Common English errors made by German learners
Let's assume I ask the mixed nationality students in my English class to turn in a piece of writing anonymously, and I read this extract in one of them:
She mustn't help her mother in the kitchen, because she has many homeworks.
I can be virtually certain that the writer will be one of the German students, who has incorrectly rendered into English the following thought:
Sie muss nicht ihrer Mutter in der Küche helfen, da sie viele Hausaufgaben hat.
The correct translation of this is:
She doesn't have to help her mother in the kitchen because she has a lot of homework.
What is interesting about this example is that only some of the German original has negatively transferred into English. In fact, a direct translation would result in:
She mustn't her mother in the kitchen help, because she many homeworks has.
Note: In German, the lexical verb following modals such as muss (must) or kann (can) is placed at the end of the independent clause. Similarly, the main verb in dependent clauses must also be separated from its subject and placed at the end of the clause.
In my experience, German students often write mustn't when they mean don't have to and homeworks when it should be homework. But only very rarely do they write English sentences with German word order as exemplified above.
Why some aspects of the original German transfer negatively into English but others (for example, the clause structure) typically do not is explored on this related page: The influence of the mother tongue. What follows here is a brief analysis of common examples of interference (negative transfer) from German into English.
Common transfer errors
I have chosen the aspects of language that, in my experience, are the most common sources of negative transfer from German.
The order of the error categories above is a very rough reflection of the, in my estimation, seriousness of the mistake. I believe, for example, that it is more important for students to get their verb grammar right than to avoid article errors. This is because the verb generally carries the most essential meaning of the sentence.
Vocabulary choice follows closely in order of importance, because wrong word selection can more often result in communication breakdown than other kinds of error.
@Much of German verb grammar is similar to English. It has tense inflections, modal verbs, past and present participles, the active and passive voice.~ There are two significant differences, however, that can lead unwary German learners to produce ungrammatical English.
The first difference is that German has no progressive tense. To convey the idea of the continuous nature of an activity, German uses the simple tense plus an adverb such as gerade (at this moment): Er schläft gerade (He's sleeping).
The second difference is that German and English often use different tenses to express the same idea:
i. German uses the present perfect tense for completed actions or states where English requires
ii. German uses the present tense for future events where English requires will + infinitive.
iii. German uses the present for states continuing into the present where English requires the present perfect.
iv. German uses the subjunctive or retains the present tense in reported clauses where English switches to the past tense.
v. German uses an infinitive where English uses a gerund The gerund is the -ing form of the verb: eating, thinking, etc. Grammarians having different terms for this -ing verb form, with gerund being one of them. .
The above differences can result in mistakes such as the following:
@@English and German are cognate languages. They belong to the same language family and share much vocabulary that comes from common origins.~~ For this reason, German learners of English generally have a much easier time comprehending English texts than do Chinese or Finnish learners.
But the news is not all good, since cognate languages are also full of 'false friends' . These are words that are similarly (or identically) spelled or pronounced, but which have different meanings in the two languages. Below are some common 'false friend' mistakes that I see in German students' English work.
A second common vocabulary transfer error made by German learners is in the choice of prepositions. There is a considerable lack of correspondence between the two languages. This often results in mistakes as follows:
Syntax (word order)
Both English and German follow the same basic SVO (subject-verb-object) word order, but with two important exceptions. Firstly, German requires the main verb to be the second element in independent clauses. This will naturally be the case if the subject is placed first: Meine Schwester übt Klavier jeden Abend (my sister practices the piano every evening).
But if the adverbial is brought to the front, subject and verb must be inverted to retain the second position of the verb: Jeden Abend übt meine Schwester Klavier (= every evening practises my sister piano).
Secondly, the main verb must be placed at the end of dependent (subordinate) clauses: Ich fahre nach Frankfurt, wenn ich Klamotten kaufen will (= I go to Frankfurt, when I clothes buy want to).
While my students occasionally make inversion errors, I rarely see errors that place the main verb at the end of dependent clauses. Much more frequent than either of these, however, are the syntax mistakes that contravene (a) the fairly English strong rule that the verb should not be separated from its direct object, and (b) the fairly strong convention that adjuncts of time precede adjuncts of place.
In contrast, separation of verb and direct object is common in German; and the usual order is time before place. Here are some examples of interference in this area :
The English and German article systems are close, so German learners typically do not have the significant problems encountered by native speakers of languages which do not have articles at all - such as Japanese or Russian. Nevertheless, there are times when German uses an article where English doesn't, and vice-versa. This often results in errors such as the following:
Note: The term mechanics encompasses spelling, capitalisation and punctuation.
German has a rule that all clauses must be separated by commas. English (particularly American English) has a similar rule about placing a comma after a dependent clause that starts a sentence.
There are two important places, however, where it is incorrect to insert a comma between clauses in English. The first is in front of a defining relative pronoun, and the second is after a reporting verb.
Other common orthographical mistakes made by German learners are capitalising nouns - as is mandatory in German - and failing to insert the possessive apostrophe, which German does not have.
Unlike English, adjectives and adverbs in German do not have a different form. Hence such errors:
All German nouns are one of three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), and their corresponding pronouns reflect this ( er, sie, es ). The result can be negative transfer mistakes such as the following:
There are several words that are typically singular in English but plural in German. At the top of this article we saw one example homework/Hausaufgaben. Here are two more:
English uses the relative pronoun which to refer back to a whole clause (as in She arrived late again, which annoyed the teacher ). The pronoun that is used to refer back to words such as everything or nothing (e.g. There is nothing that I would rather do). In both cases, German uses the relative pronoun was (what), which can result in mistakes such as:
It is worth pointing out that mother-tongue interference errors such as those above rarely cause comprehension problems for the reader or listener. In any case, most errors will automatically disappear over time as students are exposed to large amounts of comprehensible written and spoken English.
There is a Wikipedia article about Language Transfer which contains several more examples of positive and negative transfer between German and English.
Read about the influence of English on German elsewhere on this site.