Imagine the following scenario:
You get into a conversation with some German speakers.
Nothing too deep, just idle chitchat at a party maybe.
You talk for half the night before you decide to go home.
While walking back to your place, you feel like something was off about the night.
Did you make a mistake? Was there a weird vibe?
Something else entirely?
You can’t quite put your finger on it.
Suddenly it hits you: For the whole night nobody asked you where you’re from.
That’s weird. That always happens when you speak German. Why not tonight? Well, the reason is simple: Nobody realized German is not your native language. Because you sounded just like one of them.
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The Ultimate Guide to Perfect German Pronunciation
Mastering German Pronunciation: The Final Frontier
In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about Pareto’s law, or, as it’s more commonly known, the 80/20 rule. It describes the fact that 80 percent of results usually come from 20 percent of input.
While those numbers are not set in stone, the concept behind Pareto’s law is solid: A disproportionate amount of outcomes can be achieved with a fraction of what you put in.
For example, in German comparatively few words make up the majority of the everyday spoken language. Consequently, learning these first gives you access to a large percentage of what German speakers are saying on a given day.
However, does that mean you can just study a couple hundred words and it will open up all of German for you? No, of course not.
To become fluent, you’ll still need to learn tougher topics, like German noun cases.
And learning to write in German wouldn’t hurt either.
Most German learners spend the majority of their time on the 80% of language acquisition: understanding and being understood. Yet, there is a stage past that where it’s more about refinement and polishing than amassing more knowledge.
In the following article, we will have a look at how to get closer to that scenario. So change your name to Hans, put on your Lederhosen and get ready to fake being German.
What Makes a German Accent?
Before we get started on how to change, let’s take a second to think about what actually makes up an accent. I mean it’s not like native speakers have a different anatomy, their teeth are shaped differently or they can reach places in their mouths with their tongues that you can’t.
(Hey, I meant in your own mouth! If that’s where your mind goes, you should really check out our romantic German phrases first).
On the very basic level, language is made up of sounds. We try to classify these by giving them names and putting them into a system. Vowels, consonants and the alphabet are one such system.
Yet, while many languages use the same alphabet, the pronunciation of the letters is often very different. For example e absolutely does not sound the same in English as it does in German. Plus, many letters will often have a different sound differently in different positions of situations.
Consequently, in order to master German pronunciation, these single sounds are the smallest unit to concentrate our efforts on.
Zooming out from the micro perspective, we have intonation. Every language, including German, has its own rhythm and melody. Where the speaker of one language might raise their tone, Germans might do the exact opposite.
You might be spot-on with your pronunciation of German sounds, but if your melody is completely different, your accent will give you away quickly. Therefore, melody and intonation is the second part we will concentrate on.
A third factor to successfully pass as German is not just how you say things, but what you say. Using unfamiliar and non-standard words is a sure sign of someone’s foreignness.
However, slang and other such shenanigans is something that has to be learned over time, and will differ depending on location and who you are talking to. Since that is a little past the scope of this article, we will concentrate on the other two.
DIY German Accent Training: Tools You Will Need
Like other disciplines of language acquisition, improving your German pronunciation is easier with the right set of tools. The following will help you talk like a German quicker and easier.
First and foremost, you need something to practice off of—some speaker that you can model yourself after. There is no use just trying to improve if you have nothing to compare yourself to.
Thankfully, material to listen to can be found aplenty:
Of the above, podcasts, audio dramas and audiobooks are probably the best choices. The reason is that they let you repeat phrases and parts over and over again, so you can really get into the nitty gritty of what the speaker is saying. While the other media also work, you have to make sure you can capture what’s going on there first. That’s where the next tool comes in handy.
The most important thing to improve your accent is that you actually hear yourself speak. Only when you can make out the difference between what a native speaker is saying and what comes out of your mouth can you take steps to improve. Therefore, you definitely need some sort of recording device in your arsenal. This could be:
- The audio recorder of your cell phone
- Recording software for your computer (e.g. Audacity)
- A specialized audio recording device
Which one you choose is up to you. Just make sure you have a way to capture your beautiful voice.
In case you didn’t know, IPA stands for International Phonetic Alphabet. It’s an agreed upon system of phonetic notation that is being used worldwide. The IPA aims to provide a way to represent sounds independent of language. It does so with letters and diacritic markers.
For example the “i” in “machine” would be represented with [i], while “a” in “fan” comes out as [æ]. The same sounds and transcriptions exist in German, for example for Biene (bee) and gähnen (to yawn), respectively. Knowing how to read the IPA will greatly help you understand how to pronounce words when they are transcribed with this system.
5 Steps to Get Your German Pronunciation Just Right
But enough preparation, let’s get right to it. Working on your German pronunciation is a five-step system. This is not to say that you do it once and you are done (unfortunately), but it’s more like a process that, if you repeatedly go through it, will quickly facilitate change.
1. Listen and imitate
As a first step, you will have to take your training material (i.e. recorded language samples) and listen to it several times. While you do so, try to pronounce it. Imitate the speaker as closely as possible.
You can (and should) start small. Pick one sentence at a time. Play it a number of times and try it out yourself. Writing it down and reading it probably helps, too. Really make an effort to pick out the difference between the recording and what you are hearing inside your own head (no, not those voiced, the other one). Try to be as self-correcting as you can.
2. Record your own voice
When you feel like you have a good grasp on things, it’s time to make a direct comparison. Record your voice while pronouncing from memory or reading out the sentence you practiced. Afterwards you can listen to it in direct comparison with the original. Doing so easily lets you figure out where your sounds are completely different from what the recording says.
3. Isolate problem sounds
In all probability, you will quickly notice which parts are most off. For English speakers, these are likely to include the German r, umlauts, diphthongs and other pesky characters. If possible, get a native speaker’s opinion. They can tell even better where your speaking is slightly off.
4. Research and practice sounds on their own
Once you have identified areas for improvement, go ahead and practice your problem sounds relentlessly and in isolation (isolate the sounds, not yourself). Again, if you can get the help of a native speaker, all the better. Someone whose mother tongue is German will more easily be able to tell you when you really got it, and give you tips on how to get closer to the original. Here are also a few pointers on that topic:
- 13 problem sounds in German (and how to master them)
- Pronunciation tips for the three most difficult German sounds
- German pronunciation for beginners
Plus, there is a German online dictionary that includes IPA transcriptions for many words. Here is another one that lets you play sound files for a lot of vocabulary, so you know exactly how to pronounce them.
5. Rerecord and fine-tune
Once you have practiced enough, go back to the beginning and rerecord the original text you used. If you kept a recording of your first try, you can use that for comparison. However, your main goal should be to keep imitating the recording you started out with. If you did everything right, a clear improvement should be noticeable. By going through the entire process more than once, you can then fine-tune and work on the last little kinks.
It’s All in the Melody: Training German Intonation
After working on the smallest parts of spoken language, you can then move on to other key areas of accent training. The method of studying is the same, you will just shift you attention to broader parts of the German language.
One such area is intonation. Getting the rhythm and melody of a language right is much easier if you have a musical ear. However, even non-musical people can improve their way of speaking by paying attention to what makes up German intonation.
Learn German word stress
A big part of correct pronunciation for words is word stress. In German, usually the first syllable of a word is emphasized, such as in Katze (cat), Tatsache (fact) or Mutter (mother). However, this isn’t always the case (yay, more exceptions!).
Getting this part right is important, since word stress can even change a word’s meaning. For example, compare modern (modern, current) and modern (to rot) or übersetzen (to translate) and übersetzen (to cross over). So be mindful about this.
Now, of course this part should best be learned by imitating native speakers and will happen naturally over time. However, until then here are a few pointers to get a better grasp on things:
- While word stress on the first syllable is a good rule of thumb, what it really depends on is the root of the word. That means if you have a verb such as lehren (to teach), which is emphasized in the leh part, this will be carried over to other words with the same root like Lehrer (teacher) or lehrreich (instructive, literally “rich in teaching”). However, belehren (to lecture) is accentuated on the second syllable, because that’s where the word root resides. Capisce?
- Furthermore, nouns built with suffixes derived from Latin such as Idealismus (idealism) and signifikant (signifikant) have their emphasis on those suffixes. Other signal words include -anz, –enz, –ion, –ist, -ment and -tät. Same goes for verbs ending in –ieren.
- Words starting with be-, ge-, er-, ver-, zer-, ent- or emp- receive stress on the second syllable, while those with ab-, auf-, ein- or vor- have it on the first. A few prefixes (über-, unter-, um-, durch-) can be both, according to the meaning of the word.
- Many loanwords that made it to German from other languages will keep their original accentuations. A carport in German will not be pronounced Garage but instead stays Garage, like the English “garage.”
- If a noun is composed of more than three syllables, it will have one primary stress on the first word and a secondary stress on the third, e.g. Großbaustelle (large construction site).
Thankfully word stress is also included in IPA transcriptions and signified with [ ‘ ] (for primary) and [ ˌ ] (for secondary stress). The above-mentioned dictionaries will be able to help you out.
Don’t worry, it looks more complicated than it is in reality. You will get there quickly with a bit of practice.
Pay attention to sentence melody
When you learn another language, you will quickly notice that its native speakers have a very particular way of speaking.
Think about it. If you listen to any language, even if you don’t understand it, you can often imitate the way its speakers are talking. It’s like humming the melody of a song to which you don’t know the lyrics. Getting this rhythm and melody right is a big step towards having a more natural accent.
In the case of German, it has three different melodies: falling, rising and hovering. These are used in different places.
- Falling: Marks the end of a sentence in statements or question that contain a question word. Example: Wer bist Du? (Who are you?) – Ich bin Hans. (I am Hans.)
- Rising: Typical for yes-no questions or those without a question word such as who, where or what. Example: Sprechen Sie Englisch? (Do you speak English?). Can also be used with question word questions, if you want to sound very friendly.
- Hovering/Monotone: Continuation of the current tone. Used for breaks in mid-sentence, such as between main and subordinate clause. Example: Compare Ich wünsche mir ein Pferd (I wish for a horse) with Ich wünsche mir ein Pferd, weil ich tierlieb bin (I wish for a horse because I love animals). In the first case, the sentence melody falls on Pferd, while in the second sentence the tone is higher and continues on to weil.
While this sounds a bit theoretical and dry, its goal is merely to sensitize you for different elements of pronunciation and not to make you learn it by heart. With the above points in mind, you can continue your practice of recording yourself imitating native speakers. This will yield much better results than brooding over language diagrams. It’s more fun too.
Taking German Pronuncation to the Next Level
Once you have reached a point where you can easily express most things in German and you are looking for a new challenge, working on your accent and pronunciation is a great idea. By deconstructing what exactly makes and breaks pronunciation and strategically working on the different parts, you can greatly improve your spoken German.
The most important part is to isolate which areas can be improved and work on them in a targeted manner. For that, it is mandatory to construct a feedback system which allows you to incrementally improve the way you speak. Afterwards it is only a matter of time before you can pass as an actual German.
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
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