Teaching English in Germany: My Favorite Mistakes

With so many international staff working at iversity, our native Germans also face problems similar to those described in the text. So we thought we’d share this interesting post from the Young Germany blog with you. This is the first post we publish in cooperation with another blog. So, if you have written something interesting and you would like to see it published here, or if you have a blog and would like to cooperate with us, just send us an e-mail.

by nikki via Young Germany


Once upon a time when I was an English teacher in Frankfurt I had a lot of German students intent on mastering small talk. So we would practice talking about nothing. “How’s the weather been lately?” I would ask them in a role play. They would respond, and ask me about my family. What they needed to practice wasn’t so much the English itself, but the art of pointless conversation. Which meaningless subjects were appropriate? Which subjects were taboo? And why the hell would anyone want to waste ten minutes talking about nothing in the first place? It’s a concept many Germans can’t wrap their heads around.

With the students most intent on practicing small talk, I would start each class with ten or fifteen minutes of chatting (most of my classes were one-on-one sessions). What they had done on the weekend, what I had done on the weekend, what we were both planning on doing the following weekend, how horrible the weather was, that sort of thing. Then we would work our way into a variety of other role plays: telephone calls, business meetings, financial reports, or whatever the student needed to practice for their at-work encounters with people of the English-speaking variety. The subject matter of those lessons tended to be bland, but some of the students’ mistakes were priceless.

A long, long time ago I collected some of my favorites, and I’m here to share them with you today.  I’m not sharing these because I want to make fun of people who make mistakes when speaking a second language. But I have made enough side-splitting mistakes myself to know that the best thing you can hope to get out of a grammatical fumble is a good, long chuckle. And besides, when you’re an expat learning German, it’s nice to see that no matter who is learning what language, mistakes are made and life goes on.  Learning a new language is hard work, so don’t let your mistakes get you down!  Laugh over them instead, and remember that it won’t alwasy be this difficult!

the baby store

“My friend is getting a baby.”

“Is he adopting?  Buying it at the store?” I would usually ask. This is one of the most common mistakes you’ll hear from German speakers in English. You see, in German you use the verb “to get” when talking about having babies, and so of course everybody just translates it directly. At least the first time.

“Uuuh, no,” the student would usually reply.  Then I would remind them of the difference in verb usage, and they would slap their foreheads and never make the mistake again. But it was always a lovely reminder of how arbitrary language can be. Does saying “having a baby” really make any more sense than saying “getting a baby”? Well, to my English trained brain, yes. But when you really step back and think about it? No, not at all.

funny because it’s not true

“I am very interesting in reading.” For some reason a lot of German folks have trouble getting the difference between expressing their interests (“I am interested in…”) and loudly advertising their personal charms (“I am interesting”). No matter how many times I heard this I never stopped needing to repress a laugh. Often because the people who said it were anything but.  And because I’m sure I’ve made the same mistake in German a number of times myself.

the cross dresser

Almost every beginning foreign language learner is stressed out at the thought of talking on the phone in his/her adopted language. Calling strangers in any language tends to make me nervous, and I still vividly remember the days when the thought of calling someone auf Deutsch to arrange a ride share made me break out in a cold sweat. (The upside: once you can handle that, you can pretty much handle anything.) So, understandably, a lot of my students wanted to practice the telephone calls they expected to have to make with their English-speaking colleagues, and our teaching books were full of prompts for just this sort of role play.

My prompt to the student: “You are on the phone. Describe yourself to someone you are going to meet at the airport so they can recognize you.”

The answer, from the conservative business man with the suit and the $5,000 watch: “I will be wearing a black dress.”

I repressed a chuckle imagining the elderly business man across from me squeezed into a black cocktail dress.  He might have been able to pull it off, but what he meant to say was “suit.”  When I explained his mistake, he was embarrassed, but very happy to have gotten it out of the way in the classroom and not in front of his boss.

new age girl

One of the topics covered in every business-English textbook was “agreeing and disagreeing.” This usually involved a list of potentially controversial conversation topics. I would take one of the topics and make a statement like “war is wrong,” and then the student could practice politely agreeing or disagreeing with what I’d said. One of the topics I particularly enjoyed tackling was vegetarianism. And it also led to another amusing mistake.

Me: “Vegetarianism is a healthy lifestyle choice.”

Student: “I agree. Some of my friends are vegetables.”

Me: “I certainly hope not.” At which point the student looked at me quizzically, and I explained that a vegetarian was a person who didn’t eat meat, while a vegetable was a person who was in a coma and hooked up to machines in the hospital. It’s another one of those mistakes you only make once in your life, an unfortunate fact for the comic relief of English speakers everywhere.

and last but not least

From an older male student who I knew to be heterosexual: “My boyfriend, and I went skiing this weekend.”

“Really? Well, knowing that you have a wife, I’d guess you might want to phrase that differently. You see, the term ‘boyfriend’ in English always refers to a romantic relationship. Did you mean boyfriend?”

“No no no no no no no no NO!” He looked mildly horrified at what he’d said. “Friend! Friend!””

One of my favorite things about the German language is that the words for “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” are the same words that you would use for “platonic friend” (and because German nouns are gendered, you get the information about the partner’s gender within the word itself). But it can easily lead to a misunderstanding, both for Germans translating their thought
s into English, and English speakers trying to tell a story about a platonic friend without confusing the point.

Now it’s time to share.  Have you made any particularly funny or memorable mistakes speaking a second language?  What gives you the most trouble when you try to speak German?