7 Embarrassing Mistakes English Speakers Make in German — And How to Avoid Them
Mistakes: every language learner makes them. We’d even argue that they are an essential part of language learning. Some of these mistakes are charmingly innocent: confusing false friends, mixing up the gender of your articles or conjugating the past tense of a verb incorrectly. Other mistakes will make your German Freunde burst into laughter. We’ll run through some of the most embarrassing and common German mistakes that English speakers make. Read on to spare yourself the embarrassing situations that many others have endured!
Disclaimer: Many embarrassing mistakes are inherently crude. If you find the idea of accidentally telling German strangers that you’re horny offensive, this article is probably not your cup of tea.
7 Common German Mistakes That Can Land You In Weird Situations
1. elf Meter scheißen
What you think you’re saying: penalty kick
What you’re really saying: 11 meter shit
What you should say: elf Meter schießen (lit. 11 meter shoot)
Everybody loves soccer/football, including Germans. You’d think this would be common ground for small talk, but when you bring up the amazing penalty kick that decided last night’s game, you mispronounce the ie in schießen (to shoot) as ei, and accidentally laud Thomas Müller for his game-winning (and prodigiously long) bowel movement.
This is the most extreme example of confusing ei with ie, but in many cases, getting it wrong means you are saying a completely different word than you thought.
2. Ich bin heiß.
What you think you’re saying: I’m hot.
What you’re really saying: I’m horny.
What you should say: Mir ist warm. (lit. Me is warm.)
This one is a pitfall in many languages, and is not the kind of casual comment you want to make to people during Germany’s AC-less summer months.
3. Ich bin langweilig.
What you think you’re saying: I’m bored.
What you’re really saying: I’m boring.
What you should say: Ich bin gelangweilt./Ich langweile mich./Mir ist langweilig.
My auntie always said that only boring people get bored. Get this phrase wrong, and your German friends will agree with her.
4. Gute Nackt
What you think you’re saying: Good night
What you’re really saying: Good naked
What you should say: Gute Nacht
It’s tempting to give up on the German -ch and substitute a -k sound, but we don’t recommend it. Wishing people well with their nudity won’t help you ingratiate yourself with them… unless you’re on a nudist beach, in which case mispronunciation is the least of your problems.
Tip for pronouncing the German -ch: You make this sound when you pronounce the word “cute” — it’s hiding between the c and the u. Say it slowly, and you’ll hear the hiss of air that is the German ch.
5. Es ist halb drei.
What you think you’re saying: It is half past three/3:30.
What you’re really saying: It is half before three/2:30.
What you need to remember: When telling the time in German, “half” or “quarter” always refers to the interval of time before the hour, not after.
Getting this one wrong won’t cause people to laugh at you, but you probably won’t have any friends, because you’ll always be exactly one hour late for everything.
What you think you’re saying: birds
What you’re really saying: to f–k
What you should say: die Vögel
Plurals can be tricky in German. It’s not enough to slap an -s on the end of a word. Some plural forms do end in -s, but many more end in -en, -er, or add an umlaut to the first vowel and leave the ending unchanged. So you could be forgiven for thinking that the plural of bird (der Vogel) is die Vögeln, but you may not be forgiven for saying it out loud — especially to a hushed crowd of twitchers, as you point excitedly at the pair of Lemon-rumped Warblers in the trees above.
7. mein Freund/meine Freundin
What you think you’re saying: my friend (male/female)
What you’re really saying: my boyfriend/my girlfriend
What you should say: ein Freund von mir/eine Freundin von mir (lit. a friend of mine)
You would think that there would be different words for “friend” and “boyfriend”/”girlfriend.” But you’d be wrong, because this is Germany and that would be too easy. So to avoid this frequent item on the shortlist of common German mistakes, you’ll have to remember that the way you introduce your Freund(in) describes how intimate you are with them.