object. 

Ich mag Kaffee. 


I like coffee.


However, as you start to develop complexity in your sentences, word order rules begin to change too. It’s important to remember that the verb is pretty important when it comes to constructing German sentences, so focus on that. As demonstrated below, certain conjunctions and time phrases shake things up a little…

Coordinating conjunctions such as und, aber and oder have no effect on word order. (That’s something to be grateful for… right?) 

READ ALSO: TEST: Is your German good enough for Austrian citizenship?

However, subordinating conjunctions – which generally add more information to the main clause of a sentence, like how or what or why – cause the verb (or first verb if there are more than one) to move to the end of the clause.

Some examples of subordinating conjunctions include weil (because), dass (that) and obwohl (although). Think of these subordinating conjunctions like footballers that kick the ball (in this case, the verb) right across the pitch. 

Ich mag den Winter nicht, aber ich mag Weihnachten.

I don’t like winter, but I do like Christmas.   

Ich mag den Winter nicht, weil er mir zu kalt ist.

I don’t like winter, because it’s too cold for me.

The verb is also sent to the end in other linguistic scenarios, such as when using a modal verb like can, should, could, or will

Ich werde die Milch kaufen.

I will buy the milk.

Or in a relative clause:

Die Milch, die wir für das Rezept brauchen.

The milk, which we need for the recipe. 

Das Rezept, das wir heute Abend kochen werden

The recipe, which we will cook tonight.

As in the example above, sometimes a relative clause will have more than one verb. In this case, it is the first verb which will appear at the end. 

READ ALSO: Austria: Eight of the funniest mistakes people learning German make

Inversion, in which the verb is brought in front of the subject into a VERB – SUBJECT – OBJECT order, is also a regular feature of German sentences. Inversions are caused by temporal adverbs or prepositional phrases:

Heute gehe ich ins Kino.


Hopefully this gives you a brief overview of some word order particularities in German. This is by no means exhaustive, so watch out for other changes in word order, such as when using adverbs

  • Like this? No, like that! 

We know that the German wie can mean various things, including ‘like’ as a conjunction. Don’t fall into the trap, however, of translating the English phrase ‘like this/that’ literally, to ‘wie das’. 

It doesn’t work this way in German, so if you want to talk about something being ‘like that’ or doing something in a particular way, use so 

Du musst das so machen!

You have to do it like that!  

Es sieht so aus.

It looks like that. 

The above German language tips are not at all exhaustive and just cover a few areas of difficulty that most of us learners struggle with from time to time. It’ll come together with practice, so keep going! And don’t get discouraged if your Yoda impression a little time takes. 

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The seven stages of learning German every foreigner goes through

German is a notoriously difficult language to learn and the path to fluency is marked by milestones that every budding German speaker will recognise.

The seven stages of learning German every foreigner goes through

Stage 1: Terror

You’ve just set foot on Austrian soil and are ready to begin your new life in Österreich. While you may have left home feeling excited and full of enthusiasm for learning the German language, you now find yourself in a world of alarmingly long and confusing words containing strange symbols which are impossible to pronounce – and that’s before realising that there are regional dialects to make things harder.

You’re confronted with long words like Ausländerbehörde, Aufenthaltsbescheinigung, and Wohnungsanmeldung and the prospect of having to get to grips with a language whose average word contains 14 letters slowly dawns on you. It’s terrifying.

Tip: Don’t panic. At first, learning German can seem like a daunting prospect, but as you start to take your first baby steps into the language, you’ll soon realise it’s not as bad as you think. And those long words are just lots of smaller words squashed together.

READ ALSO: ‘Brutal’: What it’s really like to learn German in Austria

Stage 2: Determination

You’ve got over the initial shock of realising the true scale of the linguistic mountain you’ll have to climb to learn German – and you resolve to conquer it.

You enrol in a language course and arm yourself with grammar books and language learning apps, and you start making progress very quickly. You realise that a lot of German words have the same roots as their English cousins and that words and phrases are sticking in your head more quickly than you expected. The flames of optimism begin to grow.

A couple practices the German language. Photo: Annika Gordon/Unsplash

Tip: Keep up that spirit and persist with the grammar books and vocab learning, ideally on a daily basis and start speaking the language as much as you can – even if it’s just reading aloud to yourself. 

Stage 3: Obsession

Spurred on by your new ability to introduce yourself, talk about the weather and tell people about your pets, you launch an all-out assault on the German language.

READ ALSO: How to remember the gender of German words

You’ve got post-it notes filled with vocab stuck all over your flat, you’ve got three tandem partners and ORF is blasting 24/7 from your Laptop.

You are now officially obsessed with the German language.

Tip: Don’t be too hard on yourself once this phase of unbridled enthusiasm burns out. Though it’s great to have a period of immersion in the long-run, regular learning – even for shorter periods – is the key to progress.

Stage 4: Experimentation

You’ve now got a solid base of internal vocab and you’ve got to grips with the most important grammar rules. You can use the dative and genitive cases with increasing ease and you’re using modal verbs on a regular basis. 

You now feel ready to road-test your new language skills in the big wide world. You don’t ask Sprechen Sie englisch? (do you speak English?) any more and instead try to communicate only in German. 

Tip: Bolster this experimentation phase by consuming more Austrian media. Listen to Austrian podcasts, check out Austrian TV shows and try to read the news in German. 

READ ALSO: 8 Austrian TV series to watch to improve your (Austrian) German

Stage 5: Frustration

Just as you were starting to gain confidence in the language, you hit a brick wall. You spent an evening in the company of German speakers, or you attended a meeting at work where you found yourself fumbling for vocabulary and stumbling over grammar.

You can’t, for the life of you, remember whether it’s der, die or das Licht even though you’ve looked it up at least a hundred times. 

A German dictionary. Photo: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash

What’s the point, you ask yourself. You want to give up and just switch to speaking English permanently, as everyone you meet seems to speak perfect English anyway.

Tip: Everyone feels like this at some point when learning a new language and it’s likely to happen more than once on your language-learning journey. Keep going and don’t compare your German language skills with the English skills of German natives. Remember that most Austrians have grown up listening to songs and watching films in English, so it will take you a bit longer to get to grips with German in the same way. 

Stage 6: Breakthrough

You’re not quite sure what’s happened, but something seems to have clicked. You’re suddenly using the right past participles 90 percent of the time and you’re using reflexive verbs with ease. People are rarely switching to English when speaking to you and you’re understanding almost everything you see and hear.

READ ALSO: Six ways to fall in love with learning German again

Tip: Remember this feeling when you are revisited by frustration in the future. 

Stage 7: Acceptance

You still make mistakes, you don’t know all of the words in the German dictionary, and you still mix up der, die and das – but it’s ok. You’ve come a long way and you accept that your German will probably never be perfect and that the learning process will be a lifelong pursuit. 

Tip: The more you use the language, the more you’ll improve. Keep reading, speaking and listening and, one day, it won’t even feel like an effort anymore.