German pronunciation is the butt of many jokes.
I understand why.
German has hard sounds and long words with colliding consonants.
The bigger issue, however, is that many of these sounds that make up German don’t exist in other languages.
Mastering such sounds can pose a great challenge for students.
This is why we’ll look at the more difficult sounds to make in German, and at how to get the hang of them.
I have to confess that I personally like German words with many consonants following one another the most. Words such as Krater, Ferkel, Hackbraten or the above-mentioned Krankenwagen sound like a symphony to my ears.
(Don’t get scared, those words aren’t all that likely to come up in normal conversation).
But I’m aware that not everyone shares my inclination and that these sound clusters can be hard for the unpracticed tongue. There are a handful of sounds that English speakers especially find difficult, which are what we’ll look at. So here it goes, three German sounds that you love to hate.
German Pronunciation Tips for 3 Sounds We Love to Hate
1. Ich and Ach: The German “ch”
“Ch“ really poses a challenge to the unaccustomed, for more than one reason. First of all, its pronunciation changes depending on the vowel it is connected to. In combination with the closed vowels “i” and “e”, it is pronounced as [ç] (like in Ich or Pech), while the open vowels “a”, “o” and “u” call for the more guttural [x] of Bach, Koch and Buch.
This isn’t all that hard to learn because it is based on pure laziness. When pronouncing the different vowels together with ch, you need to merely keep your tongue in the position it was for the vowel you just used and then attempt to utter the “ch” sound. You will see that it is only natural to use [ç] for the closed vowels and [x] for the open ones.
But how on Earth do you pronounce [ç] and [x] to begin with? This is tricky for English speakers, as neither sound exists in their native language, and it is the reason why many learners of German settle for pronouncing both of them as “k”.
To get the [ç] in “Ich” right, I encourage you to channel House M.D. He is a played by Hugh Laurie, has a huge ego and is a humungous pain in the butt. Hugh got me? The starting sound of “Hugh”, “huge” and “humungous” is the closest approximation to the German “ch” in “Ich”, and will help you learn the correct tongue position to produce this sound.
For the [x] of “Ach”, think how disgusted you are with this sound’s difficulty and utter a heartfelt “ugh”. The location where your tongue resides at the end is where it should be in order to produce this sound. If you have already mastered the German “r”, it gets even easier. [x] is basically an unvoiced “r”. Try to say “r” without using your voice and you should be there.
2. Arrrgh: The dreaded German “r“
There is no sugar coating it, getting the German “r” right can be difficult. It is one of those things that makes German hard for people to learn.
Many, therefore, settle for the more guttural [x] instead, or roll the “r” from the tip of their tongue with a trill, as is customary in Spanish. The goal, however, is to get the uvula – that little thing hanging in the back of your throat – to vibrate.
If you read the earlier tip, you know that “r” is merely the voiced version of [x]. So if you can say “ach” properly, hold that last sound and then start humming with your mouth slightly open. This should produce a wonderful uvular German “r”.
If neither is part of your repertoire just yet, the best tip I have heard so far came from a Chinese friend of mine. He told me that the way he learned to pronounce the German “r” is through a ritual of personal hygiene – gurgling.
Take a sip of water in your mouth, tilt your head back, and gurgle as if you want to clear your throat. Be sure to use your voice. As we have learned earlier, “r” is a voiced sound. You should feel a vibration in your throat that sounds a little like a purring cat. Remember how and where you produced this sound, and then you’ll be ready to give it a dry run.
3. Wie geht’s?: How to say “e” in German
There are three sounds in German that are represented with “e”. Two of them usually don’t pose any hardship to English speakers: the short [ɛ] and the unpronounced [ə] (as in “denn” and at the end of “Aufgabe”, respectively). Both sounds also exist in English, which is why they’re easier for those native speakers (see English “bed” and “an”).
The one that is most difficult for foreigners to pronounce is the long German “e”, found in the German alphabet and represented by [e:] in the International Phonetic Alphabet.
First thing to keep in mind is that the German “e” is not a diphthong. Many English speakers will try to pronounce “Wie geht’s” as “Vee gates?”. The vowel in “gates”, however, is made up of two sounds, like in “bay“. The German “e”, on the other hand, is just one sound. Remember this!
The German “e” is almost like the starting sound of the word “ending”, but more closed. Since this is hard to understand, what I recommend is to slowly pronounce the word “yeah“. The right kind of “e” is found in the transition from “yee“ toe“ to “ah“. This works because “yeah” already starts with a more closed vowel, thereby forcing you to produce a perfect German “e”.
Learning German Pronunciation Tips
If you find yourself struggling with any particular pronunciation, remember that practice makes perfect. It is almost always possible to find some sort of crutch in your own language that lets you work on producing the particular sound.
Start off by working on the sounds in isolation. If you feel reasonably comfortable, move on to practicing them within words in combination with other sounds. Continue until you can pronounce them naturally.
If you twist your tongue while working on your language units, try one or two glasses of good German beer. Preferably in the company of native speakers. That should loosen it back up and make practice all the more enjoyable.
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