“Am I going on a date with who?
She’s just my friend! I mean…
Sound familiar, German learners?
As sure as you’re going to find a bad soap opera if you turn on a German TV in the middle of the day, it’s unavoidable that you’re eventually going to say something humiliating on your quest to learn the language.
It’s part of the fun.
At best, you have a good bar story. At worst, you suddenly find yourself in a relationship (see number 1).
The trick is to laugh it off, even if the other person beats you to it. Native speakers understand that some things just don’t translate from other languages, and therefore are unlikely to ask that your visa be revoked, no matter how offensive the mistake.
Nonetheless, to give you a fighting chance, here’s 10 embarrassing mistakes that you can learn to avoid before you go out the door.
10 Embarrassing German Conversation Mistakes to Learn to Avoid
We’ll look at several situations that could be complicated by German conversation mistakes.
1. Wait, I Thought We Were Just Friends?
Relationships can be complicated anyway. In German, the terminology doesn’t help.
For as specific as the language usually is, having names for things we wouldn’t dream of in English, there seems to be a slight oversight: there’s no actual word for “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” Or more accurately, you use the same designation for your burning love interest as you would the guy you play basketball with every Monday night, calling them friends [Freund (m)/Freundin (f)].
In this case, it’s all in the syntax. Generally, to point out that darling girl that you faithfully buy roses for on the anniversary of the day you first kissed, you would say Meine Freundin. To introduce the childhood pal that you hang out with sometimes on weekends but in a purely platonic, non-mushy way, you would usually call her eine Freundin von mir, or “a friend of mine.”
If you want to avoid undue jealousy and make it to your next anniversary, it may be worth taking note.
2. The Interplay of Weather and Sexuality
To avoid giving the wrong signals, it is important to note that being hot or cold in German is a reflexive thing. Mir ist heiß translates as “To me, it is hot.” The English learner has a tendency to want to say Ich bin heiß, a direct translation. That’s not incorrect…if you want to suggest that you’re hot and bothered. Either way, we’re not judging.
In the same way, if you’re a little too warm, you’re going to want to say Mir ist warm. Ich bin warm can carry implications of sexual preference.
3. A Brief Education on Education
Navigating the translation of the schooling system in German can often be confusing, and leave many well-intentioned foreigners suggesting that they’re six graders. Some distinctions:
- If you’re at university, you’re a Student/Studentin. Someone still in the equivalent of high school/secondary school or lower is a Schüler/Schülerin. Unlike English, “Student” doesn’t encompass all levels of learning.
- Studieren is the verb to study, but only as your major. When you’re hitting the books, you’re lernen, even if it’s review.
- Hochschule doesn’t mean high school. Instead, it’s a term that designates all higher education. Germany actually has three types of high school: Gymnasium, Realschule and Hauptschule, which vary according to the pupil’s aspirations afterwards.
4. Open the Geht
One of the things that you’re going to be asked the most is how you are doing. Although less likely consequential than the Ich bin heiß pitfall, beginners still have a tendency to say Ich bin gut when they want to say that they’re good, directly translating it from English. Classic rookie mistake. Instead: Mir geht es gut. (Literally, it translates as “To me it goes well,” but for all intents and purposes, you’re saying that you’re doing fine). Not only is the former grammatically incorrect, it comes across a little cocky…
5. Hold on a Minute…What Time Should I Be There?
Germans are renowned for their punctuality, and for scoffing at those who aren’t timely. To keep us in our place, however, they made telling time a difficult matter.
The beginning German learner will note that nach can translate as “to,” as in when you’re traveling to a country or other designation. As a result, when someone asks to meet Viertel nach fünf, one would think that that they’re supposed to show up at a quarter to five. If you did, however, you’d be twiddling your thumbs for half an hour—or better yet, practicing your German on random passersby. Viertel nach actually means “quarter after,” while Viertel vor is the correct term for “quarter before.”
Note for those of the Irish or English persuasion: When a German says halb vier (half four) he actually means a half an hour before four o’clock, aka 3:30. Following the customs of your homeland would make you an hour late in this case.
6. Before and…Oh Gross
The word for “before” in German, vor, sounds like its English counterpart. However, the German word After means anus.
Do we really need to keep talking about this?
7. Unintentionally Noncommittal
Another German phrase that may not be ein Freund von dir (just seeing if you’re paying attention) is Ich will. Even if you know better, in the heat of conversation you may be tempted to use it as “I will.” So many German words are spelled the same in English that it’s easy to get duped. The cold hard reality, however, is that Ich will means “I want.”
(For those keeping score at home, “I will” translates as Ich werde in German).
Instead of telling someone that you’re going to take out the garbage you may be suggesting that you want to…and maybe that it’s probably not going to happen.
8. I Become a Jelly Donut
I once stood in line at a bakery with my ex-girlfriend’s father, who was German, overweight, and did not like me very much. Suddenly he turned to me and said, “Ryan, I become a jelly donut.”
Bekommen, the verb “to get,” sounds so much like “become” that both German and English speakers get confused by it. Nonetheless, if you’re not careful you’ll turn yourself into all sorts of things.
9. Now Listen, Young Lady
An oft-told story from German classes in middle schools across the world:
The students are asked to introduce themselves. A boy stands up and says: “Ich bin ein junger Mann.” (I’m a young man.)
The teacher says, “It’s nice to meet you.”
A girl stands up and says “Ich bin eine Jungfrau.”
The teacher says, “Well I hope so, Dear.”
Jungfrau means “virgin.”
10. H stands for “Clothes”
The “ch” sound is notoriously difficult for non-native German speakers. It has amused or frustrated many the bus driver and store clerk that has tried to decipher the attempts. Sometimes we find ourselves going too soft (“sh”) or too hard (“k”) to compensate. Be wary of the latter at times, however. Instead of asking if something happened at night (Was es in der Nacht?) you could be asking if it was in the nackt, aka “nude.”
This list won’t make you bulletproof from saying something incidentally shocking or prevent you from garnering a few raised eyebrows: mostly, we don’t want to ruin the fun for you.
It will, however, help you avoid some of the common pitfalls beginning learners sometimes don’t see coming (and allow you to laugh at some other non-native speakers). In the end, your mistakes will be more original, and make for better stories and more interesting language learning.
From one friend (wink) to another.
Ryan Dennis was a Fulbright Scholar and previously taught at Pädagogische Hochschule Schwäbisch Gmünd. In addition to hating ketchup, British spelling and violence, he writes The Milk House—the only literary column about dairy farming.