Stumbling over German sounds?
Tongue-tied when faced with intimidating compound nouns?
Join the club.
German sounds are difficult for English speakers to master.
It can be tough to shake that English accent—which, unfortunately, is unmistakable to Germans. They can hear us coming a mile away.
Perhaps you’ve already tried some tips and tricks to pronounce German correctly, but still find yourself in a rut.
Ultimately, working on your pronunciation is something that you shouldn’t obsess over. Not everyone can get an “invisible accent,” where you can fool Germans into thinking that you’re a native speaker. Reaching that level takes a a great deal more time and exposure to the language than most people are capable of getting.
The goal must be to improve your pronunciation enough so that it no longer distracts from the content of what you’re trying to say. Once you know how to pronounce German sounds correctly, they will become second nature and your accent will naturally start to fade.
So let’s take a look (and listen) to distinctly German sounds and how you can train yourself to say them the right way.
General Tactics for Learning German Pronunciation
Before we get into the specific German sounds, take a look at these more general ideas on how to improve your pronunciation.
Hold your mouth more tightly shut!
The main reason behind our mispronunciations is that, when we speak, we’re not used to holding our mouths as tightly shut as Germans are. If you ever watch a German speaking, you’ll notice that they barely open their mouths while speaking.
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 really loose lower lip that reminds Germans of someone chewing gum. Even if you’ve been practicing your German slang and proverbs so you’ll seem more native, nobody will buy your act when your American accent sticks out.
Imagine that your mouth could either be forming the shape of a large “o” or a small lowercase “u” when you open it. Watch videos of Germans speaking and take note of their mouth’s shape while speaking. Put on your favorite German movies and pay close attention. Note how much tension they have in their cheeks.
Get an outside opinion.
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 the English accent.
One great way to improve your accent is to get real-time feedback from native German speakers. When you find a German conversation partner, pay close attention to the way the move their mouths and pronounce each word. Try to imitate them. Ask for constructive criticism.
Listen to yourself.
Another great strategy is to find a piece of German text has a corresponding audio recording (read by a native speaker). Record your voice while reading the text and compare it to the original recording. Go back and repeat the places where you get stuck.
After each listed sound in the section below, I’ve provided several words that contain that sound as well as the audio pronunciation for each word. Try saying them to yourself over and over again, especially if it’s a sound you’re not familiar with. When you come across it again you’ll be able to unthinkingly pronounce it correctly.
You should also try to pay attention to the shape of your mouth when looking in the mirror. Eventually you’ll start to feel the difference between the right way and the wrong way. Above all, don’t get discouraged. Jean-Claude Van Damme probably wasn’t born being able to do the splits, and few people outside of Germany were born able to pronounce Ö or Ü.
Practice, practice, practice!
One exercise that I did in German speech therapy 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!
Remember, correct pronunciation is a matter of muscle memory and not any different from learning how to juggle or shoot a layup. Eventually, your mouth and vocal chords are going to get used to what you’re expecting of them, and fluent German is going to start coming out of your mouth automatically.
The 7 Problem German Sounds and How to Pronounce Them (With Audio Pronunciation)
The beautiful thing about the German language is that it’s perfectly logical and that the written language is a perfect 1:1 reflection of the spoken language. There are few languages that can claim that—especially not English or French, let alone Asian languages. But naturally, not all letters are pronounced the same as in other languages.
Native speaker pronunciation for each word is available below via the online pronunciation dictionary Forvo.
This combination of vowels, or diphthong, is pronounced like the words try or lie. It’s essentially the opposite order of e and i for the same sound in English.
Schneider — (tailor)
frei — (free)
leider — (unfortunately)
The opposite diphthong is pronounced like the words see or free.
Lieder — songs
sieben — seven
tief — deep
anbieten — to offer
Pronounced like the expression of pain owww or Chairman Mao.
schauen — to look
Auge — eye
Bauer — farmer
Raum — room
4. eu and äu
The two diphthongs eu and äu are pronounced exactly the same way—like the o in toy or enjoy.
Words with äu are typically plural, derived from the singular au. Haus → Häuser; Laus → Läuse; Maus → Mäuse; Verkauf → Verkäufe; Raum → Räume house → houses; louse → lice; mouse → mice, sale → sales; room → rooms
Enttäuschung — disappointment
bereuen — to regret
Häuser — houses
5. Consonant combinations
We don’t normally put consonants next to each other in English. While most groups of consonants in German combine into one sound, like sch or ch, usually you should pronounce every letter that you see, even if it feels counter-intuitive, like pronouncing the p in Psychologie.
One pair of consonants that learners struggle with is pf. Start slowly at first with this set of words, focusing on really pronouncing both the p and the f. For example, try pronouncing the word epiphany by concentrating on saying pi-pha quickly by limiting the first syllable and stressing the second, or puff without the u, again and again, and this will approximate the German pf.
empfinden — to feel
pfeifen — to whistle
Dampf — steam
Pfad — path
Sumpf — bog
The umlaut ä is actually the easiest of the umlauts, because it also appears in English, like in the words head or bed.
Bär — bear
Äpfel — apples
Lärm — noise
The best way for someone to learn the ö and ü umlauts is for you to find a list of words that sound similar except for the vowel, and then repeat them over and over again until you really start to hear the difference between the two sounds. A very loose equivalent to this sound in English is the ‘i’ in girl or Sir. Simply put, your lower lip is pulled back a bit and held tightly while you pronounce a normal o.
hören — to listen
Brötchen — sandwich roll
Löffel — spoon
With this audio guide to some of the trickiest pronunciations in the language, you should have no more stumbling over German sounds!
And One More Thing…
When it comes to perfecting your German pronunciation, there’s nothing like getting up-close and personal with native speech.
In addition to practicing words and sounds, you have to also hear them being used in context.
And for that, FluentU’s got you covered.
Watching a fun video, but having trouble understanding it? FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive transcripts.
You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used. If you see an interesting word you don’t know, you can add it to a vocab list.
And FluentU isn’t just for watching videos. It’s a complete platform for learning. It’s designed to effectively teach you all the vocabulary from any video. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning, and it recommends you examples and videos based on the words you’ve already learned. This is a level of personalization that hasn’t been done before.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn German with real-world videos.