15 English/German false friends

One challenge – and source of confusion – for all language-learners is false friends. German and English do share many words which have either been adopted from the other language or which have similar linguistic roots. However, so-called false friends look or sound similar in two languages but have entirely different meanings! Here are 15 common false friends in English and German that often catch learners out.

eventuell/eventually

eventuell = perhaps

eventually = schließlich/letztendlich

irritieren/to irritate

This one could cause offence if misunderstood: if you are ‘irritiert’ in German, you are not irritated but confused!

irritieren = to confuse

to irritate = nerven

weil/while

weil = because

while = während (noun = die Weile)

das Gift/gift

das Gift = poison

gift = das Geschenk

aktuell/actual

aktuell = current

actual = tatsächlich

When spoken, different syllables are stressed: aktuell vs actual

sensibel/sensible

sensibel = sensitive

sensible = vernünftig

Note that the stress is different here too: sensibel vs sensible

Who/wer/where/wo

This four-way false cognate is particularly confusing for beginners!

wo = where

wer = who

spenden/spend

The German ‘spenden’ has a more charitable meaning than the false friend ‘spend’.

spenden = to donate

to spend = ausgeben

die Milliarde/million

Numbers are also a sticking point when learning a new language. Mixing these two words completely changes the amount you are talking about!

die Milliarde = billion

million = die Million

(die Billion = trillion)

der Chef/chef

These two professions have very different roles in the workplace!

der Chef = boss

chef = der Koch

das Gymnasium/gymnasium

And these two locations have very different functions!

das Gymnasium = grammar school

gymnasium = die Sporthalle

kontrollieren/to control

Though these two words can sometimes have a similar meaning, for example in the sense of ‘quality control’, they are often confused by learners of both languages.

kontrollieren = to check

to control = steuern/leiten/beeinflussen

checken/to check

checken = to understand/get it

to check = prüfen/kontrollieren

Note that ‘checken’ is a colloquial word most often used by younger people. It can also be used in the context of checking emails (‘meine E-Mails checken’).

die Nudeln/noodles

German uses ‘Nudeln’ to describe both noodles and pasta. To avoid confusion, you can specify that you’re talking about ‘asiatische Nudeln’ when you mean noodles.

die Nudeln = pasta/noodles

noodles = asiatische Nudeln

bekommen/to become

Lastly, the ultimate English/German false friend:

bekommen = to receive

to become = werden


I hope you find these tips helpful. 🙂 Do you know any other English/German false friends? If so, feel free to share them below.

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