Learning a foreign language, like learning anything else, means results will vary. Each learner has strengths and weaknesses. One learner may have great listening comprehension while the next has a knack for pronunciation. However, language learners who share a common native language will find themselves sharing common hurdles.
German and English are very closely related in many ways. Shared language origins give us a plethora of similar words and phrases. Tempting as it is to intuitively pattern your sentences in English after ones you know from German (or vice-versa in my case), it’s risky business. Sometimes it works, and other times not. Errors made this way could be due to grammar (e. G. wrong tense) or conventional usage — that is, we just say it a different way.
Below is an example of what a German pre-intermediate EFL learner might respond to my question, How was your weekend?
It was relaxed. I was working in the garden at the house of my mother. She is living in the near of Dresden.The man of my mother has birthday. We didn’t make party because we were only five. But, it was funny.
Notice how each sentence closely follows German formulations. It’s still understandable, but a few tiny corrections would greatly improve this story. I’ll skip the nuts-and-bolts of grammar, but for the grammar dawgs out there I will include a few keywords to help dive deeper where fitting. So, from the top:
1) It was relaxed.
Correction: it was relaxing.
Relaxing describes the effect that the weekend makes. Relaxed describes how the weekend makes you feel.
- Your story is interesting. I am interested in how it ends.
- The candidates’ debate was so boring that even the moderator looked bored.
- It’s no wonder mother is exhausted; we are exhausting little children.
In Grammatical terms: using participles as adjectives
2) I was working in the garden
Correction: I did some gardening.
Two things about this are wonky. First, don’t say I was working when I worked is already correct. Second, we say do gardening or sometimes do yard work. Many everyday activities have their own conventional expressions and there’s nothing for it but learn them as you go. It’s nothing to worry about though; we use them all the time, so you’ll get the hang of them lickety-split.
- I went shopping (not: I was shopping)
- She took her dog for a walk (not she was walking with her dog)
- We went by bike (not we were driving with our bikes)
Grammar lovers will also like: past simple vs past continuous
3) the house of my mother
Correction: my mother’s house
Something that belongs to a person is that person’s thing. Use apostrophe s. But if something is part of another this: the thing of the thing is fine. By the way, “apostrophe” has four syllables and rhymes with “colostomy”.
- The fretboard of John Lennon’s Rickenbacker is at the bottom of Farmer John’s well.
- The roof, the roof, the roof of my mother’s house is on fire.
Grammar nerds be like: possessive nouns
4) She is living
Correction: she lives
She is living tells us that her situation is temporary. If she plans to stay, then she lives in the city.
- Some people live their entire lives in the house where they were born.
- I am still living with my ex-wife and her new boyfriend and it really sucks.
- Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?
Grammar time present simple vs present continuous
5)In the near
Correction: near Dresden
Die Nähe is a German noun that means something like “proximity” “nearness” or the like. But near is not a noun, it is a preposition. Saying in the near of Dresden makes just as little sense as it is to say the book is in the on of the table.
- Our house is in the vicinity of the flood zone.
- I always request a table near the restroom.
- Is there a bus stop near here?
Grammar: prepositions and other parts of speech
6)The man of my mother
Correction: My mother’s husband / my stepfather
This one has a few parts to it. In marriage, your spouse (marital partner) is your husband or wife. If your spouse has child from another partner, that is your stepchild.
- My parent’s spouse is my stepparent.
- Your mother’s husband is your stepfather.
- Their father’s wife is their stepmother.
- Our father’s husband is our stepfather.
7) He has birthday
Correction: it was his birthday
In German it makes perfectly good sense to say we have birthday or we have holiday or we have Thursday. And why not? Nevertheless, it’s different in English.
- It’s Wednesday.
- My boss is on holiday/vacation.
- Lenny took the day off because it’s his birthday.
8) Make party
Correction: we didn’t have (or throw) a party
The German language gets miles out of machen, meaning ”to make”. In English, make usually means “building or creating something”– literally and figuratively. But machen often translates better to do or another more specialized verb.
- What are they doing in there?
- I think they are making babies.
- Close the door in turn off the light.
- I want to take a picture.
9) We are five
Correction: there were only 5 of us
There is /are is a real foot soldier of the English language. If you were ever trapped on a deserted Island and had to pack only five English phrases, make sure that there is is one of them. Simple, barely noticed, yet ubiquitous. So, instead of saying something like we are five, use there are.
- How many of you are there?
- There are five us but there’s only enough food for two.
- Oh no, there are only two of us left.
10) It was funny
Correction: it was fun.
Something that gives us enjoyment is fun. A game, a toy, or a nice trip can be fun. On the other hand, funny is marked by laughter, comedy, jokes. Funny can also mean “strange” sometimes.
- Dresden is such a fun town. There’s so much to do and see.
- What is the funniest joke you know?
- Sharks don’t eat clowns because they taste funny.
Just to recap, corrected the text should look something like this:
It was relaxing. I did some gardening at my mom’s house. She lives near Dresden. It was her husband’s (my stepdad’s) birthday. We didn’t have a party because there were only five of us. But it was fun.
How did you do?
In the first half were largely grammatical errors while the second half was more conventional in nature. The former might mean revisiting some grammar exercises, the latter you have some expressions to drill. Fortunately, it’s easy grammar, and most of these expressions are are used all the time. So, keep at it and you will nail it so hard that you’ll have forgotten that there ever was a time that couldn’t. And even if you do mess up, so what? They’ll still understand. Remember that the whole point of communication is to be understood.
I almost forgot: weren’t there supposed to be 11 mistakes? Right.
Englisch-Fehler would be English mistakes. Oh boy, false friends! I’ll have to write about that next time. I think I’ll call it something like 11 False Friends that Germans Have Had it Up to Here With