German Advent Calendar 3 – Helicopter Brain

Written By: Emanuel Updated: March 23, 2022


Helicopter Brain


Hello everyone,

and welcome back to the most epic German learning Advent Calendar of 2021.
And today, I want to talk about something I have barely covered at all on this site so far:


Now, pronunciation is a big topic and I was never quite sure if writing articles is the right format. But it is also a fascinating topic and I am in fact thinking about making a mini series about it. So I’ve set up a little poll to check how many of you would be interested in it

Do you want a mini series about pronunciation?

View Results

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Today, though, I want to tell you about one of the reasons you might be struggling with pronunciation and a thick accent.
And that reason is…  your brain.
It is overly helpful.
Like a really caring parent who by caring so much gets in the way of the child learning about the world by themselves.

You see, our brain has an agenda.
You might now be like “Of course it does, it’s where our thoughts are.” but that’s not what I mean.
What I mean is that our brain has an agenda of its own. An agenda, we’re not really aware of. And that is to make things efficient and easy.
A great example for this is our perception which is almost NEVER a neutral observation of reality, but rather a blend of data that goes in and data that’s already in the brain, resulting in a “best guess”.
And another great example is speaking.

Speaking is something our brain manages for us pretty much by itself. The brain knows how words and letters sound and it does the work for us.
So we do not have to think “Move tongue here, put lips that way.” … all we do is thinking

“I want to make an o

and the brain is like

“Gotcha, consider it done.”

and it does all the necessary coordination for us, without us knowing what’s going on exactly.
That is really awesome, but when learning a new language, it gets in the way.

The connection between sounds and letters is TOO STRONG!

Technically, all humans have the same vocal tract. “same” enough at least to be able to produce the same sounds.
If someone makes a random sound or tone with their mouth, you’ll probably be able to imitate that fairly well.
But ONLY UNTIL your brain gets only so much as a hunch that the sound is actually a letter.
Because then your brain will be like

“Wait, that’s a letter?! I know that! I know how that’s done.” 

And it starts to give commands to the muscles and arrange the mouth in the way that letter is pronounced in YOUR language.
And then you have to fight that and try to force your mouth into the shape that is needed to make the sound that the letter has in the other language. But a part of your brain doesn’t like that, because that’s not how this letter is done. And so you end up in an subconscious struggle and the muscles tense up.
And you could make the sound without any tension before you know it’s actually a letter.
I don’t know if we can replicate that here, but let’s try.
Imitate the sound I am making:


And now say “u” in German and make it really really long.

And now you tell me, if the two tasks “felt” different. I’m sure you did well, but did the second one feel different than the first? Which one felt easier, which one caused less “thinking” or even anxiety.

I have made this experience many times when I was trying to explain a certain pronunciation to people. If we take letters out of the equation and just play a few rounds of “imitate the sound” then things go pretty well, but as soon as you add a letter, people start struggling really hard.
The task is essentially the same… you have to “imitate” a sound. But when there’s a letter involved, also your language brain gets involved and tries to have it its way, because that its job after all.

What to do about it

Well, we can’t just shut off our brain of course, but we can try to get aware of what is happening. Observe yourself and what your brain does when you see a word, or even a letter.
And what happens if you think of a German sound you struggle with? I’m pretty sure, that a letter will pop up in front of your mind.
That letter is not helping!
You need to detach yourself a bit from letters. Take a short sentence in German, and try to take it as a random stream of sounds. Try to imagine that it means nothing and that it is not words or letters… it’s just a bunch of sounds in a row. And try to imitate that and see how this feels. And also try and feel the resistance to what I just said. Try to become aware of how hard your brain is working to help you with understanding of language.
The goal is not to make it stop, the goal is just to make it ease up a little because that way, it’ll find it easier to learn about the new language and what to do there.

And if you’re struggling with one letter or sound in particular, you could invent a new sign for it.
If you struggle with German umlaut, maybe just invent a new sign.
Like … here’s a new letter, and how it sounds.


And DON’T think of it as “Oh, this is the German u with the umlaut”. Or “Oh, it’s similar to this and that.
You don’t think that way about letters in your own language either. You don’t think of English “o” as “Yeah, it’s like this or that sound.
You think of it as its own letter, that has its own sound.
So try to do that with German letters/sounds that give you trouble. Think of them as something new. And then see if it comes easier and with less tension.

Now, I’m not saying that this advice fixes pronunciation once and for all.
But the connection between written letters and sounds that is present in your brain does play a role and can be a major hurdle. And being aware of that can help a great deal.

So that’s it for today.
This was my little advice about pronunciation and of course I’m curious what you think. Did you notice a difference in our little test? Are you aware how your brain reacts to seeing a letter? Do you think this was helpful?

Let me know all your thoughts in the comments, have a great day and I’ll see you tomorrow.

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