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
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.
This is so helpful. So greatful for your teaching.
The squiggle you drew, and the idea of making a sound when you see a squiggle, reminds me of sections from Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” (English title sorry).
Really? What’s the context there? :)
Quiz idea: we listen to you making a sound, then we guess what vowel we think we heard.
Hmmm, maybe a slight variation… I make a sound, and then I give a couple of words to chose from and you have to decide which of them contains it.
Like “böse” or “können”… you’d have to hear the difference between the two “ö” sounds.
Nice idea, danke! I think I’ll do that!
Very interesting – I wonder how long it takes the “brain” to begin to shift gears when it is fluent in two or more languages – like when the bilingual student dreams in the new language.
I find my brain shifts into “German” after about 3 days in country but I do notice even when the pronunciation comes more easily my jaws/tongue are really fatigued. Brain catches up but muscles are tired after a few days also from the tension of the new sounds/effort. Nice article
Just a quick note to say I find this insight very helpful (the need to decouple the sounds from the letters). Thank you Emanuel!
Glad it helps you :)!
Das Thema hat mir gefallen. Es ist auch sehr gut erklärt.
One thing I’d be interested in seeing an article about is how pronunciation varies from region to region in Germany. Certain words I hear on the internet and elsewhere seem to be pronounced quite differently depending on who is saying them, and I’m assuming that this a regional thing? For instance the word “wird” sometimes has the vowel rhyming with “bird”, and sometimes with “beer”. Another example: “ig” at the end of a word sometimes seems to be “ick”, and sometimes “ich”. I’m preparing for a move to Zurich and so I’d love to know which pronunciation I should be aiming for.
Ohhh, that’s unfortunately a topic I absolutely know nothing about and it doesn’t interest me that much. So yeah… I’ll never write about that :).
If anyone reading this has a recommendation… please share :)!!
Oh… Here, in Zürich (and in Switzerland), Hochdeutsch / Standarddeutsch is a language people learn at school; basically, a foreign language of sorts. You should be OK with either. As for the local dialects, they vary by canton.
To compare ‘Züritütsch’ with German: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89adaKKIkUw
Now, for ‘-ig’, you may want to check out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMowuFW0hYQ
Here’s a Youtube channel on Swiss German for beginners. It’s pretty new and I’ve only watched a handful of the videos, but I think she’s a good teacher and makes it pretty approachable.
If you don’t mind diving into the deep end, SRF Dok is a Swiss public broadcaster that has documentaries and shorter videos on Youtube. There are subtitles, but it’s not a word for word transcript. You can pick up on some of the sound differences and the rhythm though. (Slowly. At least for me.)
For regional differences in pronunciation in Germany, this site has some interesting maps.
Wow, the Youtube channel looks great!!
Hallo Emmanuel, ich freue mich sehr über deinen neun Kalender, besonders dass ich diesmal die Zeit habe es täglich zu lesen. Kurze Frage, fehlt in die letzen 2 Artikeln der “Done” Taste?
Oh, die habe ich vergessen :)!. Ist jetzt da!
Es ist eine gute Idee zur Ausprache beschäftigen um besser zu verstanden sein . Ich brauche es persönlich . Zudem ich spreche nicht melodisch weil ich beherrsche nicht den Rhythmus der deutsche Sprache obwohl meine Satz ist grammatisch richtig !
Es bemängelt halt der Klang .
Französisch ist auch sehr anders rythmisch gesehen als Deutsch. Da muss man sich erst mal umgewöhnen.
Ein paar Korrekturen:
– … um besser zu verstehen zu sein
– … weil ich den Rhythmus nicht beherrsche, obwohl mein Satz grammatisch richtig ist.
“bemängeln” is you complaining about something, I think you meant “mangeln” but “fehlen” is the most idiomatic pick here.
For me, seeing a sound being made is one of the most helpful things to really understand it and not just say the closest thing I can based on autopilot. Whether it’s a video or just a sketch that says this is what your mouth should be doing. Hearing the sound is important too of course, but I seem to need the mental picture (and the physical feeling of the muscles doing their thing) for my brain to go, ok, new sound, we can do this.
I think being silly and exaggerating helps too. Maybe it helps you turn off the autopilot. Like for long ü. If I start by thinking/saying a long “i” like Igel (or cheese) and make “u” lips, I get tied up in knots. Say a long “i” and make a kissy face – way easier and even kind of fun.
So do these drawings of the tongue position for different letters actually help you? I found that for like 80% of people they’re not helpful, because they can’t really translate the drawing into their mouth.
“I think being silly and exaggerating helps too.”
This! It’s really really great advice!
Yeah, but not the weird IPA ones. I mean something like this at 1:48 and 7:39, or this at 0:28. The drawings aren’t fancy at all, especially in the second link, the English video. They probably wouldn’t make much sense without the rest of the video that gives a bunch of explanations and close-ups.
It just kind of gives me an idea of the parts you can’t really see without sticking a camera inside someone’s mouth. Although honestly, the hand gestures around 2:20 and 5:50 in the first link (fröhlich Deutsch) are probably more helpful than the drawings, at least for me.
(Both videos have ads at the beginning, but they’re short or skippable.)
Hahahaha, yeah, that’s the drawings I meant. IPA is really only for people who know IPA. It’s useless for 90% of learners.
That drawing in Fröhlich Deutsch’s video is the fattest tongue I have ever seen. This will NOT create a “ch”, for sure. The hand gesture part is much better. The comparison to “j” is not really helpful, to be honest , as I’m pretty sure English “y” as in “yo” is further in the back than German “j”.
The best approximation I have heard is the “breathed, fricative” “h” in “human”, that some English speakers do.
That’s interesting. The “y” in yo doesn’t seem that far back to me. I think there’s some variation in how I say it, but it doesn’t sound wrong when I make it farther forward. Meaning the edges of my tongue are glued to the roof of my mouth from the back molars to pretty close behind my top front teeth. I say most of my y’s that way, especially at the beginning of a word or syllable.
Which is something I thought didn’t always happen in German. It seems like I tend to hear less “pull” on the “y” sounds when native German speakers speak English (or sing in English). I associated that with the edges of the tongue having less contact with the roof of the mouth, and less pressure and time of contact. There have been a couple times in videos where I thought I saw the sound being made farther back. I don’t have links, just remember it was some kind of live music.
My other data point (at the current stage of research :)) is that Romanians tend to say a “y” that sounds a lot like the English one to my ears, and Romanian has quite a few palatal sounds.
The “softer” German “j” like in “ja” here by Vanadis-Milena sounds a bit like a linking “y” to me. Like in “we are” where the “e” glides into the “a”.
That gliding sound you mentioned is a great find. I feel like when I do it, it’s pretty much exactly where the German “j” is.
As for “y”… what you’re describing is definitely farther in the back than what I do. The middle of my tongue doesn’t go up at all. Generally, I have found that the front of the tongue tends to be further down on average in English than in German and flaps up and even bends backwards sometimes. Look at how Trump says “Thank you.”
I think behind the front bulge, the tongue falls off quite a bit. A German speakers would have the tongue come down from the center.
Not sure, if that description makes any sense :D
So the first time he says “you”, his mouth is fairly open and “thank you” blends together. I hear one sound, “kyu” like in “cute”. I can’t tell how his tongue moves, but mine stays pretty high when I do it. Cause “k” and “u” are high and then there’s like a bridge forward to make the “y”. At that point the tip curves down like “i” in “ihm”.
I can’t really see how he’s making the “y” for the second “you”. It’s pretty short and quiet. If I had to guess, the action shifts from the back of the mouth for “nk” back to the front for “y” and “v” (thank you very much). Those sounds come bam bam bam. The vowel in “you” is just a blip.
I can make a “y” sound like this if I keep my tongue high and kind of flat. Picture like a bridge from “nk” to “v”, if that makes any sense. I think I might only say a “y” toward the back of my tongue when an “a” sound follows. Like “thank ya.” Cause then you can just lazily drop down from “nk” to “a”.
Oh, I actually meant mainly the “th”, that’s the only thing I can really see/guess.
No German native speaker would EVER do a “th” like that.
All I can say is he’s not exactly a paragon of pronunciation. Some of his quirks you might hear from other native speakers, but sticking out half your tongue and baring your teeth for a “th” is something I’ve never seen before in my life.
Another nice example for the English tongue flap is Britney Spears’s video “hit me one more time”.
Of course no one normally talks like that, but it’s kind of an exaggerated version of reality.
Also, he has the best pronunciation, if he wants to. His pronunciation is so good, you have no idea. You wouldn’t even believe. People come to him and say “Wow, you’re pronunciation is so great, I have never heard such a clear English pronunciation, how do you do that?”
Merriam Webster asked him if he was available to pronounce all the words. He was looking at it very very strongly and we’ll see what happens.
XD XD XD XD
“I have found that the front of the tongue tends to be further down on average in English than in German”
Yeah. I think a lot of that comes from the sounds that are made in the middle of the mouth. You know, everyone’s favorites like “a” in apple, “u” in under, the American “r”, and “w”.
(I’ll stop now. I could go on about pronunciation for ages.)
For the “ch” like “ich” – I can only speak for myself of course, but I can get to it from “huge”, “yes” (get into position for the y and whisper/do like a hissing cat), or the vowel sound in “cheese” (cause edges of tongue are raised). Then make sure there’s enough air flow and pressure between tongue & roof of mouth to get the friction you need for the sound.
By the way… I have Youtube Premium and it has been life changing. I watch a lot of Youtube and this is worth so much more than a Netflix subscription. Lowers my anxiety levels :)
I’m gonna have to try that. Sounds awesome.
While in a language course in Germany, the instructor worked with the pronunciation of Z. What I noticed is that in addition to the mouth and tongue changing from the English pronunciation, the lips also shape differently for German — so watching as well as listening helped move the z sound to include the “t” part that to the English speakers ear is added. This difference seems to occur for numerous sounds. I particularly notice this lip difference watching the news presenters on Tagesshau.
You’re very observing then :)!! Well done!! Did you actually get a rudimentary lip reading skill doing this?
No lip reading, German speakers really don’t move their lips enough when speaking.
Hahaha, yeah, I feel the same way about English. Daniel Craig for example, James Bound.
I don’t think you’re quite right with this one, at least not at the ‘letter’ level. Think of:
‘tough’, ‘though’, ‘thought’, ‘through’, ‘bough’; or ‘boy’, ‘son’; ‘but’ and ‘put’, to bring examples from English.
I’d rather think the brain tries to simplify (like it does all the time), and when it encounters a sound that’s similar to one in your language, it’ll simply replace it. There are people who cannot even *hear* the difference between some of the German (and Hungarian — my mother tongue) sounds: they don’t hear a difference between German ‘o’ and ‘ö’, or Hungarian ‘ty’ and ‘gy’, for example (so Hungarian words like ‘gyöngytyúk’ (= ‘guinea fowl’, ‘Perlhuhn’) are impossible for them).
“Our data and review demonstrate that native phonemic categories are powerful attractors hampering the mastery of non-native contrasts.”
Good point about the letter combinations. My description was simplifying it a lot.
I was mainly basing this of practicing individual sounds with people.
So you’d for example try to practice a proper German “ü” and you can do all kinds of approximations and unrelated voicing exercises but as soon as people think that now they have to pronounce the letter, they forget all the work they did before that wasn’t tied to a letter.
About hearing differences… that is VERY true, as well. I know that Germans for instance do not hear the difference in length of vowels and plosive consonants that Finish people produce.
There’s “a” and “aa”, and both have the same quality, but the double one is pretty much precisely twice as long. Same for “s” vs “ss”. And I cannot hear that, even though I know it exists. Same in Italian.
Conversely, native speakers sometimes get “blinded” to similarities.
If I say an Italian word with the emphasis on the wrong syllable, for instance, but with all the right sounds, they might legit not understand it, even though when I write it down, it’s perfectly correct. But the pattern matching in their brain says “no match”, because rhythm is such a strong component.
I agree with Kofa (& thanks for the article link), especially about native speakers of the inconsistently pronounced language that English is. On the other hand, native German speakers seem generally to be very good at pronouncing words adopted from English as they are in English, not as the spelling would suggest to a German speaker. “Job” is an example.
When speaking English, native Italian speakers tend to add vowels, especially to end words. I suppose that’s about creating a familiar, comfortable rhythm.
Simplification is the only way I can think of to explain how so many English speakers make Burg and Berg sound the same. but it doesn’t explain how Weinstein came to be pronounced as it is in America.
In the days before easily accessible audio files foreign language learning in English would begin with a pronunciation guide that listed letters and combinations of letters each with an English word in which the pronunciation (in some, unspecified group of English speakers) was reckoned to be approximately a match. That approach possibly reinforces the tendency not to notice differences that don’t occur in one’s native tongue.
“but it doesn’t explain how Weinstein came to be pronounced as it is in America.”
Wow, never really noticed how little sense that actually makes :).
Strangely, different people will pronounce Weinstein differently. I mostly hear the “I” pronounced for both the first and second syllable but some people will pronounce the first “I” but use an “ee” for the second syllable. It drives me crazy when I hear the “ee”. It seems so obviously wrong. Bruce Springsteen is an ‘ee’, Weinstein is NOT an EE.
There has to be some record of how he said it himself. I mean, he was in court hearing and all.
Nach dieser Phrase sehe ich nichts – keine Taste, um den Ton zu aktivieren. Ich sehe auch nicht, wie man das nächste Beispiel “… a new letter”…startet. Ich habe mein Popup deaktiviert, aber immer noch nichts. Ich benutze Google Chrome. Danke.
Oh Mist, das habe ich auch vergessen. Es ist jetzt da.
When you said, “Imitate the sound I am making:” I did not hear a sound or see a button to push to start a sound. Was I supposed to?
Oh damn, I forgot to add that one, as well. It’s a bit of a let down now probably, but it’s there.
Ich glaube, eine Audiodatei im Artikel noch fehlt und zwar unmittelbar nach dem Text “Imitate the sound I am making” und vor “And now say “u” in German and make it really really long”.
Dieses Thema ist sehr spannend und daher würde ich mich über Tipps freuen. Danke, dass Du auf die Thematik von Aussprache eingehst!
Ja stimmt, hab ich jetzt dazugemacht.
Maybe it’s better to keep our ‘foreign’ accents?… at least according to Paul Taylor’s video on YouTube: SPEAKING FRENCH WITH NO ACCENT
Would one get the same reaction in Germany, with a perfect accent but bad grammar?
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Or for practicing the ‘r’ sound: “around the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran”. It has been difficult for me to get the ‘r’ in the back of my throat…sometimes it works, sometimes not. I have to listen to more German rather than read only.
I really like Seedlang for pronunciation. It’s great.
Ah, glad to hear that :)! What kind of pronunciation practice do they have? It’s been a while that I checked. Or do you mean the fact that you get to repeat the short snippets.
They don’t have much pronunciation exercises. For me, I can pronounce individual German words but I need to speak quicker so the short sentences are ideal. I think if they had a lot of pronunciation I would find it boring as I am not a beginner. They sentences are fun but not weird sentences like Duolingo.
“They sentences are fun but not weird sentences like Duolingo.”
Yeah, that’s my favorite thing about Seedlang actually… the content is full of humor and story.
This is a helpful perspective for sure. I had a little language-acquisition training back in the day, and the rule of thumb for pronunciation was:
If it feels easy/comfortable to pronounce, you’re pronouncing it wrong.
Which of course is exactly what this post explains the reasons for. It’s a little disheartening, especially early on, but it’s good to have the mentality that you are going to need to consciously override what your brain and mouth want to do to develop a good accent. And it does get easier over time, just like any physical exercise or habit.
One thing I’ve occasionally suggested to people is to listen to Germans speaking English, especially if they have a heavy accent, and try to imitate that accent – maybe first in English, but then try to, you know, speak German with a German accent, even if it feels cartoony or like Hogan’s Heroes or whatever. It’s still helping you to practice configuring your mouth differently from how you speak your native language and escape the smothering attentions of your Brain Mom.