Five common mistakes when learning English

Learning a language is not always easy. There are new words to learn, grammar structures to master and different situations to practise using our new skills. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes when speaking a new language; it’s part of the learning process. I’ve collected five common mistakes when learning English and some tips on how to correct them.

1. If + will/would

If sentences can be confusing. There are lots of different types of if sentences and we can even mix them. However, one important rule is that will or would do not go in the same part of the sentence as if. They do not like each other! Here are some examples:

If I will see her, I will tell her.
If I see her, I will tell her.

If I would get the job, I would be very happy.

If I got the job, I would be very happy.

2. Double past tense

When we make negative sentences or questions in the past tense, we normally use the helping verb did or didn’t. This verb shows we are talking about the past. That means we don’t add -ed or use the past form of the main verb. For example:

I didn’t went to the show.
I didn’t go to the show.

Did you saw the email?
Did you see the email?

More tips on building negative sentences.

3. When to use present perfect

There are several rules that help us to decide if we need present perfect or simple past. Probably the most important one is that we cannot use present perfect with time words that show that something is finished, such as:

  • yesterday
  • last week
  • last month
  • on Tuesday
  • in October
  • in 2017
  • in the morning

Have you gone to the gym yesterday?
Did you go to the gym yesterday?

Has she called the client last week?
Did she call the client last week?

I’ve written on more tips on using the present perfect and past simple here.

4. Negative modal verbs

Modal verbs are special helping verbs. When we make a negative sentence with a modal verb (can, must, may, should, must, might, etc) we do not use don’t. Instead, we just add not after the modal verb.

I don’t can speak Spanish.
I can’t speak Spanish.

You don’t should wear your hat inside.
You shouldn’t wear your hat inside.

Must has special rules!

We don’t must finish the presentation today.
We don’t have to finish the presentation today.
(We can, but it’s not necessary.)

Note: We mustn’t smoke in the office.
(It is forbidden.)

5. Present simple or continuous?

This is a common mistake for both beginners and advanced learners. If an action is repeated, we use simple present. If an action is right now or for a short time around now, we use present continuous.

Every day I’m starting work at 8am.
Every day I start work at 8am.

At the moment I learn Russian.
At the moment I’m learning Russian.

More tips about present tenses can be found here.


Do you have any other tips to help with these topics? What do you find most difficult in English?

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.