Beware of false friends – 10 common errors for English speakers learning German

Given some of the similarities that exist between the German and the English language it is easy to believe that everything that sounds alike will also have the identical meaning. Needless to say this isn’t always the case. Below find a list of some of the most commonly made errors for English language speakers learning German. (Or for that matter for German language speakers learning English!)

der After
The fact that this word is capitalised and preceded by a “der” should already help to identify that this is a masculine noun and that therefore the meaning will not be identical to the English “after”. The German term is the proper medical term for the, ahem, “anus”. Given that we are talking posteriors here, this should at least help to create some kind of mnemonic connection between those words.

das Gift
In German “Gift” actually means “poison”. If you wanted to refer to a present you would instead use “das Geschenk”.

This does not mean “to become”, but “to receive, to get”, i.e.
Ich bekomme ein Geschenk.
I am getting a present.
(You did remember that “Geschenk” was “gift/present”, didn’t you?)

(ich, er sie, es) will
In German “will” does not describe the future tense, but indicates that either I (ich) or he/she/it (er/sie/es) wants something. It is derived from the irregular German verb “wollen”. For the record, the relevant forms of the verb are:
ich will, du willst, er/sie/es will, wir wollen, ihr wollt, sie wollen
In order to express the future tense in German you would want to use forms of “werden”, e.g.
ich werde, du wirst, er/sie/es wird, wir werden, ihr werdet, sie werden

Easily confused with “sensible”, but it actually means “sensitive”.

das Handy
A relatively new term that you likely didn’t learn in school if you first learned German more than 10-15 years ago, “das Handy” means “mobile phone” and has nothing to do with being handy or a handyman. The connection is with “die Hand”, i.e. a phone you carry in your hand, and yes, quite obviously a really dreadful Anglicism. Incidentally in German you wouldn’t “txt” or “text”, but “simsen”, i.e. send an SMS (SiMS, geddit?) message. And a “portable (house) telephone” is a… “Mobiltelefon”.

das Rezept
If you fancy a receipt, go and ask for “die Quittung”. If you are asking for a “Rezept” you would like a recipe for a meal…. and possibly also for a linguistic disaster if you get it wrong and mixed up.

der Chef
In German this is a very common term for “boss”. (Though you could also say “der Boss” or more formal “der/die Vorgesetzte”). If you rather talk about a chef/cook, use the term “der Koch” or “die Köchin” (for a female chef).

This means “possibly” or “maybe”. “Eventually” on the other hand is “schließlich” or “letztendlich”.
In a similar vein, aktuell does not mean “actual” or “actually”, but “current, up to the minute”. Use “eigentlich” or “tatsächlich” to translate “actual(ly)”.

There are scores more of these false friends in the German language, but make sure to remember these ten as they are some of the most common ones that, make no mistake, you will confuse at least a few times when first learning the language.

5 thoughts on “Beware of false friends – 10 common errors for English speakers learning German

  1. Hi,

    to my knowledge the English word ‘sympathy’ descibes a different feeling than then the German word ‘Sympathie’.

    Sympathy seems to express a feeling of concern or worry about another person.
    Sympathie expresses the feeling of closeseness, liking, accepting, tending towards someone else. In general a very ‘positiv’ feeling ‘Er ist mir sehr sympathisch’. Could be translated to ‘I really like him’. But I think that translation doesn’t transport the unspoken agreement why he is ‘sympatisch’ to you e.g. because of his political ideas, appearance, ability to express himself that the German word contains.) A native speaker of German would expect an agreement or allignment of you and that third person of any kind (otherwise the thied person wouldn’t be sympathisch to you).

    I think this is a pretty tricky one. Not sure about the understanding of ‘sympathy’ in an US American, Canadian, Australian, British or Irish cultural context.



    • You are spot on. I remember when I first learnt English I constantly made mistakes and spoke of people being “sympathetic”. I should have just said “nice” but made a mistake with the German “sympathisch”. Classic case of a False Friend.

  2. Pingback: Common mistakes that foreigners make when learning German » LIVE LINGUA: Skype Language Lessons

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