How to learn languages by speaking English Part 2: German

Following on from my previous post about Russian, here is a quick sequel about German. I think German’s a great language, and is probably one that has shaped my life the most. I’ve been studying it since I was 14, and have chosen to carry it on at university. I love Germany and I love Berlin, and in two years time I’m hoping to head back out there to do a Masters (where they’re still free, unlike in the UK).

Germany is one of those places though where people speak a lot of English very well. This can make it difficult to get a chance to practise it, although in my experience Germans have tended to be delighted to see young (especially British) people learning their language, and have always been admirably tolerant of the horrendous mistakes that I have been making there over the years.

But again, German English is also something quite special, and may take a while to adjust your ear to. It’s certainly been a big help for me while trying to get my head round some of German’s more confusing eccentricities, as they often reappear translated very literally into English. Here’s a couple that really stand out for me, and remember, this isn’t meant to make fun of anyone, just to show how we can all learn from everyone’s mistakes. Viel Spaß!

German is one of my all-time favourite languages, and probably the one that has shaped my life the most.

German is one of my all-time favourite languages, and probably the one that has shaped my life the most.

German

Before I start on anything to do with grammar, there is one element of German English that I have always found completely mistifying. I have asked German friends, German teachers, German professors, and they are all either equally thrown by it or hadn’t realised that it was a thing. That is German speakers’ consistent rendition of the English ‘v’ sound into another ‘w’. Obviously ‘w’ in German is pronounced closer to an English ‘v’, but that doesn’t mean that you then change both sounds to a ‘w’ in English, or that English speakers associate the sounds in any way whatsoever! This is why you might hear German speakers talking about ‘wedgetables‘ or watching ‘tee-wee‘ or little ‘willages‘.

Do any of you know why this happens? I would love to hear why, so please leave a comment at the bottom of the post!

  1. I become a sausage. No, this is not a joke. Sometimes German speakers will tell you point blank that they are going to become a sausage, or even announce this quite defiantly in restaurant situations. What they mean of course, is Ich bekomme eine Bratwurst, which is a perfectly ordinary way to order food in German. The verb bekommen sounds a lot like to become in English, but in fact means to get or receive. The verb to become in German is werden.
  2. The likelihood is that Germans aren't really turning into a sausage, they're probably just hungry.

    The likelihood is that Germans aren’t really turning into a sausage, they’re probably just hungry.

    In the morning I stand up. German is a very literal language, and as a result this isn’t exactly wrong in English. However, while the verb aufstehen can be translated as to stand up, in the context or morning groggery and pouring milk over cornflakes we would say to get up. On a German exchange trip at school, a friend of mine was reportedly woken up every morning by his host father bursting into his room and shouting “STAND UP! STAND UP!”, as he clearly really wanted to practise his English but didn’t realise that it’s a bit more foreward than just saying “Aufstehen!

  3. I have a date with the chief. There are two issues here, both of which mean that the English in no way whatsoever reflects what the speaker means. This is how the sentence would look in German: Ich habe eine Verabredung mit dem Chef. The word Verabredung can mean any kind of appointment or arrangement that two people make with each other, and therefore can be translated also as date, although this has exclusively romantic connotations in English. Then Chef is a commonly used word for boss, and does not mean cook, as it does in English. So what is actually meant here is I have an appointment with my boss.
  4. I learn English since one yearThis is a common mistake across a lot of languages, and exposes a big difference between the way that English expresses this concept compared to others. In fairness, English speakers learning German very often make this mistake the other way round. The original German sentence is Ich lerne Englisch seit einem Jahr, and this should be translated as I’ve been learning English for a year. Note the changes taking place: a) German expresses this in the present instead of the past, b) German uses seit (since) instead of für (for) to denote the amount of time.
  5. When you are hungry, we can eat. This can be a big problem for German speakers. Unlike in English, German does not distinguish between if/when, instead just using the word wenn. Because this sounds like ‘when’, it seems that it gets used all the time, even though sometimes what is meant is ‘if’. When is only used for events that are certain, while if implies that you may not know that they’ll happen. The original sentence Wenn du Hunger hast, können wir essen should in fact be If you are hungry, we can eat. Using ‘when’ in this case implies more that you are giving an order, rather than making a suggestion, which can sound a bit rude.

Once again, let me know if you can think of any more. In the meantime enjoy the weekend, and here’s a little video!