5 Embarrassing Mistakes to Avoid in German

If you think "Vögeln" has something to do with birds, we have bad news for you...

German can be a tough language to crack for English-speaking adults. There are brutal new pronunciations (ch, r, ü and ö spring to mind), three genders and the famous four noun cases. Native speakers have the good fortune to know these by instinct, but even they may find themselves stumped when newbies ask why something should be one way and not another.

Everyone makes mistakes – but some are more embarrassing than others. Here are five to avoid around your German-speaking acquaintances.

1) Mixing up words.

As in every language, some German words sound alike to the unpracticed ear – as one co-worker here at Metropole learned the hard way, when she flatuliert someone on their graduation. She meant gratulieren, the thing you might do to someone who just got married or promoted. Flatulieren is the sound of passing gas. Rookie mistake.

Another common mix-up is schießen (shooting) and scheißen (a crude word for defecating). If you are playing football with your pals and you get to shoot a penalty kick, you might call that “Elf-meter-schießen” (no relation to the diminutive woodland creatures). If instead you declare you’re about to “Elf-meter-scheißen,” teammates will hustle you off the field and into containment.

2) Gendered nouns and pronouns

A revelation for English speakers learning German is that nouns – people, places, things and ideas – all have assigned genders. For example, die Frau (the woman) logically has the feminine article, die. Der Mann, it follows, has the masculine But it gets weird.

You’d think that “girl” would be feminine – and you’d be wrong. It’s “das Mädchen” – neutral. Why are both “die Müdigkeit” (tiredness) and “die Munterkeit” (vivacity) feminine? It’s a mystery. (To those readers currently beside themselves because they know there is actually an explanation for these mysterious circumstances: Gold star for you; leave it in the comments!)

3) False Friends

You’re getting the hang of it now – English has German roots, and the sophisticated word you are about to drop like a mic has to mean what you think it means. Cue the wah-wah button. This might be a false friend.

Eventually, you’ll learn that eventuell means “possibly, under some conditions”. Aktuell actually means “currently”. Pathetisch, meaning “emotional, dramatic,” is here to remind you how pitiful your German still is.

4) Itty bitty rules

Some nuances can be learned in the classroom, others just come from experience. It’s almost impossible to remember every tiny rule in conversation, but here are two to watch out for:

Don’t say “in” when talking about years: I wasn’t born “in 1988,” I’d say “ich bin 1988 geboren.” You also don’t really say you speak languages, but rather that you “can” them. Ich kann Deutsch, you say, optimistically. And even though you’ve dropped the main verb, you’re right.

5) Word-for-word translations

The sun is shining, and you are feeling hot. “Ich bin so Heiß,” you tell the ice cream guy. Why is he giggling? Because you said “I am so horny”. Instead, you should say “Mir ist so Heiß.”

Another example: “Mir ist langweilig” means you are bored, “Ich bin langweilig” is an admission that you are boring. Learn the difference; it might rescue your Tinder profile.

There you have it, the most embarrassing German mistakes you should avoid. Now go out there and show your date you know the difference between congratulating and passing wind, and that vögeln (to make love) isn’t just for the birds.


Emre Günes
Emre Günes is Viennese born and raised with Turkish roots. After finishing his international school he got a knack for writing in English and studied Journalism at the University of Westminster in London. He previously interned at a couple of import/export companies as a teen and then even at the Radio Station of the Austrian National Broadcaster (ORF) until completing his military service in 2018. He is now an intern and writes for Metropole while studying his masters for English Linguistics.

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