5 Things You Must Know About Teaching German Alphabet Pronunciation
Have you ever heard a German speaker struggling with “ze” (/th/)?
Or vith voicing ze vords pet and pat, short and shot, coat and caught?
Unfortunately, the other way around is not much better.
From Eichhörnchen to Streichholzschachtel and Regisseur to Rechtschreibung, native English speakers can struggle greatly with some German words. But why is that?
With its genders, articles, declination and long sentences, German is not the easiest language to teach. But surely, there should be nothing difficult about its alphabet.
The same twenty-six letters as in English, plus those pesky three Umlauts and the Eszett. But otherwise, your students already know it, not much to do there.
Well, guess again. The letters might be the same, but their pronunciation is not. And to make things more interesting, many letters or two-letter combinations have several sounds, and all vowels and Umlauts have a short and a long version.
You can hand out a chart containing the pronunciation of all letters, and as a German teacher, you are perfectly able to pronounce them yourself. But how do you get your students to do the same?
Below you will find five essential things you need to know about teaching the pronunciation of the German alphabet to your students.
Teach a Winning Lesson with These 5 German Alphabet Pronunciation Tips
1. Your Students Need to Learn the German Alphabet Before its Pronunciation
As mentioned above, the German alphabet is mostly identical to the English one, but it has some additions you need to tell your students about.
Let’s count: there are five vowels (a, e, i, o, u), nineteen consonants, three Umlauts (ä, ö, ü) and one additional letter, the Eszett (ß), which is replaced in Switzerland and Liechtenstein by a double-s.
All of the letters of the alphabet have the same article, by the way: das A, das B, das C etc. Here is a list of them, their pronunciation (with audio clip) and a sample word for each.
If your students truly want to learn German, they need to be able to recite the alphabet in their sleep. If you come into their room at two in the night, shine a flashlight in their face and ask them to pronounce the German letters, they shouldn’t even hesitate.
Also, you know, don’t do that, it’s seriously creepy.
But let’s quickly go through the special letters. First off and most famously, the Umlauts. They appear in a number of heavily used German words (for example können, dürfen, müssen) and are plural markers. Without them, your students will never be able to speak German properly.
Translated literally, Umlaut means “altered sound,” and this should give you a hint on the importance of learning their pronunciation separately.
Have your students carefully listen to the pronunciation of all three Umlauts, as many times as possible, before they attempt their pronunciation themselves. As with other vowels, Umlauts also have a short and a long pronunciation variant.
How can you get your students to learn the difference between A and Ä, O and Ö, U and Ü? Use this handy worksheet with a whole range of different tasks to complete—from shifting words between singular and plural to adding the dots into existing sentences, this resource has everything you need.
Then, we have a notorious troublemaker, the Eszett. It is also called scharfes S, Buckel-S, Ringel-S or Rucksack-S, and it exists only in lower case (pending very recent reforms).
It sounds like a double-s and has a history reaching back to the 8th Century AD, although Switzerland and Liechtenstein chose to abandon it in the 1930s. In general, a double consonant in German marks the preceding vowel as short (die Busse, the buses) while an Eszett marks it as long (die Buße, the penance).
However, there are a number of exceptions, and they are not always easy to understand. Just consider Groß vs. Gras or beißen vs. biss. Especially after the latest reforms, even German speakers might hesitate when it comes to Spaß oder Spass (fun).
As a teacher, focus on your students understanding the general rule, and introduce the exceptions when they come up.
If your students want to get a solid grasp of any of these, they should start with the alphabet’s pronunciation.
2. Your Students Have to Listen Carefully
For your students to pronounce the German letters, they first need to hear how they sound. There are many videos out there that go through the alphabet letter by letter and provide a sample, and you can turn them into great teaching tools.
You can also do the pronunciation yourself as well, but the teaching effect is increased by having multiple voices pronounce the same letters, always followed by the classroom trying to pronounce them afterwards.
If you want to make this a bit more entertaining and memorable, play a German alphabet song for children or even a rap version of the alphabet for your classroom.
Better yet, don’t just listen to the letters in isolation. This is not how your students will use them in real life, and it is not how they need to learn them.
Get authentic German video and audio clips to really understand the pronunciation of letters in different words and how they play together.
3. Students Must Practice Alphabet Pronunciation
Practice makes perfect, as they say. And this is certainly true when it comes to pronunciation.
If your students know the German alphabet by heart and have gone over all the letters and their pronunciation, it is important to not just stride on, but keep practicing.
Do a refresher and an exercise at the beginning of every session, and keep doing them until every last student has their pronunciation internalized.
Besides just repeating the previous points again, you should try to involve as many different senses as possible. Go through the German alphabet in images that each correspond to a sample word.
Why not practice in a more playful manner? Print out this game board and have your students try to reach the finish.
First off, you read all words with perfect pronunciation and have your students repeat them together. Then, the students take turns to move their token and try to pronounce the word they land on.
Use dice to determine their movement range and either allow them another turn when their pronunciation is right or have them move back three fields if it is wrong.
You can also use ready-made flashcards for your students to practice on their own, or have them make their own flashcards as a homework assignment.
4. Stress the Importance of Spelling
Don’t forget to teach your students not only how to pronounce the letters, but also how to spell them.
If they are spelling something in German, you can show them how to use the Buchstabieralphabet. Similar to the NATO or ICAO phonetic alphabet, a word is assigned to each letter to make it unmistakable and easily recognizable, even on the phone with a bad connection.
As the Buchstabieralphabet mostly uses given names, you can turn learning it into a game.
Assign a letter and a name to each of your students, then have them recite their letter spelling and pronounce the letter when you ask for them in the classroom (“Do we have a Friedrich here?”, “Is there a Berta in the class” etc.).
5. Get Students to Pronounce New German Words
And here it is, good news about the German language!
Broadly speaking, German is spoken just as it is written—and its pronunciation follows clear and consistent rules.
If your students have learned how to pronounce the individual letters and some letter combinations, they need not fear even completely unknown German words. If they stick to the rules, they will almost always pronounce them correctly.
In addition to Umlauts and the Eszett, you should especially stress the following letters and letter combinations, as they may be tricky for native English speakers:
- “V” (pronounced as “F”)
- “J” (pronounced as “Y”)
- “S” (pronounced as “Z”)
- “Z” (pronounced as “TS”)
- “W” (pronounced as “V”)
- “EI” (pronounced as “EYE”)
- “SCH” (pronounced with an “SH” as in “show”)
- “IE” (pronounced as “EEH”)
- “CK” (pronounced as “K”)
- “AU” (pronounced as “OW”)
- “TSCH” (pronounced with a “CH” as in “chair”).
As a final fun exercise, why not do some tongue-twisters to show your students that there is always room (and need) for more pronunciation practice. Here are a couple of popular German Zungenbrecher:
- “Fischers Fritze fischt frische Fische, Frische Fische fischt Fischers Fritze.”
- “Die krumme Katze tritt die krumme Treppe krumm.”
- “Es lagen zwei zischende Schlangen zwischen zwei spitzen Steinen und zischten dazwischen.”
These can also help you isolate which sounds your students find most difficult, and then focus on practicing them.
Teaching how to pronounce the letters of the German alphabet is an important step on your students’ road to fluency, and you should devote time and focus on it.
A solid foundation will help them greatly as they progress in their learning, and it allows for great group activities and a sense of accomplishment.