The German Pronunciation Guide: The Alphabet, Common Letter Combos and Tips for Improving
You may know that German words can have very interesting meanings.
And maybe you’ve seen the meme where languages like English, Spanish and French all have similar words for one thing, but then the German word is long and consonant-filled.
Well, I’m here to tell you that German isn’t as intimidating as you might think!
You’ve just got to know how to say it right. So, read on for my complete German pronunciation guide.
- How to Pronounce German Alphabet Letters
- How to Pronounce Common German Letter Combinations
- How to Pronounce Any German Word
- 5 Tips for Improving Your German Pronunciation
- And One More Thing...
How to Pronounce German Alphabet Letters
Once you get the German alphabet down, as well as common letter combinations, you can confidently move on to whole words with ease.
Click on each letter in the chart to hear how to say the letter itself (so you can spell out things like your name and address).
In the “Sound” column, you can see how the letter usually sounds when it appears in words, as based on American English (my native language).
|Letter||How it's pronounced in a word|
|I||"ih" / "ee"|
|Ö||"eurgh" ('ay' sound with rounded lips)|
|Ü||"eww" ('ee' sound with rounded lips)|
* The letter C is not particularly common in German; you’ll usually see it in letter combinations, which we’ll review next.
** The letter Q is always followed by the letter U in German; see the letter combination pronunciation guide below.
*** The letter R is rolled or trilled in German. At the start of a word, it will sound like a “French R” or a “Spanish R.” At the end of a word, it’s generally not pronounced, like the “uh” sound in the British English “computer.”
For additional information about pronouncing the German alphabet, many German textbooks contain helpful pronunciation charts and tips.
How to Pronounce Common German Letter Combinations
While German letters will sound pretty similar in most words, some common letter combos can get a bit tricky—let’s take a look.
* There are several ways to pronounce the CH combo:
- After the open vowels A, O and U, it sounds like the guttural “ahck” sound.
Meine Tochter sucht ein Buch auf dem Dachboden.
(My daughter is looking for a book in the attic.)
- After the closed vowels E, I and umlauts (Ä, Ö, Ü,) and diphthongs (EU, ÄU) it has a sort of compressed hissing sound, like the letter H in the word “huge.”
Ich lächele, wenn ich Deutsch spreche!
(I smile when I speak German!)
- The same rule applies when CH is proceeded by a consonant.
Ich trinke Milch in der Kirche.
(I drink milk in the church.)
- This soft CH is also found in the very common suffix -CHEN. This is found at the end of some words ordinarily, like in the word for ‘girl’, Mädchen, but it can also be added to the end of any word to make it sound small, cute or familiar.
Das Mädchen hat ein Problemchen.
(The girl has a little problem.)
- When your CH is followed by an S, however, it changes into a KS sound. This doesn’t apply to verbs, where -st endings get added on to the stem.
Der Fuchs wechselt sein Hemd.
(The fox changes its shirt.)
These rules are all well and good for German words, but they don’t apply for foreign loan words! These are often words that begin with CH-, so watch out for them:
- CH- gets a hard K sound in words of Italian and Greek origin: das Chaos (the chaos), der Charakter (the character), der Chor (the choir), die Gnocchi (the gnocchi).
- CH- keeps its original “tschuh” pronunciation in English loan words: Chips (chips), chatten (to chat online), checken (to check).
- CH- becomes a soft SH when it comes to French words: charmant (charming), der Chef (the boss).
- CH- keeps its compressed hissing sound, like the letter H in the word “huge”, in specific words when followed by i or e: China (China), Chirurg (surgeon), Chemie (Chemistry).
How to Pronounce Any German Word
Yowzers, that was a lot of information! But now we can combine everything together to pronounce any German word.
For example, how do you pronounce the word Gesundheit (health)?
Remember our German pronunciation guide above. So…
Let’s do some more!
How to Pronounce German Numbers
The German numbers are actually an illustration of many German pronunciation rules. They’re obviously one of the first things a person learns in a new language, but some people think even German numbers look “scary!”
Click on a number to hear its German pronunciation. The second column shows you how to spell each number.
How to Pronounce Long German Words
Let’s finally get to some of those compound German words. These words (with the exception of the last one) are from this page of the Deutsche Welle website. However, the fact is that these words are everywhere, even on a “normal” web page.
Try to sound out the words yourself before you listen to the pronunciations!
This word just means “accommodations” or “sleeping accommodations”—it’s literally “over-night-possibilities.”
Divide it into parts, and it’s basically got two words: nacht (night) and möglich (possible). The rest is just prefixes, suffixes, noun endings and a bit of flair.
Split into word parts, you get: Über-nacht-ungs-möglich-keit-en. Broken into syllables, you get: Ü-ber-nacht-ungs-mög-lich-keit-en.
This one means “trip destinations,” which is actually longer if you write it out in English. To pronounce it, just say the parts, using what we learned above: Rei-se-zie-le.
This word—literally “with-drive-opportunities”—what you call when someone gives you a “ride.” Try out our pronunciation technique from above.
Meaning “natives” or “locals,” this word has some good vowel sounds.
This means “broadcasting times.” Sound it out, then listen to the pronunciation.
5 Tips for Improving Your German Pronunciation
1. Hold your mouth more tightly shut
If you ever watch a German speaking, you’ll notice that they barely open their mouths. There is visible tension pulling their lips to the side.
When trying to speak German, native English speakers—especially Americans (I should know, I am one myself)—normally have a loose lower lip that reminds Germans of someone chewing gum.
Watch videos of Germans speaking and take note of their mouth shape while speaking. Put on your favorite German movies and pay attention. Note how much tension they have in their cheeks, and try to replicate that yourself.
2. Listen repeatedly and imitate the sounds
Listen to those German movies or TV shows multiple times and imitate the speaker(s) as closely as possible. Pick one sentence, play it a few times and try pronouncing it yourself. It may also help to read the captions or write it down, too.
Watching videos also lets you hear words used in context, which will help you remember them better. Some video programs even allow you to study and quiz yourself on the new vocabulary you hear.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
3. Record and listen to yourself speaking
When you feel like you have a good grasp on German pronunciation, it’s time to make a direct comparison.
Find some German text that has a corresponding audio recorded by a native speaker, such as those of German audiobooks. Record yourself saying a section of the text out loud, then compare it to the original.
Where is your pronunciation different from the recording? Go back and repeat those sections as many times as you need to. Eventually, you’ll start to feel the difference between the right pronunciation and the wrong one.
After some time has passed, you can even re-record yourself to fine-tune your German pronunciation. If you kept the recording of your first try, you can use that for comparison. You’ll likely notice a clear improvement and be able to work on the last little kinks.
4. Get feedback from native German speakers
In all probability, you will quickly notice which sounds give you the most trouble. For English speakers, these are likely to include the German R, umlauts and diphthongs.
But a common problem is that we can’t hear our own accents and pronunciation blunders—we think we sound perfect while still (unknowingly) holding onto elements of English pronunciation.
One great way to improve your accent is to get real-time feedback from native German speakers. Find a German language partner or German tutor and then pay close attention to the way they move their mouth and pronounce each word. Try to imitate them.
Most importantly, ask for constructive criticism! If you don’t know there’s a problem, you certainly can’t fix it.
5. Practice, practice, practice
Remember, correct German pronunciation is a matter of muscle memory, much like learning how to juggle or shoot a layup. Eventually, your mouth and vocal chords are going to get used to it.
Once you (and your language partner or tutor) have identified areas for improvement, practice your problem sounds on their own relentlessly. Check back in with that native German speaker to see if you’ve improved and to ask for tips.
One exercise that I did was to hold a mirror up to my face to make sure that I wasn’t opening my mouth too much when I speaking. It really does work!
Once you get the hang of it, pronouncing any German word can be a piece of cake.
You got this!
And One More Thing...
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