Typical mistakes German learners make

Students learning a new language often bring knowledge of their native language to the target language they are learning. The rules they use in their current language may not translate the same way to the language they are learning. Common errors that new learners of German make are discussed below.

1) The wrong use of "gehen" as a movement

New German language learners often believe the meaning of the verb gehen is “to go” in a very general sense of the word when they are talking about how to get to someplace. For example, "to go" can be used for different purposes like "riding a bike" or "riding the bus." In German, you use a different verb depending on how you are traveling to your destination.
For example, you want to say that you will go to Mexico. Unfortunately, Ich gehe nach Mexiko is perhaps not what you want to say unless you plan to walk there. The verb gehen in the context of a movement is used for walking in German.
Instead of that, you would say:

Ich fliege nach Mexiko. I fly to Mexico.
Ich fahre nach Mexiko. I drive to Mexico.
Ich reise nach Mexiko. I travel to Mexico.

There exists a form to use gehen in a more general sense for transportation, but only with Es (Es geht nach).


Wohin reist ihr? Es geht nach Japan.
Where do you travel? We go to Japan.
Wohin geht es? Wir fliegen nach Rom.
Where do you go? We fly to Rome.

If you plan to go to someplace for a longer time, for example to live there or at least spend some time there (work, travel, au-pair, etc.), you can also use gehen.

Ich gehe nächstes Jahr nach Italien. I will go to Italy next year.

So how would you ask, "Where are you going for holiday"?

The correct answer depends on the means you are using to get to your destination:

Wohin magst du/ Wohin mögen Sie in den Urlaub fahren? This is used when driving or using some type of public transportation method like the bus or the train.

Wohin magst du/ Wohin mögen Sie in den Urlaub fliegen? This is used when you are flying to your vacation destination.

Wohin geht es in den Urlaub? This is using gehen in a more general sense.

2) Ich bin gut vs. Mir geht es gut

Ich bin gut means you are good in something, and you need to also state what you are good at in order for the sentence to be meaningful. If there is an article after Ich bin gut in, it has to be in Dative. However, if you want to say how you are, you would start the sentence with Mir geht es gut/schlecht... (or: Es geht mir gut/schlecht...).

Mir geht es gut. - I’m well.
Dir geht es gut. - You’re well.
Ihm/Ihr/Ihm geht es gut. - He/ She/ It is well.

Ich bin gut im (in + dem) Schach. - I’m good at chess.
Du bist gut in Mathe. - You’re good at math.
Sie ist gut in Sport. - She is good at sports (as a (school) subject).

3) Ich habe Spaß gemacht vs. Das hat Spaß gemacht

"That was a joke" vs. "That was fun." If you want to say you made a joke, you would say, Ich habe (einen) Spaß gemacht. However, if you want to say that something was fun, here are three example sentences, you can use:

Das hat Spaß gemacht. That was fun.
Das hat echt Spaß gemacht. That was a lot of fun.
Das hat total viel Spaß gemacht. That was so much fun.

4) The correct translation of "to meet"

The new learner of the German language often has trouble translating the correct usage of meeting someone. Let’s take three example English sentences. How would you correctly translate these sentences in German?
I was at a party and met someone from the United States.
I met my girlfriend in a café this morning.
Last week, I met an old friend on the street.
Perhaps you thought that in all three of these sentences, you could use the verb treffen as shown below:

Ich war auf einer Party und ich habe jemand aus den USA getroffen.
Ich habe mich mit meiner Freundin in einem Café getroffen.
Letzte Woche habe ich meinen alten Freund auf der Straße getroffen.

Depending on how you know someone or how you meet that person will determine the way you say that you met that person.

In the first sentence, you said that you met someone new. In this example, it would be better to use the verb kennenlernen as shown in the sentence below:

Ich war auf einer Party und habe jemand aus den USA kennengelernt.

In the second sentence, you stated that you met your girlfriend in a café. The verb construct sich treffen mit jemand is used for a planned meeting (date, appointment) rather than a spontaneous encounter.

When you use "jemand treffen" as in the third example sentence, it could mean that you saw somebody by coincidence on the street or that you had an appointment with someone. Ich treffe meine Freunde jede Woche in der Palma-Bar, for example, means that I meet my friends every week in the Palma-Bar.

5) Liegen vs. Legen

Liegen and legen are very similar verbs that often confuse students. Although there is only a slight difference in the spelling between these two verbs, the meaning and use of them are very different. So let's start with some examples, a couple of definitions, and then show the correct way to use these verbs.

legen: to place something on its side
liegen: a person or object that is in a horizontal position

You use the verb legen to put something on its side. If you want to describe the physical state of something being in a horizontal position, you use the verb liegen. So, if you want to put a book on a table, for example, you use the verb legen.

Correct Example Usage:

You'd like to say in German, "I'm lying in bed." The correct sentence in German is Ich liege im Bett.

Now you want to say in German, "He wanted to put the book on the work desk." How do you say it? Did you say, Er wollte das Buch auf den Schreibtisch legen? Great job!

6) Stehen vs. Stellen

Stehen and stellen are another set of verbs that can trip up a new learner of the German language.

stehen: to stand. A person can stand for example, and an object, for instance a book or a bottle can also stand upright.
stellen: to put an object (e.g. book, bottle) in a vertical position.

Martin steht an der Bushaltestelle und wartet auf den Bus. - Martin is standing at the bus stop and waits for the bus.
Ich habe das Buch ins Regal gestellt. - I put the book on the shelf.

Note that in the first example in the table above, the person is standing upright at a particular place. In the second example, the book is being placed upright on the book shelf.

7) Wissen vs. Kennen

It’s important to know when to use the verb wissen and when to use kennen, so you know how to use them correctly. Wissen is used when you know a specific fact or you have heard or read about something. See the table below for some examples.

Ich weiß, dass die Amerikaner Englisch sprechen. - I know that Americans speak English.
Weißt du wann das Oktoberfest ist? - Do you know when Oktoberfest takes place?

The verb "kennen" is used if you saw someone or something before, or if you experienced something before and you recognize it.

Kennst du den neuen Bürgermeister? - Do you know the new mayor?
Kennst du das Gefühl wenn man Schmetterlinge im Bauch hat? - Do you know the feeling of having butterflies in your stomach?

8) Anrufen vs. Telefonieren

"Anrufen" and "telefonieren" are two verbs that can confuse a student. You may believe that both verbs mean to talk with someone on the telephone, but this is not the case in German. Anrufen means that you called someone, but it's unclear if you spoke with the person. Some examples appear in the table below:

Ich habe Maria angerufen, aber habe sie nicht erreicht. - I called Maria but I didn't reach her.
Ich werde heute Nachmittag meine Mutter anrufen. - I’ll call my mother this afternoon.
Peter hat Sylvia angerufen und sie haben mindestens zwei Stunden gesprochen. - Peter called Sylvia and they spoke at least two hours.

The verb telefonieren means that you spoke with the other person on the telephone. Here are some examples:

Ich habe gestern mit meiner Oma telefoniert. - Yesterday, I spoke with my grandmother on the telephone.
Vor 80 Jahren haben die Menschen Briefe geschrieben. Heute telefonieren sie. - Eighty years ago, people wrote letters. Today they speak on the telephone.

But after that, don't forget that:

every mistake you make is progress

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