5 Common Mistakes Learning German (and How to Fix Them)
When you first start speaking German, you’re bound to make mistakes. You can’t expect to just open your mouth and start speaking a second language perfectly. If only it worked like that!
What’s most important is to not let mistakes hold you back. As I live by the rule of speaking from day one, I find myself making lots of errors when I start learning a new language. I don’t get worked up about it anymore – I laugh and move on.
As should you!
Here are some of the common German mistakes people make when they're learning German. Plus how you can fix them.
Mistake 1: Not Speaking German
One of the worst things you can do for yourself when learning a new language is to continue to speak in English.
Pouring hours into studying and paying for expensive courses will only get you so far. You’ll still be predominantly expressing yourself in English and this is where the problem lies.
You want to learn how to speak German? Great! To do that you have to actually start speaking German. It’s a pretty obvious solution!
I hear the excuse all the time, of people saying they’ll wait until they are “ready” before they start speaking the language. They do this due to fear. Fear of feeling stupid, fear of making mistakes and fear of failure.
How to Fix It
Well, guess what? You’re going to make mistakes. It’s natural when learning a new language! No one is going to judge you for it. In fact, I’ve found most people to be so happy to hear me make an effort to speak their native tongue, that they have gone out of their way to help me when I blunder.
Instead of waiting until you’re perfect, work on learning 20 words at a time and then use them as often as possible. Once you’re confident in remembering these words, learn more! Words will become sentences and sentences will become full blown conversations.
Mistake 2: Mixing Up Genders
Beginner to intermediate learners will generally become endlessly befuddled when learning gender assignments. These are particularly confusing if you are a native speaker of a language like English, which doesn’t use masculine, feminine and neutral articles. The whole practice can seem pointless – why are we adding genders to inanimate objects anyway?
How to Fix It
The flick of the switch for me, was not staring at a table – “Der Tisch”, and wondering how the heck anyone decided that a piece of furniture should be male. It was understanding that it was the word “Tisch” that was masculine, not the table itself. I realised there was no point sitting around and analysing parts of objects to try and figure out whether they seemed manly or girly. Instead, I had to look at parts of words, searching for patterns which would clue me onto what gender articles I was supposed to be using.
Your best bet is to look for the patterns in words, particularly at word endings. Once you have memorised a few, they will begin to come to you more easily.
Let’s look at a group of feminine articles. Die Rose (the rose), die Lampe (the lamp) and die Melone (the melon), all end in –e. There is the odd exception to the rule – such as der Käse (the cheese), which uses the masculine article. Just remember that it is not the end of the world if you stuff up and make a mistake. Someone will eventually correct you, or you’ll realise yourself and will remember for next time!
Mistake 3: Using the Wrong Tools for Learning German
I hear lots of stories about people who spent years learning languages at school, only to find themselves unable to string more than a few simple sentences together.
I myself studied Gaeilge for ten years and German for five during my school years. It wasn’t until after I left school and changed my entire approach to learning languages that I could consider myself anywhere near fluent in either one.
If studying textbooks bores you to tears no matter what the context, then it’s probably not going to do you any favours with your language prowess. You’ll probably spend a few hours trying to absorb grammar rules, a process which you’ll find so monotonous that you’ll likely give the whole thing up.
Learning a language should never be a chore, otherwise what’s the point? It should be an activity you enjoy doing and are happy to come back to again and again.
How to Fix It
You need to find ways to make learning German work for you. If you consider yourself a film buff, swap the English movies for some German classics. Love cooking? Try making Strudel using a German recipe. Too busy for extended periods of study? Use flashcards to learn vocab and take advantage of any spare few minutes you have throughout the day.
Make learning fun, a highlight of your day and you’ll have a much better chance at success.
Mistake 4: Mixing Up the Word Order
A basic sentence consists of a verb and a bunch of other words. When speaking in your native language, you put these words together automatically, without needing to think about it. However, when you begin learning a new language, other questions arise. Where do you put the verb? How do the other words in the sentence relate to it?
English tends to rely on word order to indicate the grammatical function of a word or phrase. Compare “The dog catches the ball” to “The ball catches the dog”. The placement of the words “dog” and “ball” can lead the sentence to take on an entirely different (and frankly, unlikely) meaning!
However in German there would be several possibilities for the word order of this sentence. As the verb is akkusitiv (as in it expresses the object of an action), you could say Der Hund fängt den Ball or Den Ball fängt der Hund. This doesn’t work for all sentences – only when an article is different in the akkusitiv or dativ (a category of nouns serving as the indirect object of a verb) form. But it does show that word order can be really different in German compared to English.
How to Fix It
The basic rules to remember in German are:
- The main verb, in the past or present form, is almost always the second word in a sentence.
- The dictionary form (always ending in -en) is placed at the end of a sentence.
If you use a connective word like tomorrow, yesterday or today, the verb comes in the second position, with the noun or pronoun following after. An example of this would be Am Mittwoch rufe ich meine Schwester an. If speaking English we would say: ”I’ll call my sister on Wednesday”, but in German it translates to ”On Wednesday I’ll call my sister”. In German the most important thing is verb position, whereas in English the importance is placed on the object.
Word order is a complex aspect of learning another language. The solution? Be aware of the differences and keep up with your spoken practice.
Mistake 5: Confusing English Words with German Words and so Mispronouncing Them
When someone wishes you a Gute Fahrt, what immediately springs to mind? It doesn’t mean what you think it means, I can tell you that! Fahrt means a “trip” or “journey” in Germany – it has absolutely nothing to do with bodily functions.
Similarly, if you were to say Du bist dick, you would be insulting them, but not in the manner that may think of first and foremost! There is no need to place your mind in the gutter, as dick is German for heavy, thick or fat. Still a bit mean, but not quite as rude as first thought!
On the flip side, consider the word Fuchs, the German word for fox. If you find yourself in a situation where you need to use this word, remember ”u” in German is pronounced “oo”. Many Germans speak English or are at least familiar with the expletives. A harmless statement could easily be misconstrued as something entirely different.
How to Fix It
The best thing to do is to practice your German pronunciation and try not to jump to conclusions if you hear a throwaway comment that you don’t completely understand.
Why Learning German isn’t as Hard as You Think it is
Often the mistakes language learners make are purely psychological. You slip up, forget a word, or mix up the syntax. Rather than just laughing it off, you feel embarrassed. You then take every effort to convince yourself that you’re stupid, you don’t have the language gene – you should just give up now, quit while you’re ahead.
German is not a hard language to learn. Be aware that you will make mistakes from time to time and that it’s perfectly normal. They will be mere bumps in the road on your journey towards achieving fluency.