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I’m spending this summer working on my C-level (advanced) languages, so I’ve been very focused on going into specifics that can really polish up my skills.
And as I’ll be intensively working on my German shortly, I welcomed this interesting article by native German speaker Kerstin from Fluent Language about getting German pronunciation just right.
Over to you, Kerstin!
You don’t have to have a perfect accent to speak German.
Even if you don’t feel ready to start speaking German, just open your mouth already. No matter whether you create the perfect sound or not, learning is an adventure that only starts when you start. I’m going to share some high-impact tips that will help you reduce your native accent when you speak German. But advocating perfection is not my deal.
That said, most language learners do want to be understood by native speakers. And that means working on your accent.
The following tips are really effective ways of cutting out the most noticeable signs of your native accent when you speak German. Even though improving your pronunciation with these is highly effective, remember that ultimately the pronunciation of an individual letter remains a subtlety to be practiced over time. Find what works for you. We’re not language robots after all.
Tip 1: Practice, Practice, Practice
As soon as you have learnt something new, go out and practice it. Record yourself and share it online. Chat with your tutor or language partner. There are more than 100 million German speakers in the world. You only need one to help you out.
Tip 2: Don’t Get Hung Up on Dialect
German has all kinds of dialects – but don’t worry about that . As a German learner, you can use hochdeutsch, our standard German dialect, to your advantage. Most German natives will be used to speaking to all kinds of people every day whose dialect is very different from their own. It is normal for Germans to modify their pronunciation to be more generic, so for you as a foreigner there is just no need to worry whether your accent is spot-on.
Tip 3: Listen Intensively, not Passively
I regularly see language learners make a lot out of immersion through listening.
Listening practice is really important. As Ron from Language Surfer put it in a recent podcast interview I did with him: You want to become used to being uncomfortable as early as possible. Passive immersion is fantastic for getting a little bit uncomfortable. And it’s good for staying motivated because picking out more and more words that you understand feels super rewarding.
But it isn’t going to do much for your speaking skills.
For the purpose of improving your accent, you should slow down your listening practice and focus on intensive listening. That way, you can make sure you understand every word and repeat words and phrases as many times as necessary so you can really work out what people are saying.
For German learners, there are many slow language resources to start you off. Practice everyday language with Slow German and Langsam Gesprochene Nachrichten. Alternatively, find short clips of natural, native content at Audio Lingua. My talented colleague André Klein also offers audio versions of his stories in simple German.
You want to find clips that are so short that you can easily work with them intensively. That means five minute podcasts rather than audiobooks and movies. Listen to and transcribe what you are hearing, then check for correct spelling. Say the words out loud, and finally record yourself.
As a bonus, it’s even better to ask a friend from Germany to record their own version of the script that you have produced at normal speed. This trains you in recognising words and accents. If you don’t know a suitable person to ask, try submitting your text to Rhinospike.
Tip 4: Practice Your Fricatives
In the German language, fricatives play a significant role. The word fricative may be intimidating, but it refers to a sound that you are already familiar with so there’s no need to worry.
Fricatives are all sounds produced from the lip shape that produces the letters f and v in English. You’re basically creating a friction sound by pushing air through a contracted space. You may notice that Germans put these fricatives in all kinds of places when they speak English (“ve are valking to ze vall”) and you need to reverse-engineer that effect when you learn German.
It should look like this:
A couple of pointers on the fricative:
The German “w” is a fricative. Forget ever producing the “rounded lips w” sound from English words like “what” or “why” in German. Instead, you want to aim for a very soft v, with your front teeth gently touching the lower lip and opening from there.
The German v is pronounced in two different ways. At the start of a word, it’s an unvoiced fricative. Basically, that means you don’t produce sound with your vocal chords and your teeth touch your lips a little bit. Or to make it even easier, the German “v” sound is the English f sound. Listen to this word for an example.
The voiced V (this is the English “v” sound) exists when the v is in the middle of a word as in Navigationsgerät. It can also occur at the start of words such as Vakuum that originate in Latin or French.
Tip 5: Never Pronounce the “R” as You Would in English
The basic German r is what many language teachers call the “French r”, a kind of very gentle throat clearing. The phonological name for this is “uvular fricative” – yes, it’s another fricative sound but this time coming from the throat area. The sound is slightly similar to the ch sound from the Scottish word “Loch”.
Listen to Forvo’s recording of the word “Rache” to see what I mean. The R sound is throaty and fast, but the ch sound is more guttural as there’s more friction to it.
You can pick and choose whether you would like to roll your r. In Southern German dialects it’s very commonly rolled, and in the Hamburg area too. But for me as a native German speaker from the Mosel valley near France and Luxembourg, rolling the r is not natural at all and I don’t do it.
In short: Rolling the r is not compulsory in German. Just don’t say it like you do it in English.
Tip 5: Learn How Vowels End Up Stretching
Every German vowel has a long and a short pronunciation, and there are consistent rules that will tell you when a vowel is pronounced short or long.
- The vowel is always short before a double consonant, for example in “brennen”, “Tanne” and even “Osten”
- The vowel is always long before a h, such as in the words “Dehnung”, “Bahn” and “Fehler”
In fact, the h is often called “Dehnungs-h”, the stretching h, among German teachers. No matter if you’re pronouncing Bahn, Bohnen or Dehnung, rest assured that this rule is one ot be relied upon.
How does this apply to “ß” (“ss”)? During the German spelling reform in 1998, the rule of how to pronounce ß words was simplified. If the vowel comes before a -ss, it’s short. If it comes before a -ß, it’s long.
This means you’ve got to watch out when working with slightly older materials, but also that a government reform actually did something useful.
Tip 6: Record Yourself and Ask for Feedback on Soundcloud or Youtube
Soundcloud offers all kinds of possibilities when you want to improve your accent and pronunciation. You can not only find independent musicians and songs in your target language, but also use the hashtag for your language to hear spoken word content from many radio channels. Recently, Soundcloud has even started offering podcasts as part of its service.
When you upload your own recording, others can comment on it and highlight the specific point in the recording their comment refers to. So where you are practicing pronunciation, you can get exact feedback about the sounds you are struggling with. Come and join our free group Speak German like a Native in which I regularly upload and review new German pronunciation materials, and submit your own German pronunciation recording for feedback from the group.
Here’s an example to get you started. This is a recording of the full German alphabet on Soundcloud. I would like to invite you to post your own response or practice playing with the pronunciation of city names like Zürich, Mönchengladbach, Wuppertal, Greuth and Trier.
About the author: Kerstin Cable is a native German speaker and is working on her eighth language. She teaches online courses in German, French and Teacher Training. Check out her website Fluent Language to discover more about Kerstin and her languages.