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4 common mistakes made by German speakers in English

Most people find it easy to learn English. Knowing the very basics already allows you to communicate with others and native speakers will most likely grasp what you’re trying to say even if your grammar isn’t correct.
But mastering English is a hard task—like with any other language as well I guess.

German speakers tend to make certain mistakes while speaking or writing in English. Therefore I’ve collected the 4 most common slips and how to prevent them.

Using the wrong tense when talking about current activities

If you speak German, you know we don’t have the Present Continous tense. In fact, we don’t have any Continous tenses.
We like to use the Present Simple because that’s how we do it in our mother tongue. But if you talk about things that are happening right now, you must use the Present Continous in English!

Wrong: At the moment I work on my PHP application.
Right: At the moment I am working on my PHP application.

Both sentences in German:
Momentan arbeite ich an meiner PHP Applikation.

Because we know about our affinity towards this error, we tend to overuse the Present Continous. To make everything even worse, we mix incorrect Gerunds into our sentences as well—I’m going to explain this later in this article.

Theoretically, it’s not that hard to know when to use Present Simple or Continous. Learn a few rules, and keep practicing! But don’t worry if you struggle: I believe this is one of the most common mistakes made by German speakers in English!

Make versus do

We sure love the word ‘make’ in German, and we use it much more often than ‘do.’ But that’s not how it works in English and sometimes we don’t know whether to use ‘make’ or ‘do.’

Wrong: I make my homework.
Correct: I do my homework.

In German we use ‘make’:
Ich mache meine Hausübungen.

Generally, use ‘make’ when you talk about creating or constructing something like cake, tea or sculptures.

‘Do’ gets used for general activities and ist often used with words like:

  • anything
  • everything
  • something

Unluckily, there are exceptions to the rules above, and some words only work with ‘make’ or ‘do.’ All you can do is to learn the correct usage by heart or look it up if you’re unsure. You can find a list here.

Writing about the past

Believe it or not, but German-speaking folks are more relaxed with the usage of Past tenses than our English friends. This is a nice contrast to the general belief that German is so strict!
We prefer to use the Present Perfect tense when we talk about past activities, no matter if they’re finished or still going.

Wrong: I’ve finished the whole project last weekend.
Correct: I finished the whole project last weekend.

In German we like to use the Present Perfect:
Ich habe das Projekt letztes Wochenende fertiggestellt.

You can’t use the Present Perfect in English when you talk about something that happened in the past with a completed time period. You use it when you write or speak about an action/event that occurred in the past but also has a connection to the present.

But sometimes it can get extremely tricky to know which tense to use!
Here’s a great video that explains this topic very well:

The Gerund and the Present Continous

First, what the heck is a Gerund?
It’s the fancy word for a verb that gets used as a noun. To turn a verb into a noun, we add -ing at the end of it.

I believe in the art of writing good tutorials.
Poking your co-worker with a stick is not nice!

In German, this would be ‘das Schreiben’ and ‘das Pieksen.’

Remember the first section in this article where we talked about the Present Simple and Present Continous? Well, here we go again!
Gerunds and verbs in Present Continous both end with -ing which makes it troublesome to distinguish between the two. What happens is that we end up with more and more sentences that have a verb plus -ing in them, although it’s most likely wrong. But now we know when to use the Present Continous, so let’s learn how Gerunds are used.

I have to admit: This is not an easy topic.
You can find the rules when to use Gerunds with useful examples here.

Some verbs and phrases must be followed by a Gerund—look at the list here.

Unfortunately, this is also something you have to learn by heart—no specific rules are applied!

Birds sitting on electric wires.
Photo by Slava Bowman on Unsplash

Writing is one way to practice English regularly. Do you want to start blogging? Then go ahead and ask yourself these 5 questions before you start!


I’m sure you can now see what I meant when I wrote that it’s easy to learn but hard to master English. Some concepts can be difficult to comprehend for us German-speakers and some rules are way more complicated in English than in German! But, practice makes perfect. We all make mistakes—even native speakers—so don’t worry too much about it. We also use incorrect grammar in German regularly, and it’s usually no big deal. Be aware though where it’s relatively easy for you to trip and take in the effort of asking someone for help or searching the internet for answers!

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2 Responses

  1. This is a really useful article for German speakers wanting to improve their English – kudos! Just a friendly note from a native speaker and English teacher: One does not “talk” English, one “speaks” English. Also, one does not “apprehend” a concept, one “comprehends” it.

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