Stumbling over German sentences?
Tongue-tied when faced with intimidating compound nouns?
Join the club.
German is a difficult language for English speakers.
It can be tough to shake the English accent and, unfortunately, it 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. 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, and 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.
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 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.
So let’s take a look at these more general ideas on how to improve your pronunciation.
1. Hold your mouth more tightly shut!
Imagine that your mouth could either be forming the shape of a large O or a small lowercase u when you open it. Try to find a video of a German 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. Listen to yourself
Another great strategy is to find a piece of 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, 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.