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Four common mistakes English speakers make when learning German

German is a notoriously challenging language - and for English speakers, there are a few classic pitfalls that trip people up time and time again. Here are some common mistakes you may not even know you're making - and how to avoid them.

Four common mistakes English speakers make when learning German
You have to channel Yoda from Star Wars when learning German. Photo by Samuel Foster on Unsplash

From false friends to tricky word order, learning German can feel like navigating an obstacle course sometimes – and that’s even before you delve into Swiss German. 

But don’t worry: we’re here to take you through some of the most common pitfalls for English speakers. Steer clear of these, and your German friends are bound to be sehr beeindruckt (very impressed) at your incredible progress in learning their notoriously difficult language. 

  • Keep your friends close, but your false friends closer! 

It’s easy to get caught out by false friends in the German language. Sometimes a word sounds similar to something in English, so we deduce it must also mean something similar. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, which can lead to a whole world of confusion.

Below are some examples of common false friends to watch out for:

Ich werde vs Ich will 

The first person present tense form of wollen is misleading for English speakers – the first person conjugation will may appear to be the same as the English verb ‘will’, just with a slightly different pronunciation.


In actual fact, ich will means ‘I want’, whereas it is ich werde which means ‘I will’. It’s a bit of a muddle, but nothing some memorisation can’t fix!

Ich werde = I will

Ich will = I want   

Das Gift

This one is particularly important. In English, a gift is a present which we very kindly receive or give, but this is known as a Geschenk in German. Das Gift, which in actual fact means poison or toxin, is something we definitely don’t want to give to any of our closest friends on their birthdays. (Though for those of us whose cake-baking skills are particularly bad, it has been known to happen.)  

Das Gift = poison

Das Geschenk = present/gift

A gift in English means something different in German.

A gift in English means something different in German. Photo by freestocks on Unsplash


Particularly when asking a question, the word wer is sure to come up at some point. To English speakers, this is yet another misleading piece of vocab – sounding like the English ‘where’, it actually means ‘who’.  

Wer = who

Wo = where

Wo gehst du?

Where are you going?

Wer ist Julian?

Who is Julian?

The above are just a few examples of some false friends in the German language – they can cause confusion but just keeping an eye out for them will help! This site includes longer list of false friends in German.

  • Haben or Sein? Time to toss a coin! 

German grammar is probably one of the trickiest parts of learning the language. We know that when using the perfect past tense we need to combine an auxiliary (helping) verb with the past participle (e.g. gegessen). Deciding whether to use haben or sein as the auxiliary verb can be confusing, though.

Simply speaking, haben goes with transitive verbs, while sein is used with intransitive verbs. 

Important to remember, is that intransitive verbs are those associated with movement from A to B, for example laufen (‘to run’), as well a change of state or condition, for example einschlafen (‘to fall asleep’). 

Tut mir Leid, dass ich deinen Anruf verpasst habe – ich bin eingeschlafen!

Sorry that I missed your call – I fell asleep!

A dog sleeping

Be aware of whether you need to use haben or sein. Photo by Samuel Foster on Unsplash

As with anything, there are exceptions. Despite not conveying movement or changing state specifically, the three verbs bleiben (‘to stay’), werden (‘to become’) and sein (‘to be’) are also intransitive and must also take sein as their auxiliary. 

Er ist lange bei uns geblieben.

He stayed with us for a long time. 

Some more detailed guidelines can be found here.

  • Speaking like Yoda from Star Wars…

With your standard Ich mag Kaffee (‘I like coffee’) sentence, word order follows the same rules as English – Subject-Verb-Object. 

Ich mag Kaffee. 


I like coffee.


However, as you start to develop complexity in your sentences, word order rules begin to change too. It’s important to remember that the verb is pretty important when it comes to constructing German sentences, so focus on that. As demonstrated below, certain conjunctions and time phrases shake things up a little…

Coordinating conjunctions such as und, aber and oder have no effect on word order. (That’s something to be grateful for… right?) 

READ ALSO: Nine surprising Swiss German words you need to know

However, subordinating conjunctions – which generally add more information to the main clause of a sentence, like how or what or why – cause the verb (or first verb if there are more than one) to move to the end of the clause.

Some examples of subordinating conjunctions include weil (because), dass (that) and obwohl (although). Think of these subordinating conjunctions like footballers that kick the ball (in this case, the verb) right across the pitch. 

Ich mag den Winter nicht, aber ich mag Weihnachten.

I don’t like winter, but I do like Christmas.   

Ich mag den Winter nicht, weil er mir zu kalt ist.

I don’t like winter, because it’s too cold for me.

The verb is also sent to the end in other linguistic scenarios, such as when using a modal verb like can, should, could, or will

Ich werde die Milch kaufen.

I will buy the milk.


Photo by Daniel Sinoca on Unsplash

Or in a relative clause:

Die Milch, die wir für das Rezept brauchen.

The milk, which we need for the recipe. 

Das Rezept, das wir heute Abend kochen werden

The recipe, which we will cook tonight.

As in the example above, sometimes a relative clause will have more than one verb. In this case, it is the first verb which will appear at the end. 

READ ALSO: Nine fun Swiss German words without an English translation

Inversion, in which the verb is brought in front of the subject into a VERB – SUBJECT – OBJECT order, is also a regular feature of German sentences. Inversions are caused by temporal adverbs or prepositional phrases:

Heute gehe ich ins Kino.


Hopefully this gives you a brief overview of some word order particularities in German. This is by no means exhaustive, so watch out for other changes in word order, such as when using adverbs

  1. Like this? No, like that! 

We know that the German wie can mean various things, including ‘like’ as a conjunction. Don’t fall into the trap, however, of translating the English phrase ‘like this/that’ literally, to ‘wie das’. 

It doesn’t work this way in German, so if you want to talk about something being ‘like that’ or doing something in a particular way, use so 

Du musst das so machen!

You have to do it like that!  

Es sieht so aus.

It looks like that. 

The above German language tips are not at all exhaustive and just cover a few areas of difficulty that most of us learners struggle with from time to time. It’ll come together with practice, so keep going! And don’t get discouraged if your Yoda impression a little time takes. 

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Why does Swiss German have so many French loan words?

French is often crowned the world’s most beautiful language and has, for centuries, infiltrated Switzerland’s German-speaking region. But why did so many French words end up in Swiss German and which are most commonly used?

Why does Swiss German have so many French loan words?

In the western hemisphere of the 16th century until well into the 19th century, French was considered the world language and courts all over Europe began to emulate the culture made popular by the French nobility.

The French language eventually replaced Latin as the dominant language in science and many Germans figured that it would be easier to adopt what’s already there, rather than spend time finding German language equivalents for scientific terms – much to the detriment of German purists who fought this during the 17th century.

But while much of Europe was embroiled in a game of catch-up with France, the situation was quite different in the Deutschschweiz. The German-speaking part of Switzerland already had an identity of its own, an identity that had as a matter of fact already been intertwined with both the French language and its culture.

For many years, the Swiss had sent a great many mercenaries to serve in the French army up until 1798, while the sons of Bernese patricians were raised in French before taking up administrative posts in French-speaking Vaud (1536 until 1798), then under the rule of Bern. Meanwhile, Solothurn, the resident city of the French ambassador, was almost considered an exclave of France.

Even today, many young people living in German-speaking Swiss cantons travel to the French-speaking part, or Romandy, to work as au pairs and improve their French language skills.

It is not difficult then to see why the Deutschschweiz had an easy time embracing everything French, particularly the cantons bordering the Romandy.

Same, same but different

Though some French language words, known as Gallizismen, that are commonly used in the Deutschschweiz appear to be the same at first glance, they have over time undergone a pronunciation shift and are no longer pronounced in French, but rather in a Swiss German-French mashup dialect. Hence, they are considered both French and Swiss German.

One such example is the word Merci, which you will hear as often as – and in some German-speaking places even more frequently than – the casual Swiss and standard German counterpart Danke.

Unlike the French Merci, which is pronounced MerCI – placing the emphasis on the latter syllable – the Swiss from the Deutschschweiz pronounce the word as MERci, stressing the first syllable instead.

In fact, this is the case with most polysyllabic French words. But there’s more.

In addition to giving French words the Swiss German pronunciation treatment and oftentimes completely forgoing the French accent, some words have also taken on a slightly different meaning.

If you happen to be in a hurry in Switzerland, you’d use the word pressant to express this. While the word in French translates to urgent or pressing, in Swiss German it means to be in a hurry.

In fact, if you’re in a rush, you would say “Ich hans pressant”, rather than the standard German “Ich bin in Eile”.

And when on the road…

If you spot an adult riding a bicycle on the Gehweg or Bürgersteig and reprimand them using the standard German words for pavement, you may be met with a confused (and slightly offended) look.

In German-speaking Switzerland, Trottoir is the word most commonly used for pavement, while the standard German or Hochdeutsch equivalents are seldom heard, if altogether unused.

Likewise, while you’re busy being annoyed that you’ve encountered a rulebreaker – don’t worry, it’s a Swiss thing – remember that using Velo rather than the German alternative Fahrrad may just make you win the argument.

Most commuters living in German-speaking cantons may know that you will be required to pay for a Billet – not a Fahrtkarte – before you head off to find the right Perron, not Plattform, to wait for your train.

In Switzerland, it also makes sense to purchase an Abonnement with the SBB (Swiss Federal Railways), though you’ll also (eventually) get your point across if you ask for a Reisekarte as they would across the Germany-Switzerland border.

READ MORE: 4 things to consider when buying a travel card in Switzerland

Beware of false friends

While the German speakers of Switzerland have a jolly time reinventing the French language to fit their needs, this love for experimenting has also led to a handful of false friends over the years.

Some German-Swiss will fight tooth and nail to convince you that the Swiss German Friseur (or Frisör) is in fact derived from the French language – simply because it sounds French – but this is not the case. French speakers still very much refer to hairdressers as Coiffeur. Ironically, so do many German speakers in Switzerland.

Similarly, the Swiss German favourite Blamage may well have a French twang to it and is often confused as being on loan from the Deutschschweiz’s French-speaking neighbours. Yet, the word – which can loosely be translated to shame or embarrassment – isn’t known to the French.

Handy vocab for on the go

If you’re visiting the German-speaking part of Switzerland from France or the Romandy and find yourself overwhelmed with the gazillion dialects coming at you from every angle, here are some French words you can use on your trip:

Glacé, not Eis (ice cream)

Portemonnaie, not Brieftasche or Geldbörse (wallet)

Couvert – Umschlag or Briefumschlag (envelope)

Duvet – Bettdecke (duvet)

Adieu – Auf Wiedersehen (goodbye)