If you’re a native German speaker learning English, most of the time you should count yourself lucky: there is a lot of overlap between the German and English vocabulary, meaning that a lot of words are almost exactly the same in both languages. Lucky you, right?
So why do I say ‘’most of the time’’? Well, unfortunately, sometimes the fact that English and German have so many words in common actually works against us – I’m talking about so-called ‘’false friends’’: words that look and/or sound the same or similar as a word in your native language, but has a completely different meaning! These tricksters are often the cause of confusing if not downright embarrassing situations.
To help you avoid these painful situations, here’s a list of the most common German-English false friends which we language trainers hear on a frequent basis. This list works both ways, whether you’re learning English or German!
aktuell vs. actually
The English translation for aktuell is current/currently, not actually. And the German translation for actually is eigentlich, not aktuell.
mobben vs. (to) mob
The German verb mobben means to bully a person. The German terms Pack and bedrängen can communicate best the English word mob (which is both a noun and a verb).
konsequent vs. consequent
English teachers often find that, when German students say consequent in an English sentence, what they mean to say is consistent. The word consequent, on the other hand, translates best to the German adjective folgend.
sensibel vs. sensible
If a German ever tells you that you are being too sensible, they probably mean to say you are being too sensitive. Sensibel can be used to describe something or someone that is sensitive or touchy. To be sensible, on the other hand, meaning to have good sense or reason, translates in German to vernünftig, klug or verständig.
Think about is like this: sensible relates to the head/brain, sensitive relates to the heart/emotions.
blamieren vs. to blame
Blamieren is a German verb that means to disgrace or to embarrass oneself or someone else. To blame in the English language, however, means to find fault with or to hold someone responsible for something. The best German term for this is jemanden beschuldigen or verantwortlich machen (für).
Chef vs. chef
Probably the most famous German-English pair of false friends out there, since there is zero difference in spelling or pronunciation! Not surprisingly, they are often confused.
Chef (note the capital letter) in German means boss, chief or head (e.g. of a company), but a chef in English is a cook in a restaurant (who manages a kitchen). This is, of course, a Koch/Köchin in German.
spenden vs. to spend
Spenden in German means to donate (time or money), whereas the English verb to spend translates to ausgeben (money) or verbringen (time). Therefore, if someone tells you they spend a lot of money at the supermarket, they use it too buy food – they don’t give it away to charity! 😉
sympatisch vs. sympathetic
Last but not least, another infamous pair which puzzles German and English speakers alike – mostly because sympatisch is one of the most common Germans words which are impossible to translate into English.
While most dictionaries will tell you that sympathisch can be used to say likeable, congenial or friendly, these translations often don’t communicate the exact meaning of the word.
More importantly, the adjective sympathetic means something completely different to likeable or friendly. The best German translation would be mitfühlend or verständnisvoll – sympathetic is used to show that you understand how another person is feeling.
To make life a bit easier for you, here are all these false friends presented in a table:
Looks/sounds like German word (= false friend):
What it really means in German:
mob (noun or verb)
pack / bedrängen
vernünftig / klug / verständig.
mitfühlend / verständnisvoll
To finish off this topic, be aware that this is just a small selection of a long list of German-English false friends. The main point to take away from this story is that, although two words may look and/or sound the same in both languages, the meaning can be vastly different! We hope this list will help you to avoid falling for the oh-so-many traps that the English and German vocabulary have to offer! 😊