5 Tips for Native English Speakers

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In this article we provide 5 tips for native English speakers to improve their German pronunciation. Many German speakers also like the English language very much. That’s why there is even a mixture of German and English called Denglish. This can be very handy for native English speakers, as they can often improvise a mixture of both languages. Another advantage is that both languages are related, as they are both Germanic languages and also the most spoken in Europe.

by Asia Mugliari

However, there are some difficulties with German pronunciation that many learners of German need to work on. This article is about the sounds that English speakers often have trouble with and how to master them more easily. We hope our tips for native English speakers are helpful to you!

Tip #1: The famous ich-sound

Many people know John F. Kennedy’s famous phrase: “Ich bin ein Berliner” (‘I am a Berliner’ [citizen of Berlin]). Fortunately, he said this sentence in Berlin, of all places, where they actually say ick [ɪk] instead of ich [ɪç] ‘I’. In another German city, the president would probably have had more difficulty pronouncing the phrase or would have preferred to omit it. That’s because the sound [ç] doesn’t exist in English. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it! We have a few helpful tricks for you here, too. You can position your mouth as if you were pronouncing an [i]. Instead of producing voice, let air escape from your mouth. And there you have your [ç]! If you want to practice even more, check out the lessons “Ich bin neu” and “Mama möchte studieren”.

Tip #2: The partner-sound: the ach-sound

A similar sound to the [ç] as in ich is the [x] in the word Loch [lɔx] ‘hole’. Neither sound exists in English, except perhaps in some Scottish words like loch [lɒx]. To pronounce the [x], you can say the [k] slowly and the sound at the end of the word will be the [x]. In the lessons “Sprachenlernen” and “Sachen suchen” we explain when which sound is used.

Tip #3: The r-sound

Both German and English have the letter r, as in Rose [ʁoːzə] ‘rose’. But there are small differences in pronunciation between the two languages. Well, everyone will understand you if you keep the typical English-sounding r [ɹ], but if you’d like to learn the German standard [ʁ], you can find some tips here now. The good news is that you have a choice here, too. The most commonly used variation of the r sound is the [ʁ], which is produced at the very back of the mouth. It’s the same sound you would make when gargling…only without water in your mouth! You can get more information and tricks in the lesson “Seriales Lernen”. Especially in the south of Germany there is also the [r]. This is formed in the front of the mouth and sounds like the Italian r sound or the Spanish r sounds. There is also the vocalized r sound [ɐ], which is used at the end of words and sounds like an a sound. Ah, spoiled for choice… and which is your favorite r sound? About the r sound and its variations you can also find the article “The German R and its Variations” in our Bookshelf.

Tip #4: Consonants merging

All other German consonants are also known in English. However, there is one little thing you should know about this. There are two combinations of consonants that do not occur in English: The combination of the p and f sounds as in Apfel [ap͡fəl] ‘apple’ and the combination of the t and s sounds as in Zeit [t͡saɪt] ‘time’. They may sound foreign to you, but with a little practice you’ll master them quickly. Watch out: especially with the letter z, many English speakers tend to confuse sounds with letters of their alphabet and replace the ts sound [t͡s] with the sound [z] like Sonne [zɔnə] ‘sun’, because this is written with the letter z in English (but not in German!). To avoid this mistake, we recommend you read the article “Sounds are not letters” from the “Useful info” section. To practice the sound, visit the lessons “Umzug” and “Ich pflücke Obst”. The lovely Vera will explain everything you need to know about the sounds in the great videos.

Tip #5: Vowels

Last, but not least, the vowels, of course! Although both alphabets have the same five vowels, there are 10 more sounds for the vowels in German than in English: [aː], [ɐ], [œ], [eː], [ø], [yː], [ʏ], [oː], [uː]. You’re probably wondering what those two dots after some vowels here mean. They are not umlauts, but characters that make the sound of the vowels longer. The vowel length is very important here, because it can lead to a difference in the meaning of the word. With the lessons “In der Küche”, “Bücher” and many others you can train exactly this with sylby.  

Now we come to the rest of the vowels: These are the sounds for the umlauts, i.e. the letters ä, ö, ü. As a rule of thumb, it is said that all umlauts are formed further forward in the mouth than their partner vowels. There’s also a nice mnemonic for the letter ä in English: it’s the same sound as in as in English am (from I am [aɪ̯ æm] ‘I am’). sylby has prepared an exercise for you for each vowel, where you can practice the articulation of each sound!

Enough for today. We know that’s a lot of info at once. You can also focus on one point for now and practice with lessons. You should not try to implement all our tips for native English speakers at once. The articles will stay here and you can always refer back to them. Ready, steady, go!

* In this article we use IPA-symbols. These are the symbols you also find in a dictionary that indicate how a word is pronounced. If you want to know more about it please read our article here or visit the International Phonetic Association.


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