I have been struggling with the notion of "aneignen" in relation with "erwerben". Both seem to seem to translate to the English word "acquire", although seem to be highly context-specific. I was wondering if there was a clean translation between English and German between the two words. For example, when you learn a language, one would say

"Ich will mir diese Sprache aneignen."

Translated into English, you could say acquire, but then I ask, doesn't "erwerben" mean acquire? Other possible translations of aneignen includes "appropriate", but nobody would say that in everyday English.

Could somebody help clarify the difference here and if "aneignen" has a clear English translation, or at least provide some examples where one word would work and the other would not? Thanks!


2 Answers 2


You can use the verb aneignen (similar phrase: zu eigen machen) when talking about something you grasped:

Dort habe ich mir alles über Töpferei angeeignet/zu eigen gemacht.

There I grasped all about pottery.

Sie eignete sich die deutsche Sprache schnell an.

She grasped the German language quickly.

When not talking about learning, aneignen means to take away.

Er ist auf dem Fahrad geflohen, das er sich zuvor angeeignet hatte.

He flew on the bike he had taken away before.

Police will report this instead of "gestohlen" because "stehlen" is an offense, while "aneignen" takes into account the bike could possibly belong to the person who took it away from somebody else.

Erwerben simply means to acquire.

Dieses Bild habe ich vor Jahren erworben.

I acquired this picture years ago.

When talking about something you learned, it's the knowledge you acquired.

Meine Töpferkenntnisse habe ich über Jahre erworben.

I acquired my knowledge about making pottery over years.

  • 2
    One of the key differences is that erwerben can also mean to purchase, that is, acquiring something in exchange for something else. Aneignen doesn't have this connotation.
    – nwellnhof
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 20:08
  • @nwellnhof but aneignen has a connotation of active work for it. And it would be very strange if it was used for something like taking over someone else's property by theft or invasion / squatting. It would sound ironical in that sense, and probably quoted. You wouldn't use aneignen much for an object anyway, rather an intangible, like a skill. And you can use erwerben too but you would have to spell out the skill "Er erwarb die Fähigkeit schöne Gedichte zu verfassen." Commented Sep 20, 2020 at 20:13
  • 1
    @GuntherSchadow There's nothing strange about using aneignen to describe theft or in connection with objects. Just Google for "Täter eignete sich".
    – nwellnhof
    Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 9:10
  • @nwellnhof true, it is used, but it might be used in this slightly ironic form. To my ears it sounds as having a sprinkle of irony on it. Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 16:29

For the specific case of "acquiring" a language, both may be possible. I think erwerben would be much more usual for acquiring a language, and other similar kinds of competencies. Spracherwerb, "language acquisition", is a standard fixed phrase.

More generally, the difference is something like between erwerben as "come to have" and aneignen "take possession of, appropriate". (I don't think appropriate in this sense is that unusual a word in English). aneignen has a stronger sense of taking something that exists, which belongs to someone and making it your own (the root is "eigen", compare the verb enteignen, "expropriate").

Labels in a museum or art collection will often tell visitors when an artwork was erworben, but the museum would probably not want visitors to think that the piece was angeeignet. The museum came to have a particular piece, perhaps by purchase or bequest, but the piece should not have been "seized".

A good strategy for distinguishing between seemingly similar verbs is to look at the back-translations: http://www.dict.cc/?s=spracherwerb

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