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I understand the general concept of "als" = "when in the past" (pardon the oversimplification), however all the examples I can find always refer to very specific moments in time, and to events that happen only once, for example (silly):

Als er den Preis bekam, sagte er "Danke".

This is obvious, since the event "als" refers to is quite clear and only happened once.

However I'm not sure about things like

When I was 20, I had a fast car.

I have a (possibly totally wrong) feeling that it should be

Wenn ich 20 Jahre alt war, hatte ich ein schnelles Auto.

But I'm not quite sure. Should "als" be used in that case too? Or is there yet another (unknown to me) alternative?

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Das ist wohl ein False Friend: Klingt ähnlich when und wenn - etwa when I was younger, so much younger than today, aber ist es eben nicht. Ein anderer, amüsanter False Friend ist amazing. –  user unknown Nov 18 '13 at 14:39
    
Als das Kind Kind war, ... –  Carsten Schultz Nov 21 '13 at 10:37

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Generally, it is als whenever we talk in past and the action is preformed once. The duration doesn't matter. So it is:

Als ich 20 Jahre alt war, hatte ich ein schnelles Auto.

There is one exception to this als-always rule.

Immer wenn ich Hunger hatte, habe ich gegessen.

Whenever I was hungry I would eat.

This action is in past but happened numerous times. It is a description of habit rather than of what actually happened at a certain time.

It is true though that als sometimes sounds a bit too confined or punctual. So ever so often authors use other formulations.

Während meiner Kindheit...

Zur Zeit, da ich noch auf die Beendigung meines Studiums hoffte, ...

Mit 20 hatte ich ...

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Yes, »als« can be used to refer to extended periods of time, like your whole childhood:

When I was a child I used to torture animals.
Als ich noch Kind war, quälte ich Tiere.
Als ich noch klein war, quälte ich Tiere.

This is just fine, language-wise at least :)

Just occurs to me that »als« can also have the meaning of »as«:

As a child, I used to …
Als Kind quälte ich (immer) Tiere.

This is the translation I'd prefer to the »als« clause. Shorter and simpler.

I think in English, you use »When I was 20 (or some other age) …« a lot. That translates to »Als ich 20 war …«, and not »Wenn ich 20 war …«. You can avoid the confusion problem by shortening to just »Mit 20 …«:

Mit 20 hatte ich ein schnelles Auto.

Shorter and simpler. Again, I'd prefer this to the »als« clause.

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