I Beg Your Pardon?

German pronunciation
German pronunciation | Photo (detail): © undrey –

Many learners of German are only poorly understood. Pronunciation training often gets the short end of the stick in GFL teaching. Yet good German pronunciation is essential for smooth communication and also contributes to the formation of identity, says pronunciation trainer Lisa Göbel.

Mrs Göbel, can you learn German without actively practicing speaking it?

If you want only to write German, then yes. If, however, you also want to communicate verbally, you’ll have to practice speaking and listening long and hard. I often get e-mails from German learners who write at the C1 level, but whose spoken German has very many phonetic errors. The result is that they are poorly understood.

What are the main reasons for this?

In German, the length of the vowels is very important. Our language is relatively rich in vowels; it’s a complex system. It makes difficulties for most non-native speakers. This generates a good deal of misunderstandings. Another important point is the placement of word stress. If a speaker places this incorrectly or too weakly, he can be hard to understand. 

Could you give an example?

The different pronunciation of the words “lahm” [i.e. lame] and “Lamm” [i.e. lamb] is clear to a native speaker of German. Many people learning German, however, must learn to hear and pronounce the difference between the long and the short vowel. Or the placement of stress in “Käse” [i.e. cheese]. It falls on the first syllable, as often is the case in German: KÄse. If someone says KäSE, stressing the second syllable, then a German right away thinks of a “See”, a lake, and asks himself: “What lake?”

Is there another reason why people learning German are poorly understood?

The plosives “p”, “t” and “k” are very important for understanding in oral communication. If these sounds aren’t pronounced clearly and with a lot of pressure, what is said can easily sound indistinct. Here terminal devoicing also plays a role. In German, voiced plosives – “b”, “d” and “g” – at the end of words and syllables are pronounced as the unvoiced plosives “p”, “t” and “k”. Thus “lieb” is spoken as “leip”, “Wald” as “Walt” and “Weg” as “Wek”.

Pronunciation: seldom taught in the classroom

If good pronunciation is so important, why does pronunciation training play so small a role in GLF teaching?

Many teachers say they simply lack the time for it. Lessons are usually so designed that grammar and vocabulary play the largest parts. Textbooks contain pronunciation exercises, but these are usually only marginally treated or skipped. The reason is often that in GFL training phonetics takes up little space and therefore the teachers themselves know little about it.

What is particularly difficult for those learning German about German pronunciation?

Many find it strange that they have to open their mouths rather wide and that the lips must be very active. In many other languages this isn’t the case. In addition, German requires a good deal of tension to stress the syllables properly. Unstressed syllables, by contrast, are formed very loosely. These contrasts give German a special sound. Russian and French, for example, sound much more melodic. When a Russian or a Frenchman transfers the melody of his mother tongue to German, Germans automatically have problems understanding what is being said.
To what extent does pronunciation training improve the communication skills of learners of German?

Those who are able to pronounce the vowels and stresses properly are understood much better and are no longer always asked to repeat themselves. That can be an embarrassing and irritating experience for the learner. Moreover, their own perception is trained: they learn to hear differences – for instance, in the length of vowels. In this way they can better understand spoken German. They recognize more easily, for example, the difference between “Bahn” [i.e. train] and “Bann” [i.e. ban], or between “wen” [i.e. whom] and “wenn” [i.e. if]. And if you know how the standard articulation in German sounds, you also get a feeling for the variant forms and so better access to the variants of German.

Pronunciation also establishes identity

You’ve referred in a publication to pronunciation as an element in the formation of identity. What do you mean by that?

I notice again and again that in intensive pronunciation training some learners reach a limit. They then realize that if they want to speak proper German, they’ll have surrender their original identity as someone who speaks with an accent and accustom themselves to a new way of speaking and so a new identity. Because even the physical process of speaking changes. To speak accent-free German, you need a high degree of tension in your voice: the lips become very active and the tongue has to work with lot of force. In this way the basic feeling in speaking is re-designed and the voice often takes on a different sound. Since speech and voice are very personal things, working on them is bound up with personality and identity. Learners feel more secure and more comfortable in speaking when they know how to pronounce words correctly. If you no longer feel completely foreign when you speak, your sense of identity and the relationship to the country in which you live changes. The feeling of foreignness decreases.
Lisa Göbel, born in 1985, studied phonetics and also trained as a speech trainer. She is a freelance pronunciation and communication trainer based in Berlin, works with people learning German and dialect speakers, and offers advanced courses in phonetics for GFL teachers.