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 = perhaps
eventually = schließlich/letztendlich
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 = because
while = während (noun = die Weile)
das Gift = poison
gift = das Geschenk
aktuell = current
actual = tatsächlich
When spoken, different syllables are stressed: aktuell vs actual
sensibel = sensitive
sensible = vernünftig
Note that the stress is different here too: sensibel vs sensible
This four-way false cognate is particularly confusing for beginners!
wo = where
wer = who
The German ‘spenden’ has a more charitable meaning than the false friend ‘spend’.
spenden = to donate
to spend = ausgeben
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)
These two professions have very different roles in the workplace!
der Chef = boss
chef = der Koch
And these two locations have very different functions!
das Gymnasium = grammar school
gymnasium = die Sporthalle
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 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’).
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
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.