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Common German Beginner Mistakes

10 Errors frequently made by beginning learners of German


As an instructor of German, I see a lot of common errors that beginners typically make. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes - the point is to learn from them when you make them so you can avoid making them again and come yet one step closer to proficiency. Here are some tips to preempt making some of the most frequent errors made by beginning learners of German

also / auch

The German adverb also does not mean also, too as many English-speakers assume it does. Also means rather therefore, thus.
Es regnet. Also bleiben wir zu Hause.
It's raining. Therefore we're staying home.

Monika sagt, sie ist krank. Sie kommt heute also nicht.
Monika says she is sick. So [Therefore] she's not coming today.
To convey too, also, use the German auch.
Es regnet und es ist auch windig.
It's raining and it's windy, too.

Monika ist krank, und ich bin auch krank.
Monika is sick and I am also sick.


dann / denn

These two words are often confused. The adverb dann means then.
Ich schreibe diesen Brief, dann gehe ich zur Post.
I'm writing this letter, then I'm going to the post office.
The conjunction denn means for, because and is used to connect two sentences together.
Er arbeitet heute nicht, denn es ist Sonntag.
He's not working today because (for) it's Sunday.


Freund

There are two different words for friend in German: Freund is masculine and Freundin is feminine. When talking about more than one female friend, use the plural Freundinnen. When talking about more than one male friend or male and female friends together, then use the plural form Freunde.

Note that these words in German are reserved for close friends. Germans make a strong distinction between public and private spheres and are choosy about who they allow into their personal inner circle. Therefore, true Freunde are strong but few. Anyone outside this personal space is an acquaintance, or Bekannte.

Also note that the words Freund and Freundin are used to signify a boyfriend or girlfriend. German speakers avoid ambiguity by using the phrase ein Freund von mir / eine Freundin von mir (a friend of mine) to indicate that someone is just a friend and not a romantic partner. So whereas the sentence Klaus ist mein Freund might be ambiguous - Klaus is either my boyfriend or my friend - the sentence Klaus ist ein Freund von mir makes crystal clear that Klaus is a friend and not something more.



nach Hause / zu Hause

Both prepositions nach and zu can be used to mean to in German. However, there are many usages of prepositions in idioms whose meanings cannot be directly translated. In such phrases, it is best just to learn what the phrase means. This is the case with the two phrases nach Hause and zu Hause. The phrase zu Hause always means at home and indicates home as a location for the activity of the sentence.
Ich bin zu Hause. I am (at) home.
Harald arbeitet zu Hause. Harald works at home.
The phrase nach Hause indicates movement to or toward home, going home.
Ich will nach Hause gehen. I want to go home.
Wann kommst du nach Hause? When are you coming home?



für / vor

These two prepositions have very different meanings but are confused by English-speakers due to their seeming similarity. The preposition für means for. But the preposition vor means before or in front of.
Ich habe ein Geschenk für dich.
Er kauft die Jacke für 40 Euro.
I have a present for you.
He's buying the jacket for 40 euros.
   
Vor dem Frühstück trinke ich Kaffee.
Sara ist vor mir in der Schule.
Before breakfast I drink coffee.
Sara is ahead of me in school.



in / im

The word im is actually a contraction of two words: in dem, meaning in the. The definite article dem is only used with masculine and neuter nouns and only when they are in the dative case. So you could say for instance:
Wir übernachten im Hotel. We're staying in the hotel.
Ich kaufe im Supermarkt ein. I'm shopping in the supermarket.
Hotel is neuter, Supermarket is masculine, so the use of im to mean in the prior to these two nouns is appropriate. However, with a feminine or plural noun, the use of im is never appropriate:
Wir essen in der Küche. We eat in the kitchen.
Reiche Leute wohnen in den Häusern. Rich people live in the houses.
Küche is feminine and Häuser (1) is plural. If you said im der Küche*, you would be saying in dem der Küche*, or in the the kitchen*. Not only would it not make sense, but the sentence would also be grammatically incorrect because dem can be used neither with a feminine nor a plural noun.

(1) Häuser has an -n suffix here because plural nouns in the dative add an additional -n ending.



Schule / Uni / Hochschule

In English, the word "school" can refer to any educational institution. The German cognate Schule, however, refers to primary and secondary education, that is to say, schools that one attends until graduation from high school. A university is called a Universität (often abbreviated to Uni) or a Hochschule. Note that a Hochschule is not a high school but an institution of higher education.



Student / Schüler

In English, the word "student" can refer to anyone who attends school at any level. In German, a Student or Studentin is a male or female person attending a university or another institution of higher education. When referring to pupils in elementary, junior high, or high schools, the terms Schüler (masculine) and Schülerin (feminine) are used.



studieren / lernen

In English, "to study" means to learn, read, memorize, practice, and reflect on a subject. In German, the verb lernen is used to encompass these learning activities. The German verb studieren has a much more limited meaning than its English cognate. It means "to be a university student" or "to major in" a particular subject.
Ich lerne Deutsch.

I am learning German.
I am studying German (e.g. for a test).

Ich studiere Deutsch. I am majoring in German.
Ich studiere Biologie, aber ich lerne auch Französisch. I am majoring in biology, but I am learning French, too.
Ich studiere in Heidelberg. I am studying (I am a student) in Heidelberg.
Ich arbeite nicht, ich studiere. I don't work, I am a student.


wollen / werden

In English, the future tense is created using the helping verb will plus another verb. The German future tense is created similarly, using the helping verb werden plus the infinitive of another verb. However, English speakers often substitute in the German verb wollen (to want) as the future tense helping verb in German, which is incorrect. This is because the conjugation of wollen in the first and third persons singular looks identical to the English future tense. The meanings, however, are quite different: ich will = I want, er will = he wants.
Ich will morgen in die Bank gehen. I want to go to the bank tomorrow.
Ich werde morgen in die Bank gehen. I will go to the bank tomorrow.


Recommended related books:

1001 Pitfalls in German, by Henry Strutz, 3rd ed. 303 p. (1997)
This book serves as a valuable reference guide that describes and corrects errors students are most likely to make when writing or speaking German. Clearly explained are such problem areas as idioms, exceptions to grammatical rules, word order in sentences, regional variations, potential confusions between der- and ein-words, and many more. This is a useful supplement for beginning to intermediate learners.

2001 German and English Idioms / 2001 Deutsche und englische Redewendungen, by Henry Strutz, 519 p. (1995)
Two separate alphabetical listings give German-to-English and English-to-German definitions of numerous, commonly used idioms. Each definition is followed by a sentence in both languages showing how the idiom is used in context. Bilingual appendices explore irregular verbs, standard abbreviations, and other related language topics.

Scheisse: The Real German You Were Never Taught in School, by Gertrude Besserwisser, David Levine, 144 p. (1994)
This book teaches the sorts of German words and phrases that most people learn on the street and definitely not in school. It is full of off-color German profanities and colloquialisms, including beer garden slang, romantic innuendos, clever insults, and other expressions that people use in everyday chatter. The book is also a repository of information on low-brow German culture.


See also our other related pages:
German grammar explained | German books | German practice activities
Top 100 German words | German main page

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