10 common mistakes made by German speakers learning English

When we learn a language, the way we speak the new language is influenced by our native language. One way to reduce this problem is to learn to think in the new language, so we no longer translate from our mother tongue. Despite this, we may still make some mistakes because we have structures and vocabulary from our first language in our mind. Here are some of the most common errors made by German-speaking learners of English.

10. to remind/to remember

These two similar verbs are very often mixed up by learners of English. To remember means to think about something from the past; to remind, on the other hand, means to make someone remember something. It is a transitive verb, which means it is always used with an object. Here are some examples:

I remember my first day at school. 

I will remember to buy bread.

I reminded to buy bread. –> I reminded him to buy bread. 

9. to make/to do

German uses the verb machen a lot, so German-speakers often use the verb to make in English. As a general rule, we use to make  when we are talking about creating or forming something, e.g. to make a plan, to make dinner, to make a confession, to make a cake. However, if we are focussing on a process itself, we use to do, e.g. to do a course, to do homework, to do the cleaning, to do someone a favour. This rule doesn’t work in all cases, but it’s a good start.

8. I drive with the bus.

English has several verbs to describe travelling, depending on the distance, the means of transport and whether we are the driver or passenger. Whilst German uses the verb fahren in lots of situations, in English we only use the verb to drive when we are the driver of a car, bus, train or boat. If we use a bike, we say we ride our bikes or we cycle. If we are a passenger, we have several options:

  • I took the bus/the train/a taxi.
  • I got the bus/the train/a taxi.
  • I went by car/boat/bus.
  • My friend gave me a lift. / My friend drove me. (as a passenger in a car)
  • I flew. (also as a passenger on a plane)

7. Is there the possibility to …?

This is another example of English having lots of translations for one word in German. The German Möglichkeit is most often translated as possibility, but in many cases there may be a better English word to use:

  • possibility: something that may happen, e.g. There is the possibility that we may lose the game.
  • option: something that can be chosen, e.g. Consider all your options before you make a decision.
  • opportunity/chance: a situation that makes something possible, e.g. I have the opportunity/chance to learn a new language.
  • way: a method, e.g. There must be another way to solve this problem.
  • can: to be able or possible, e.g. Can I book a table for this evening?

6. I didn’t went.

When using the simple past, we need a helping verb (did) when we form questions and negative sentences. However, only the helping verb needs to be in past form to show the time we’re talking about, so we use did/didn’t followed by the base form of the main verb.

I went. / I didn’t go. / Did you go? I didn’t went. / Did you went?

I saw it. / I didn’t see it. / Did you see it? I didn’t saw it. / Did you saw it?

In the same way, in the simple present, only the helping verb needs an  added with the third person.

He goes. / He doesn’t go. / Does he go? He doesn’t goes. Does he goes?

She tries. She doesn’t try. / Does she try? She doesn’t tries. / Does she tries?

Here are more tips about using negative sentences.

5. Have you time?

The verb to have has two main functions. It can be used as the main verb of a sentence to mean to own/possess; it can also be a helping verb, often in the present perfect.

The general rule is that if we use to have as the main verb, the negative form is usually don’t/doesn’t have and the question form is ‘Do you have …?’

I have enough time. –> I don’t have enough time. –> Do you have enough time? (main verb)

When it is used as the helping verb, the negative form is haven’t/hasn’t and we can make questions such as ‘Have you seen …?’

I have seen the film. –> I haven’t seen the film. –> Have you seen the film? (helping verb)

4. Yesterday I have been …

One of the hardest things about learning English is mastering the tenses. It can be confusing to decide which tense to use, and the structure of present perfect looks like the most commonly used past tense in German. However, signal words like yesterdaylast weeklast year and on Wednesday that show that an action is completed and not relevant for now are clues that we need to use the simple past.

Yesterday I have been to work. –> Yesterday I went to work.

Follow this link for more tips on the present perfect and past simple.

3. Two persons

There are a few special cases when English speakers use persons instead of people, but these are only in legal or very formal texts, or signs in lifts or buses (e.g. ‘maximum 10 persons’). In all other cases, we use people as the plural form of person.

There are five persons in my office. –> There are five people in my office.

2. If I would have …

In if sentences in English, would and will do not normally belong in the same half of the sentence as if. Instead, we use the present simple, past simple or past perfect forms to show a condition:

If I see her, I’ll tell her. (First conditional: If + present simple , will + base form. These situations are possible and likely.)

If I saw her, I would tell her. (Second conditional: If + past simple , would + base form. These situations are possible but unlikely.)

If I had seen her, I would have told her. (Third conditional: If + past perfect , would have + past participle. These situations are not possible because they’re in the past.)

  1. Informations

Unlike in many other languages, information in English is uncountable and therefore it is not possible to talk about ‘one information’ or ‘informations’. It’s always simply ‘information’. The same goes for advice.

Can you think of any other typical mistakes? Which tips do you find most useful?