Making mistakes when learning German isn’t a bad thing, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it should be encouraged, because it helps you learn.
To best illustrate a few mistakes that all German-learners make at some point, let’s go through a little imaginary conversation. Picture the scene: You’ve made good progress on your German-learning journey so far, and you’re ready to make some proper local friends at an upcoming event. You have an extensive vocabulary on the weather by now and feel prepared for the endeavour at hand.
You arrive at the bar, grab a carbonated beverage and scan the room. Target located, you muster up some courage to approach a friendly looking German. As you get closer, you go through your intro dialogue in your head once more. “Hallo!”, you greet the friendly-looking German with a big smile. “Hey” he replies with an equal amount of enthusiasm. Going well so far, so you decide to ask the all-important question. You blurt out “Was ist dein Name?” over the music. Your potential new friend smiles politely and says: “Ich heiße Jörg, wie heißt du?”
Here’s our first mistake. What’s the deal with ‘heißen’?
In German, you don’t ask what someone’s name is, you ask them what they like to be called. This doesn’t make much sense to an English speaker, but maybe a comparison to French or Spanish could help. In ‘comment tu t’appelles?’ and ‘¿cómo te llamas?’, both examples mean ‘What do you call yourself?’. To a German speaker, it sounds rather formal, even archaic, to be asked what one’s name is. In very limited contexts (at the Amt for example), one may come across ‘Wie ist Ihr Name?’, but even this can make a German speaker cringe. Unless you want to sound like a character from a fantasy novel, it’s best to just internalize the phrase “Wie heißt du? Ich heiße __”.
2. Mögen vs gefallen
Having recovered from your first minor blunder, you carry on the conversation confidently, albeit a little shaken. After engaging in a mutual distaste for the dropping temperatures you have been experiencing lately, you decide to move on to a more positive topic — likes and interests.
“Magst du diese Party?”, you ask, trying to assess whether he is simply here for the free drinks or actually enjoying himself. “Ja, diese Bar gefällt mir,” Jörg replies, bopping to the beat.
Did you notice the difference in the choice of verb? Why didn’t Jörg say ‘ich mag’?
Not to worry, this is a very common mistake. In English, we just ‘like’ everything to a point where it isn’t even clear if one actually does. To most German speakers, the overuse of ‘mögen’ can have the same effect. If you are talking about something or someone you are very fond of, you can use ‘mögen’. ‘Ich mag dich!’ is a good example to remember. For anything else, it is best to use ‘gefallen’. Again, one can draw parallels to Spanish, ‘mir gefällt diese Musik’ is essentially the same as ‘me gusta la música’. If you change your phone’s language, you’ll see the ‘like’ button turns into a ‘gefällt mir’ button ;)
3. Wenn vs als vs wann
You have been merrily chatting away with Jörg for almost two hours now, and you’re feeling increasingly connected (though that might be the sparkling beverage talking). Jörg suggests: “Wir können in eine andere Bar gehen, wenn du willst.” As you may already know, ‘wenn’ can mean both ‘when’ and ‘if’. In that case, is Jörg implying you can go to another bar whenever you want or if you want? Weighing up the odds, you drink the last sip in your glass and retort: “Ja, gerne. Jetzt?” This works, regardless of context. Looks like you dodged a bullet there.
While gathering your things, you initiate more conversation with: “Wann ich war in Thailand, habe ich —”, only for Jörg to reveal his true German-ness by interjecting: “ALS ich in Thailand WAR…” You’ve reached the point you have dreaded. Your German friend has crossed the threshold - he is correcting both your word choice and your verb placement. Your world comes crashing down, your tipsy confidence evaporates, where do you go from here?
Not to worry, as this is easily rectified with a little practice. If you are speaking about a particular point in the past, you always use ‘als’. If you are asking a question, use ‘wann’. If neither of those two criteria apply, you can always hazard a guess with ‘wenn’ and you’ll probably be fine.
Some examples to help:
- “Als ich 10 Jahre alt war…” (when I was 10 years old, this has probably only happened once at a specific time in the past)
- “Wann warst du in Thailand?” (when were you in Thailand?, a question about time)
- “Ruf mich an, wenn du zuhause bist.” (call me when you get home, not if…)
At the next watering hole, you realize you have run out of cash. You ask him where the next ATM might be. “Ganz einfach. Du gehst geradeaus über die Straße und biegst dann rechts ab. Neben dem Supermarkt, gegenüber der U-Bahn Station, gibt es einen kleinen Kiosk. Gehe an der Kasse vorbei und ganz hinten ist ein Geldautomat.”
You were already lost at ‘Straße’. Nevertheless, you venture out on your odyssey and luckily find an ATM in a completely different place.
These tricky words for directions are called prepositions and are the bane of many a language learner’s existence. I wish I could provide you with a quick fix to your preposition woes. However, I can give you a tip that has helped me in the past. The best way to learn these tricky little words is spatially rather than just in a vocabulary list. Draw yourself a map or stick notes around your room to mark every direction and position you can think of. At some point you will know the prepositions’ locations and directions intuitively, helping you to recall the correct ones when you need them.
5. Werden vs wollen
Despite all of your little hiccups, you nonetheless had a wonderful night hanging out with your new friend Jörg. In the wee hours, you exit the last bar. You remember to swap numbers and babble something like: “Wann will du uns treffen wieder?” Jörg chuckles and answers, “Na, immer! Aber vielleicht nächstes Wochenende? Ich schreib’ dir.”
You part ways, and on the U-Bahn home you reflect on why Jörg may have chuckled. Didn’t you just ask “when will we meet again?” You did, but in your tired state you resorted to translating the English. ‘Werden’ and ‘wollen’ are easily mixed up, especially after a few sparkly beverages.
‘Werden’ is both ’to become’ (careful, not ‘bekommen’!) and an indicator for the future tense, and ‘wollen’ means ‘to want’. Why do these get mixed up? ‘Ich will’ looks a lot like ‘I will’, right? Therein lies the problem. So how do you distinguish them?
Fun fact, the present tense in German is very efficient. It can be used for three things: present, present continuous and future. So, instead of saying “wann werden wir uns wiedersehen?”, just use the present tense: “Wann sehen wir uns wieder?” Then it is easier to use ‘wollen’ in the correct way: “Ich will dich wiedersehen.” :)
As you may have noticed, making mistakes is a great way to learn. Es ist noch kein Meister vom Himmel gefallen, so don’t feel crestfallen if you slip up from time to time. As long as you are aware of possible misunderstandings, you stand a good chance of correcting these mistakes in the future, admittedly with a little patience and practice. This goes for any language you are learning, be that German, Spanish or French. The main thing is that you start speaking (and making mistakes) from day one!