Why You Should Be Teaching Accents in German
As Mark Twain famously put it, “A gifted person ought to learn English in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years.”
Teaching German can be just as challenging as learning it.
The grammar, the long composite words, the gendered articles and the complex sentences… all of this can be frustrating and confusing.
And yet, almost everything we teach concerns only one variant of German: Standard or High German, as it is spoken and written in Germany today.
But there is more to the German language than this, much more.
Read on to learn why it is important to expose your students to different variants of the German language.
Tips for Teaching Accents in German and Why It’s Important
I am from the Rhineland region of Germany, where we speak Rheinisch. When I meet speakers from different regions, two things happen:
- They look down on my funny accent (for example, my ch-sch pronunciation weakness).
- I look down on their funny accent (for example, their exaggerated distinction between ch- and sch-sounds).
And those are the best-case scenarios. Sometimes, having a conversation at all gets quite difficult, despite both of us speaking the same language.
The following post will guide you through the world of German languages (plural intended!) and offer a range of activities to introduce and integrate them into your classroom.
German: Languages Inside a Language
From Plattdeutsch to Palatinate, Franconian to Frisian, Saxon to Swabian and Bavarian to Berlinerisch, from Hessian to Westphalian and from Austrian (which in itself has different variants, for example, Viennese, Austro-Bavarian or Tyrolese) to Swiss German: the number of accents, dialects and German varieties is endless.
Or, at least around 250.
And let’s not even get started with dead dialects like Pomeranian or Silesian, non-European variants like Amana or Texas German or closely related West Germanic languages such as Dutch, Afrikaans and Yiddish.
It can be hard even for native speakers to understand other native speakers with different accents, and lead to serious misunderstandings.
If you have seen Quentin Tarantino’s movie “Inglourious Basterds,” you might remember the pub scene, where Michael Fassbender’s character almost blows the group’s cover with his accent. Today, the consequences might be less severe. But if you teach your students High German and they go to Austria, Switzerland or even Bavaria, they might be in for quite the surprise.
Not that you have to teach all the aforementioned accents and dialects in your classroom, which would be impossible, but you can make your students aware of different accents. Give them some pointers and maybe put in a session or two about German’s rich varieties.
The Amazing Spectrum of German Accents
All German accents and dialects stem from the language spoken by various Germanic tribes, but they have taken different paths over the last centuries and millennia.
The main geographic areas of the German language are Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and they each have their own “standard” language and regional dialects.
There are many unique features and vocabularies among these accents, and many ways to distinguish between them.
For example, consider the Weißwurstäquator (“White Sausage Equator”) dividing Upper German from Central German dialects, or the “Benrath Line” dividing between accents with different consonants—aka maken (with a /k/ sound) versus machen (with an /x/ sound).
Standard German or High German is what you find in books and taught in universities. It will get your students to most places in German and the German-speaking world. Except Austria, where they speak really differently, or Switzerland, where Swiss German is even less related.
Your students will probably be able to somehow get along and certainly read all the signs. But for real conversation, “just” Standard German isn’t going to cut it. At the very least they should be able to recognize the different accents and attribute them to their respective areas.
How do you make sure your students can, in fact, do so?
Exploring the Wonderful World of German Accents
To begin, let’s have a closer look at the largest German variants, which are arguably Austrian and Swiss German.
Should your students end up studying in a German region with its own accent, their lectures and seminars will still be in Standard German: but in Austria or Switzerland, things will look quite different.
So, let’s see how these two accents work, and how you can bring them to life inside your classroom!
Integrating the Austrian German Accent
Austrian German is spoken in Austria (duh) as well as in parts of Southern Germany and Northern Italy. It has a lot of unique words (Faschiertes, Marillen, heuer etc.), and quite a few false friends for speakers of Standard German.
Just two examples you can teach your students:
- Kasten means “a chest” in Standard German but “a wardrobe” in Austrian.
- Palatschinken sounds like ham (Schinken) to Standard German speakers but actually describes pancakes in Austria, with or without ham.
Of course, there’s a lot more you can teach:
- Germans drive (fahren) cars while Austrians steer (lenken) them.
- When Germans want to sit comfortably they take a Sessel (armchair), but an Austrian Sessel is any old chair.
If your students want to stand a chance to recognize any Austrian within earshot, they need to hear the language. Put on some Austrian radio for them and try to decipher the contents together.
A good exercise in this regard is to listen to a broadcast or a dialect song (or read a transcript) and have your students mark the words they consider cognates, the ones they think are false friends and finally those they have no clue about.
Go through all of them and watch your students become more comfortable understanding Austrian German!
Integrating the Swiss German Accent
Similar to Austrian German, Swiss German (or Schwitzerduitsch) is mainly a spoken variety of the German language. And similar to Austrian, it brings its own gang of false friends: for example, laufen means “running” in Standard German but “walking” in Swiss.
Look with your students at Swiss vocabulary and its Standard German translations, or go through a Swiss German phrasebook to give them an idea of how Swiss conversations sound like, then turn on the radio (again) and let them hear it from native speakers.
Have your students listen to Standard and Swiss German, then let them try to spot and describe the differences in verbs, nouns and adjectives. You can turn this exercise into a little quiz or have everyone transcribe a Swiss dialogue as homework, then see how many of them match up.
Inspiring Your Classroom by Teaching German Accents
We will keep our focus on Germany, Austria and Switzerland, which offer plenty (and I mean plenty) of variety already.
But how do you usefully implement this variety into your German language classroom?
Starting off with Accents
To get going, brainstorm with your students. Are there accents and dialects in English or their first language?
As I haven’t heard of any language without accents and dialects, I feel confident that there are—so bring up some more questions.
- How many accents are there, and how different are they from each other?
- Can speakers of one accent understand those of another?
- How did these accents evolve?
Then, move toward German. Have your students heard about German accents? Do they know that Austrians speak differently from Swiss, and Bavarians from Berliners?
Ask them how many German dialects they think there are: and they will almost certainly guess too low.
Write a few words on the blackboard and let your students guess what they have in common:
Erdapfel, Äädappel, Herdapfel, Erdbirne, Grundbirne, Erchtbohn, Erdkaste, Grumbeere, Grumbire, Tüfte, Tüffel, Knolle, Knedel and Kartoffel.
They are all German words, and they all mean the same thing: potato.
You can even show your students which term is used where and have them try to find patterns and literal translations (e.g. Erdapfel = “earth apple”).
Interactive Teaching with Accents
But you don’t need to be the one doing all the heavy lifting. Divide your class into groups and have them research and present a specific dialect; or give them the task to explore a certain word or expression and how they differ between regions.
Start by teaching students something simple, like the time of day. In Standard German, 10:15 am is viertel nach zehn—but not everyone would say it like this. For someone from East Germany, it might be viertel elf, and a Swiss German speaker knows the same time as viertel ab zähni. Discuss the differences with your students, and make them aware of the potential misunderstandings.
You can find researchers who spend their whole career making maps for the distribution of variants of certain words, for example, basics like “father,” “mother,” carrot” or “Saturday.”
To make your excursion into German dialects more engaging, you should use visual aids to illustrate, such as the aforementioned maps. The state of Saarland has even released over 400 unique emojis for its dialect, many of which contain actual words and phrases.
Or how about watching a game show around dialect guessing with your students? If you pause at the right spots or prepare clips in advance, they can try to guess the correct accent as well, possibly in groups that take alternating turns and compete against each other for the most correct guesses.
After the accent is demonstrated, have the first group take a guess. If it’s wrong, the second group can try to take the point away.
Games and Quizzes
To keep your students interested and guarantee maximum memory retention, teaching should be multimedia and it should be interactive.
You can use an accent quiz or a dialect app that tells students where they come from depending on their accents. Only, your class plays in reverse; rather than trying to find out their dialects, have students put in the answers that will lead the quiz to identify a pre-determined accent!
Or, you can have your students listen to a sentence in a specific dialect, then see how much they understood. The whole class can try to piece together the sentence on the blackboard, and after that, analyze its features to find out the accent it belongs to.
German, Outside of German
To finish a lesson or loosen it up, show your students some closely related languages.
For example, here is a video of a German speaker and a Yiddish speaker saying the same thing. Let your students listen to the Yiddish first and try to translate it before you play the German translation.
Or go here and find comparative charts of common vocabulary for German, Dutch and Afrikaans. Many of these can be used to reinforce your students’ existing German knowledge, for example, the days of the week, the seasons or different colors.
There are many possibilities to implement German accents and dialects into your classroom, and many good reasons to do so.
The German-speaking world is bigger and more colorful than just Standard German in Germany. Widening your students’ perspectives can only be advantageous for them.
Even if they don’t end up in an Austrian university or working together with a conservative Bavarian, a knowledge of German’s wide range of varieties should be part of any comprehensive German language class.
Dive into the wider world of German and explore its accents through a wide range of activities.
Your students are certain to thank you later!