Students learning a new language often bring knowledge of their native language to the target language they are learning. The rules they use in their current language may not translate the same way to the language they are learning. Ten common errors that new learners of German make are discussed below.
The wrong use of gehen as a movement
New German language learners often believe the meaning of the verb gehen is “to go” in a very general sense of the word when they are talking about how to get to someplace. For example, "to go" can be used for different purposes like "riding a bike" or "riding the bus." In German, you use a different verb depending on how you are traveling to your destination.
For example, you want to say that you will go to Mexico. Unfortunately, Ich gehe nach Mexiko is perhaps not what you want to say unless you plan to walk there. The verb gehen in the context of a movement is used for walking in German.
Instead of that, you would say:
Ich fliege nach Mexiko. I fly to Mexico.
Ich fahre nach Mexiko. I drive to Mexico.
Ich reise nach Mexiko. I travel to Mexico.
There exists a form to use gehen in a more general sense for transportation, but only with Es (Es geht nach).
Wohin reist ihr? Es geht nach Japan.
Where do you travel? We go to Japan.
Wohin geht es? Wir fliegen nach Rom.
Where do you go? We fly to Rome.
If you plan to go to someplace for a longer time, for example to live there or at least spend some time there (work, travel, au-pair, etc.), you can also use gehen.
Ich gehe nächstes Jahr nach Italien. I will go to Italy next year.
So how would you ask, "Where are you going for holiday"?
The correct answer depends on the means you are using to get to your destination:
Wohin magst du/ Wohin mögen Sie in den Urlaub fahren? This is used when driving or using some type of public transportation method like the bus or the train.
Wohin magst du/ Wohin mögen Sie in den Urlaub fliegen? This is used when you are flying to your vacation destination.
Wohin geht es in den Urlaub? This is using gehen in a more general sense.
Ich bin gut vs. Mir geht es gut
Ich bin gut means you are good in something, and you need to also state what you are good at in order for the sentence to be meaningful. If there is an article after Ich bin gut in, it has to be in Dative. However, if you want to say how you are, you would start the sentence with Mir geht es gut/schlecht... (or: Es geht mir gut/schlecht...).
Mir geht es gut.
Dir geht es gut.
Ihm/Ihr/Ihm geht es gut.
He/ She/ It is well.
Uns geht es gut.
Euch geht es gut.
Ihnen geht es gut.
Ich bin gut im (in + dem) Schach.
I’m good at chess.
Du bist gut in Mathe.
You’re good at math.
Sie ist gut in Sport.
She is good at sports (as a (school) subject).
Wir sind gut in der Schule.
We’re good in school.
Ihr seid gut im (in + dem) Fußball.
You’re good at soccer.
Sie sind gut im (in + dem) Kopfrechnen.
They’re good at mental arithmetic.
Ich habe Spaß gemacht vs. Das hat Spaß gemacht
"That was a joke" vs. "That was fun." If you want to say you made a joke, you would say, Ich habe (einen) Spaß gemacht. However, if you want to say that something was fun, here are three example sentences, you can use:
Das hat Spaß gemacht. That was fun.
Das hat echt Spaß gemacht. That was a lot of fun.
Das hat total viel Spaß gemacht. That was so much fun.
The correct translation of "to meet"
The new learner of the German language often has trouble translating the correct usage of meeting someone. Let’s take three example English sentences. How would you correctly translate these sentences in German?
I was at a party and met someone from the United States.
I met my girlfriend in a café this morning.
Last week, I met an old friend on the street.
Perhaps you thought that in all three of these sentences, you could use the verb treffen as shown below:
Ich war auf einer Party und ich habe jemand aus den USA getroffen.
Ich habe mich mit meiner Freundin in einem Café getroffen.
Letzte Woche habe ich meinen alten Freund auf der Straße getroffen.
Depending on how you know someone or how you meet that person will determine the way you say that you met that person.
In the first sentence, you said that you met someone new. In this example, it would be better to use the verb kennenlernen as shown in the sentence below:
Ich war auf einer Party und habe jemand aus den USA kennengelernt.
In the second sentence, you stated that you met your girlfriend in a café. The verb construct sich treffen mit jemand is used for a planned meeting (date, appointment) rather than a spontaneous encounter.
When you use jemand treffen as in the third example sentence, it could mean that you saw somebody by coincidence on the street or that you had an appointment with someone. Ich treffe meine Freunde jede Woche in der Palma-Bar, for example, means that I meet my friends every week in the Palma-Bar.
Liegen vs. Legen
Liegen and legen are very similar verbs that often confuse students. Although there is only a slight difference in the spelling between these two verbs, the meaning and use of them are very different. So let's start with some examples, a couple of definitions, and then show the correct way to use these verbs.
What are the correct translations to German for the English sentences below?
Ich liege das Buch auf den Tisch.
I put the book on the table.
Maria legt am Strand.
Maria lies on the beach.
Ich lege das Buch auf den Tisch.
I put the book on the table.
Maria liegt am Strand.
Maria lies on the beach.
legen: to place something on its side
liegen: a person or object that is in a horizontal position
You use the verb legen to put something on its side. If you want to describe the physical state of something being in a horizontal position, you use the verb liegen. So, if you want to put a book on a table, for example, you use the verb legen.
Correct Example Usage:
You'd like to say in German, "I'm lying in bed." The correct sentence in German is Ich liege im Bett.
Now you want to say in German, "He wanted to put the book on the work desk." How do you say it? Did you say, Er wollte das Buch auf den Schreibtisch legen? Great job!
Stehen vs. Stellen
Stehen and stellen are another set of verbs that can trip up a new learner of the German language.
stehen: to stand. A person can stand for example, and an object, for instance a book or a bottle can also stand upright.
stellen: to put an object (e.g. book, bottle) in a vertical position.
Martin steht an der Bushaltestelle und wartet auf den Bus.
Martin is standing at the bus stop and waits for the bus.
Ich habe das Buch ins Regal gestellt.
I put the book on the shelf.
Note that in the first example in the table above, the person is standing upright at a particular place. In the second example, the book is being placed upright on the book shelf.
Mein Freund vs. Ein Freund
In many languages, there is a specific name for boyfriend or girlfriend. For example, in Spanish, the word boyfriend is novio while novia means girlfriend. In Portuguese, namorado means boyfriend and namorada is used for girlfriend.
In German, however, Freund could mean boyfriend or male friend depending on how the word is used. And Freundin could mean either girlfriend or female friend depending on how it is used in the context of speech or written language. So it is important to use both of these words correctly in German.
Let's take a look at some examples to help you better understand how to use these two words.
Mein Freund heißt Martin.
My boyfriend is called Martin.
Ein Freund von mir heißt Stefan.
A friend of mine is called Stefan.
Morgen kommt mein Freund zurück.
Tomorrow, my boyfriend will return.
Ich habe meine Freundin Lisa getroffen.
I met my friend Lisa.
Habe ich dir von Roberto erzählt? Er kommt aus Italien und ist ein guter Freund.
Did I tell you about Roberto? He comes from Italy and is a good friend.
If you want to stress that someone isn't your boyfriend/girlfriend, but that person is a friend, you need to use ein Freund/eine Freundin or Meine Freundin x where x refers to the person’s name. By using this construct, no one will think that this person is your boyfriend/girlfriend. If you only use Mein Freund/ Meine Freundin without mentioning the person's name, you could be talking about your girlfriend/boyfriend, but you would still need to understand the context of the speech/sentence to understand the relationship.
More examples appear in the table below.
Ich war mit meinem Freund im Kino.
I was with my boyfriend at the cinema.
Ich war mit meiner Freundin spazieren.
I went for a walk with my girlfriend.
Studieren vs. Lernen
I have often heard students saying Ich habe heute viel Deutsch studiert (I studied a lot of German today). In German, the correct verb to use in this context for the verb "to study" is lernen. The correct translation of "I studied a lot of German today" would be Ich habe heute viel Deutsch gelernt. Another example:
Ich lerne Mathe für meine Prüfung. I am studying math for my exam.
The verb studieren means to study a career at an university. For example:
Martin studiert Jura an der Universität. Martin studies law at the university.
There are other meanings for the verb studieren. Those meanings, as well as some examples, appear below.
Additional studieren meanings:
Er hat sein Verhalten genau studiert.
He observed his behavior.
To study some text.
Ich habe seine Notizen gründlich studiert.
I thoroughly studied his notes.
To rehearse a role, you would add the word ein to studieren to form the verb einstudieren.
Ich habe die Rolle perfekt einstudiert.
I rehearsed the role perfectly.
Wissen vs. Kennen
It’s important to know when to use the verb wissen and when to use kennen, so you know how to use them correctly. Wissen is used when you know a specific fact or you have heard or read about something. See the table below for some examples.
Ich weiß, dass die Amerikaner Englisch sprechen.
I know that Americans speak English.
Weißt du wann das Oktoberfest ist?
Do you know when Oktoberfest takes place?
The verb kennen is used if you saw someone or something before, or if you experienced something before and you recognize it.
Kennst du den neuen Bürgermeister?
Do you know the new mayor?
Kennst du das Gefühl wenn man Schmetterlinge im Bauch hat?
Do you know the feeling of having butterflies in your stomach?
Anrufen vs. Telefonieren
Anrufen and telefonieren are two verbs that can confuse a student. You may believe that both verbs mean to talk with someone on the telephone, but this is not the case in German. Anrufen means that you called someone, but it's unclear if you spoke with the person. Some examples appear in the table below:
Ich habe Maria angerufen, aber habe sie nicht erreicht.
I called Maria but I didn't reach her.
Ich werde heute Nachmittag meine Mutter anrufen.
I’ll call my mother this afternoon.
Peter hat Sylvia angerufen und sie
haben mindestens zwei Stunden gesprochen.
Peter called Sylvia and they spoke at least two hours.
The verb telefonieren means that you spoke with the other person on the telephone. Here are some examples:
Ich habe gestern mit meiner Oma telefoniert.
Yesterday, I spoke with my grandmother on the telephone.
Vor 80 Jahren haben die Menschen Briefe geschrieben. Heute telefonieren sie.
Eighty years ago, people wrote letters. Today they speak on the telephone.