Why do students have wrong grammar

Error analysis in German as a foreign language

This page was created primarily with a view to the situation in the Netherlands. If appropriate examples from other countries or from other learner languages ​​are added, appropriate subheadings could be added.

On the basis of the systematic error analysis of student texts, a typical sequence of errors in the acquisition of German could be created. There are papers available for the English lessons; for German lessons in the Netherlands, reference is only made to the SLO brochure by Erwin de Vries and Erik Kwakernaak: "Advies-grammaticaleerlijn Duits". (Without location, without year, PDF inventory, see SLO website)

Mistakes made by foreign language learners

What is the difference between mistakes made by native speakers and someone learning the language as a foreign language?

A native speaker with the appropriate training will immediately recognize his mistakes when listening to the tape and he will also be able to improve them. The foreign language learner will recognize his "stupid mistakes" and to some extent also be able to improve them; he will not be able to spot other faults without help.

This can have different causes:

  1. Due to the structure of their mother tongue, the foreign language learner accepts an error as supposedly correct (interference error). For example, which Dutchman hears the error in "Come here" (instead of "Come here")?
  2. The foreign language learner has not yet learned a certain rule (or exception) and falls back on a rule that has already been learned, but which does not apply here (over-generalization). Of course, this also happens to children when they are learning languages ​​and to untrained native speakers; For example, when Germans often say "Geb mal her" (instead of "Gib mal her" [imperative, singular!]).
  3. Incorrect forms have been taught or (at least) suggested (negative transfer learning!) In the lessons and / or teaching material.

Interference error

Interference errors are certainly the most common mistakes our students make. You have a certain level of competence in your mother tongue. And if you want to say something in the foreign language, you simply translate literally first. (Incidentally, the simple computer programs do the same thing!) And if a word is unknown in the heat of the moment, then you leave it out of your native language (e.g. "I read the Krant"). This also makes sense in its own way: you want to say something and only think about the right form secondarily. First there is always the "what" and only then the "how". Incidentally, our example sentence would be understandable to every German if the speaker pointed to a newspaper. The German does not understand the word "krant", but he recognizes the meaning in the situation. In non-evident situations and context, however, this can lead to misunderstandings. The sentence "My tile is in the living room." will be much more difficult to understand in stories for Germans.

Apart from the argument of intelligibility, we see interference errors at different levels:

  • Vocabulary mistakes
  • Idiomatic mistakes in proverbs and expressions
  • Simple grammatical errors (especially dative and genitive errors)
  • Sentence construction error

Now we haven't even considered speaking skills (pronunciation and intonation) in this list.

If we want to minimize the errors listed above, i.e. push them back to a minimum, then we first have two options:

  1. We have to give the student the necessary knowledge.
  2. The student must be enabled to apply this knowledge.

Point 2 is of course the more important and also the more difficult.

All of this is of course different from a didactic point of view in speaking skills than in writing skills. But we'll get into that later.

The other foreign language as a different system

Overall, however, it is extremely important for both points that the student learns the structure of the language to be learned. Where it agrees with his mother tongue and where it deviates from it. He has to perceive the foreign language as a different, a different system. This also applies to interference from other foreign languages. Often students first set up a system:

<graphviz> digraph G { rankdir=LR; Fremdsprache -> Muttersprache; } </graphviz>

For the student this means, of course, that a foreign language can be understood to mean all possible foreign languages. It must now be made clear that there are different systems of foreign languages. And this system must be built up consciously as a separate one.

<graphviz> digraph G { Englisch -> Muttersprache; Deutsch -> Muttersprache; Französisch -> Muttersprache; Andere_Fremdsprachen -> Muttersprache; } </graphviz>

The influence of these factors may also depend on the particular timetable. A student who has just drilled into a structure in English will sometimes take it with him to German lessons. In the first year in particular, one hears English words more often in schools, which, so to speak, simply "interpose".

But maybe it has happened to you yourself: on a long holiday evening abroad, you can no longer find the right word, a word from another foreign language comes up again and again.


is a common mistake. The student transfers a learned rule to an area where its application leads to an error.

For example:

What you've learned is: I love my job. What is transmitted is: I will be a teacher.

The student has learned that the subject and verb "normally" are followed by an object that is in the accusative. "This rule" is then incorrectly carried over to the second example sentence, although here "will" require the nominative.

Incidentally, this mistake is also very common in the acquisition of a native language. For example, children learn the rule that the plural of nouns can (also) be formed by adding an "s", which they then transfer to many others.

For example:

The car the cars The girl the girl

In the case of over-generalization errors, the teacher must either point out that the wrong rule has been applied or that the rule is still to be learned (actually, it is not a mistake then, if you look at the student from his perspective).

Errors in the textbook

we should recognize and improve. This applies not only to clear errors (such as typing errors or vocabulary errors), but also to explanations that lead to errors (for example: problematic grammar rules).

Error description at the level of the language

In addition to these psychological causes for the production of errors, other descriptive features are important for us as teachers. These features are at the linguistic description level. The following are particularly important:

  • Wrong word
  • Misspelled word
  • Wrong idioms
  • Wrong form (grammar)
  • Wrong sentence structure

Typical mistakes made by Dutch students

How the errors are distributed among Dutch students was examined in a small empirical study by Erik Hofman in 1996 in a thesis of the NHL. For this purpose, the errors of 64 letters from HAVO students were recorded, a total of 630 errors. With some double counts the following distribution resulted:

Grammatical error 383 Idiom error 133 Spelling error 161

Of the 383 grammatical errors, 271 or almost 71% were case errors. The four main case errors were as follows:

Errors Number of errors according to prep. 125 Dat./Akk. correct gender wrong 63 wrong prep. 51 accusative instead of dative 50

Word error

"Wrong words" are mostly interference errors. You don't know a word in German and you fall back on your mother tongue. Then the newspaper turns into a "krant". Occasionally, of course, there can also be a learning error: You are using a supposedly correct word. If the context is disregarded, "de enkel" can be translated as "the grandson".

When writing, the spelling and spelling also play a major role (we will go into pronunciation later). Here, too, it is often a question of interference errors. If you have the sound of a word in your ear or an approximate idea of ​​the word image, a familiar spelling rule from your mother tongue will be used if you are unsure.

Idiomatic mistake

Idioms are not single words that are used incorrectly, but expressions that are made up of several words.

A Dutch expression like

"De kat uit de boom kijken"

you can't just translate word for word into German. You have to find a suitable expression. However, these are by no means just proverbs and the like; fixed connections between words are also important. In German, a record is not "turned", it is played.

These conventions have to be learned to a large extent, explanations only help in exceptional cases.

Why can cars and boats drive in German even though the latter hardly have the appropriate wheels?

And why can't you go on vacation with your motorcycle?

Grammatical error

After all, a widespread hobby of German teachers is grammar.

On the one hand there is the sentence structure. For Dutch people with manageable sentence structures, apart from a few infinitive positions, this is hardly a problem due to his mother tongue. Even the tenses in German mostly agree with the Dutch. And if you are fit in Dutch grammar, you will only make a few mistakes in German.

In German, however, the form of the word changes much more frequently and compellingly than in Dutch. This change in form of the word depends in turn on the position and function in the sentence. Then there is the question of which category the respective word to be changed comes under. Just think of the main groups of German nouns: In "Wahrig" there are 30 (thirty) different declensions. Multiplied by the four cases and then with the singular and plural, you get 240 possibilities! And that alone with the declination. This extensive theory of forms is therefore also an important problem in the German language. (On the other hand, on the other hand, due to this diversity, the sentence structure in German is much more variable than in most other comparable languages).

The four cases lead to another important area of ​​possible errors. First there is the dative object, which in modern Dutch can only be recognized by its form in the personal pronouns. Verb valencies that require the dative are a particular problem for advanced learners, as are other parts of speech that require the dative.

Incidentally, in the simplest German, linguistic intelligibility is also possible without the correct forms. Just think of the early forms of a "guest worker German" in which, for example, the infinitive form of the verb is the rule.

A sentence like "I eat the cabbage" is understandable, although it contains two major grammatical errors.

Mistakes in class

In practice, however, it is not always easy for the teacher to decide which error is currently present.

A sentence like

"I like the car."

can have two sources of error:

  • The student may have thought that a car was a masculine word in German, or
  • he may have thought the neuter form of "the car" was "the car".


  • Cherubin, Dieter (Hg): Error linguistics. Contributions to the problem of linguistic discrepancy. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1980.
  • Edge, Julian: Mistakes and Correction. London / New York: Longman, 1989.
  • Heringer, Hans Jürgen: Error Lexicon. German as a foreign language. Berlin: Cornelsen, 2001.
  • Spillner, Bernd: Error Analysis. A Comprehensive Bibliography. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: Benjamin, 1991.