If you feel a bit intimated by the German pronunciation, you’re not alone. Many English speakers initially experience difficulty when learning German sounds. In the end, having the perfect pronunciation of a German native speaker is not necessary. In any case, achieving that level of mastery in any language requires years of speaking and being exposed to the language.
As a learner of the German language, your aim should be to improve your pronunciation to a level where your accent doesn’t distract from the message you’re trying to communicate. Once you master German sounds and integrate them into your speech, your English accent will naturally give way to fluent German.
This article shows you how to correctly pronounce some basic German sounds and practice your pronunciation.
Unique German Sounds and the right way to pronounce them
Visit Forvo, the online pronunciation dictionary, to listen to the native speaker pronunciation for the following sounds.
- ei: This diphthong (combination of vowels) has the same pronunciation as the “ie” in lie or the “y” in try. You come across this sound for example in Schneider (tailor).
- ie: This diphthong is pronounced like “ee” in the words free or see. A German word with this diphthong is Wiese (meadow).
- au: This diphthong is pronounced like “o” in the word wow. See for example Haus (house).
- eu and äu: These diphthongs have the same pronunciation as the “o” in enjoy or toy. Derived from the singular au, äu is typically used in plural. Examples of singular/plural include Haus und Häuser (houses), Laus und Läuse (lice), Maus und Mäuse (mice), Verkauf und Verkäufe (sales), and so on.
An example for the eu-sound is neu (new).
- Consonant combinations: In English, consonants are rarely placed beside each other. A majority of consonant groups (like ch or sch) in German merge into one sound. In many cases, you pronounce each letter counterintuitive as it may feel. For example, you should pronounce the p in Psychologie (psychology). One of the consonant pairs that need most practice is pf for example in the word Pferd (horse).
- ä: This is one of the easiest umlauts in the language. It is pronounced the same way as the vowels in bed or head. Example: Bär is pronounced like bear.
- ö: The best way to learn the umlauts is to identify similar sounding words with different vowels and practicing them until you can distinguish between the two sounds. Examples of such words include Löffel (spoon), Brötchen (sandwich roll), hören (listen), and schöne Königin (beautiful queen).
Be sure to use reliable audio guides or ask native speakers to help you practice these sounds.
Improving your German pronunciation
Now that you get to know some of the common German sounds that many learners have difficulty with, let’s look at four tips that will help you improve your pronunciation.
1. Hold your Mouth Tightly Shut
To pronounce German sounds and words effectively, you need to hold your mouth tightly shut the same way native German speakers do.
While speaking, native speakers barely open their mouths. Their lips are visibly tensed up.
In contrast, native English speakers—especially Americans—usually hold their lower lip loosely even when they speak German. Watch videos of native German speakers and note how they shape their mouths while speaking.
2. Get help from a Native Speaker
As we speak, it’s hard for us to hear our mispronunciations and accents. While you might think you are speaking perfect German, native listeners can hear elements of your English accent showing.
Getting immediate feedback from native German speakers is an effective way of improving your pronunciation and accent. Find a conversational partner who’s a native German speaker and learn from how they pronounce sounds and words.
3. Pay attention to your speech
Find German texts that are accompanied by an audio recording done by a native speaker. Record yourself reading the text then compare your speech to that of the native speaker’s recording. Identify the sounds that you need to improve on and practice them.
Practice speaking difficult German sounds and words in front of a mirror and closely watch the shape of your mouth as you speak. You’ll eventually get an intuitive sense of the right way to shape your mouth as you make certain sounds and say specific words.
4. Never Stop Practicing
Keep in mind that mastery of German pronunciation relies on muscle memory. They key is to make your vocal cords and mouth get used to adopting the right shape to produce the desired sound. As this happens, your fluency and pronunciation in German will continue to improve.
The most effective way of improving your German pronunciation is taking time to speak and listen to native speech. It’s also advisable to find ways of listening to these German sounds and words used in context, in addition to practicing them.
Improve your German-speaking skills by signing up to our individual language courses at Wortland. We’ll help you learn German and improve your pronunciation easily and with fun.