When you try to learn a new language, you quickly find ‘false friends’.

False friends are words which sound similar in both languages, but have completely different meanings. This can cause confusion, or can even make you laugh.

Everyone has stories of the mistakes they have made with false friends – it’s just a part of learning a new language.  To try to help, I’ve chosen 5 false friends which my German students find difficult.

eventual / eventuell

The English adverb eventually means that something will definitely happen, but after some time.   If I say that ‘I’ll send a card eventually’, it is certain to happen but you should not expect it to happen immediately.

On the other hand,  eventuell means maybe, perhaps or possibly.   There is no guarantee that something will happen.  As I’m sure you can see,  the eventual/eventuell false friend is important when you are making plans and commitments!


sensible / sensibel

In both German and English, sensible and sensibel are adjectives which can be used to describe people.

In English, sensible means responsible, wise or practical. For example, the sensible thing to do the night before an exam is to go to bed early.   Children also wear sensible shoes to school, which are strong, black, and flat.

On the other hand, the German sensibel can be translated as sensitive in English. To be sensitive is to feel emotions strongly. If a person is sensitive they may be easily upset.   The sensible/sensible false friend pairing is therefore important when you are describing people.


brave / brav

To be brave is to be courageous (mutig) and not easily frightened. Brav is more everyday, and means good or well behaved.  Again, this is an important distinction to make when you are describing or praising people.


 marmalade / Marmelade  & lemonade / Limonade

In both the English and German speaking worlds, we have marmalade and lemonade but however they refer to different things. In both cases, the English word describes something more specific.

If you order marmalade for breakfast in English, you’ll get an orange fruit preserve. We only make marmalade from citrus fruits, and it is usually made with oranges.   In German, there is only one word for these fruit preserves. Marmelade can be strawberry, raspberry, cherry, apricot or any other flavour.  If you want one of these other flavours for your toast in English, you need to ask for jam.

Likewise, German Limonade can often refer to different flavours of fizzy juice.   In English, lemonade is only used for a drink flavoured with lemon.


backen / bake

The English verb to bake means to cook something in an oven, usually without oil.   We bake cakes, biscuits, and lasagne, among other things. The verb backen in German can refer to the process of breading and frying something.  This false friend tripped me up a couple of times after I moved to Vienna! It’s best to double check whether you’re ordering the healthy or unhealthy option.


Bonus: fun / funny

Although not really a false friend, the distinction between fun and funny  is something which a lot of my students struggle with. Fun and funny are both adjectives, but there are important differences.

If something is fun, it is enjoyable. It makes you happy. Playing football in the garden with friends is fun.

However, if something is funny, it makes you laugh.   A joke is funny.   You make a funny face when you stick your tongue out. Funny can also mean the same as the German komisch.   It doesn’t have to be positive.  Something which smells bad or unusual, for example, can have a funny smell.


Understanding false friends is one of the tricky things about learning a new language, but I hope that this short list has made you feel a little more comfortable.  If you’d like to share one of your false friend stories, please leave me a comment below.

Remember, if you’re looking for lessons to improve your general English, I work as a private tutor in Vienna. Whether you’d like to practice your reading, writing, conversation or all three, I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time


Mairi : )



image:   Scott Robinson at everystockphoto.com