Top German Mistakes Made by Beginners

And How to Fix Them

Mistakes Happen, Especially When You're Learning a Foreign Language. Getty Images/Steven Gottlieb

Unfortunately, there are much more than ten mistakes you can make in German! However, we want to concentrate on the top ten kinds of mistakes that beginning students of German are likely to make.

But before we get to that, think about this: How is learning a second language different from learning a first? There are many differences, but the most significant difference is that with a first language there is no interference from another language.

An infant learning to speak for the first time is a blank slate—without any preconceived notions of how a language is supposed to work. That is definitely not the case for anyone who decides to learn a second language. An English speaker who is learning German must guard against the influence of English.

The first thing any language student has to accept is that there is no right or wrong way to construct a language. English is what it is; German is what it is. Arguing about a language's grammar or vocabulary is like arguing about the weather: you can't change it. If the gender of Haus is neuter (das), you can't arbitrarily change it to der. If you do, then you risk being misunderstood. The reason languages have a particular grammar is to avoid breakdowns in communication.

Mistakes Are Unavoidable

Even if you understand the concept of first-language interference, does that mean you'll never make a mistake in German?

Of course not. And that leads us to a big mistake that many students make: Being afraid to make a mistake. Speaking and writing German is a challenge for any student of the language. But the fear of making a mistake can keep you from making progress. Students who don't worry so much about embarrassing themselves end up using the language more and making quicker progress.

1. Thinking in English

It's only natural that you'll think in English when you begin to learn another language. But the number one mistake made by beginners is thinking too literally and translating word-for-word. As you progress you need to start to "think German" more and more. Even beginners can learn to "think" in German phrases at an early stage. If you keep using English as a crutch, always translating from English to German, you're doing something wrong. You don't really know German until you start to "hear" it in your head! German doesn't always put things together like English. 

2. Getting Genders Mixed Up

While languages such as French, Italian, or Spanish are content to have just two genders for nouns, German has three! Since every noun in German is either der, die, or das, you need to learn each noun with its gender. Using the wrong gender not only makes you sound stupid, it also can cause changes in meaning. Yes, I know it's aggravating that any six-year-old in Germany can rattle off the gender of any common noun, but that's the way it is. 

3. Case Confusion

If you don't understand what the "nominative" case is in English, or what a direct or indirect object is, then you're going to have problems with case in German.

Case is usually indicated in German by "inflection": putting different endings on articles and adjectives. When der changes to den or dem, it does so for a reason. That reason is the same one that makes the pronoun "he" change to "him" in English (or er to ihn in German). Not using the correct case is very likely to confuse people a lot!

4. Word Order 

German word order (or syntax) is more flexible than English syntax and relies more on case endings for clarity. In German, the subject may not always come first in a sentence. In subordinate (dependent) clauses, the conjugated verb may be at the end of the clause.

5. Calling Someone 'Sie' Instead of 'du'

Almost every language in the world—besides English—has at least two kinds of "you": one for formal use, the other for familiar use. English once had this distinction ("thou" and "thee" are related to German "du"), but for some reason, it now uses only one form of "you" for all situations.

This means that English-speakers often have problems learning to use Sie (formal) and du/ihr (familiar). The problem extends to verb conjugation and command forms, which are also different in Sie and du situations.

6. Getting Prepositions Wrong

One of the easiest ways to spot a non-native speaker of any language is the misuse of prepositions. German and English often use different prepositions for similar idioms or expressions: "wait for"/warten auf, "be interested in"/sich interessieren für, and so on. In English, you take medicine "for" something, in German gegen ("against") something. German also has two-way prepositions that can take two different cases (accusative or dative), depending on the situation.

7. Using Umlaute (Umlauts)

German "Umlauts" (Umlaute in German) can lead to problems for beginners. Words can change their meaning based on whether they have an umlaut or not. For example, zahlen means to "pay" but zählen means to "count." Bruder is one brother, but Brüder means "brothers" - more than one. Pay attention to words that may have potential problems. Since only a, o, and u can have an umlaut, those are the vowels to be aware of.

8. Punctuation and Contractions

German punctuation and the use of the apostrophe is often different than in English. Possessives in German usually do not use an apostrophe. German uses contractions in many common expressions, some of which use an apostrophe ("Wie geht's?") and some of which do not ("zum Rathaus"). Related to the prepositional hazards mentioned above are German prepositional contractions.

Contractions such as amansins, or im can be possible pitfalls.

9. Those Pesky Capitalization Rules

German is the only modern language that requires the capitalization of all nouns, but there are other potential problems. For one thing, adjectives of nationality are not capitalized in German as they are in English. Partly due to German spelling reform, even Germans can have problems with spelling hazards like am besten or auf Deutsch. You can find the rules and a lot of hints for German spelling in our capitalization lesson and try our spelling quiz.

10. Using the Helping Verbs 'Haben' and 'Sein'

In English, the present perfect is always formed with the helping verb "have." German verbs in the conversational past (present/past perfect) can use either haben (have) or sein (be) with the past participle. Since those verbs using "to be" are less frequent, you need to learn which ones use sein or in which situations a verb may use haben or sein in the present or past perfect tense.

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Flippo, Hyde. "Top German Mistakes Made by Beginners." ThoughtCo, Mar. 30, 2017, thoughtco.com/top-german-mistakes-made-by-beginners-1444009. Flippo, Hyde. (2017, March 30). Top German Mistakes Made by Beginners. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/top-german-mistakes-made-by-beginners-1444009 Flippo, Hyde. "Top German Mistakes Made by Beginners." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/top-german-mistakes-made-by-beginners-1444009 (accessed November 19, 2017).