I often get compliments on my YouTube videos for how good my German accent is. I am not a German native speaker, but my accent is still quite good. With that in mind, here are my top #7 tips for how to improve your German language pronunciation.
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#1: Seek first to understand, then to be understood
In 1989 Stephen Covey wrote an amazing book called “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. The 5th habit in this book is “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. In the context of learning German pronunciation, this idea is very important. You need to listen to as much German as you possibly can. The more German you hear, the better your ear will be trained to know what correct pronunciation is.
It doesn’t even have to be active listening for you to improve your German pronunciation with this tactic. You don’t need to take notes or block out distractions. You can just let this stuff play in the background while you do other stuff. It is obviously going to help more if you pay attention to what you are hearing, but over time your brain will be trained to hear German and know that it is pronounced correctly based on what you have heard before.
#2: Practice Your German Accent
You know how in American movies when a character is supposed to be German they throw on this really thick German accent just to make sure you know they are German? That can actually be helpful for learning to pronounce German words for real. It may sound counterintuitive, but the way you have to move your mouth in order to put on a fake German accent is the same way you need to move your mouth in order to really speak German.
Don’t believe me? Try this. Read the two quotes below in both German and English, but when reading the English, put on the thickest German accent you can muster. Then notice how your mouth moves in both the German and English versions.
Der Unterschied zwischen Wahnsinn und Genie definiert sich lediglich aus dem Erfolg.
The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success.
– Elliot Carver – Der Morgen stirbt nie (Tomorrow Never Dies)
Zwölf Sekunden. Wir müssen ein Gift haben, das schneller wirkt.
Twelve seconds. One of these days we must invent a faster-working venom.
– Ernst Stavro Blofeld – Liebesgrüße aus Moskau (From Russia with Love)
Seriously, practice your Bond villain accent and your German pronunciation will improve.
Along the same lines as #2, when you are speaking German, over-exaggerate your pronunciation. Obviously you don’t want to do this while you are having an actual conversation in German, but when you over exaggerate in practice, you will exaggerate just the right amount when it comes time for a real conversation.
If you say with over-exaggerated mouth movements a few times, your mouth will be trained to move in that general way. Think of it like driving a car. When you first learn to drive, every movement you make is calculated and carefully thought out. By the time you are in your twenties, you are able to drink a coffee, put on makeup and get something out of the glovebox while driving with your knee*. German is just like that. Start by practicing things “by the book”, so to speak, and once you get the hang of things, you can relax a bit, as your muscle memory will take over.
*With the possible exception of drinking coffee, don’t do these things while driving. It is reckless behavior that puts everyone around you at risk. Kind of like wandering around without a mask on. Seriously, put on your mask… uh and your seatbelt.
#4: Break It Down
If you didn’t already know this about German, when you break apart big words or big phrases, their smaller parts tell a story of sorts that lead you to the meaning of the whole. Words like “Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz” aren’t nearly as difficult if you can break apart the madness into smaller digestible bits.
“Rind-” from a cow. “Fleisch” meat. “Etikettierung” make something fit the etiquette of the situation… labeling. “Überwachung” monitoring. “Aufgabe” task, responsibility. “Übertragung” transfer. “Gesetz” law. “Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz” was a law for the oversight of the labeling of beef products.
Breaking words apart like this isn’t just helpful for understanding the meaning of complex compound nouns. You can also do this one syllable at a time and focus on the pronunciation of that syllable. For example: Start with “Rind-”. We have the R sound from the back of the throat. It is kind of blended into the I sound that directly follows the R. N and D become one and you end up with ND. Together we have “Rind-”. Do the same for the rest of the syllables. By breaking down the words into their individual syllables, you can improve your German pronunciation one sound at a time.
I often struggle with pretty much any German word that ends with -tion. Operation, Information, Kommunikation and so on. I think it is probably because they are usually incredibly similar to English words, but don’t share the same pronunciation. If this issue affects you, I would recommend doing what I did. Find a list of those words that have that same sound or combination of letters. Then read that list off and over exaggerate your pronunciation like you did in tip #3. You could also break them apart like you did in tip #4.
Find something that is difficult for you to pronounce. Then make a list of words that use that sound or combination of sounds. Go to Wiktionary.com. Look up the first word on your list. Listen to the audio pronunciation for that word. Then imitate it. Do this for each word on the list. Then go back and read them one after the other. Repetition is key to improving German pronunciation. The more you say it, the easier it will become to say it correctly.
Have you ever taken a course where they say something like “Listen and Repeat”, Escucha y Repite, Écoutez et répétez, or Hört zu und wiederholt? There is a reason for this. Teachers of foreign languages know that you need to work on your pronunciation. You need to hear how it sounds and try to imitate that sound.
While I don’t think you should be as boring as your teacher probably was, you do need to try to imitate native speakers as best as you can to mold your accent to be more like theirs. I usually make my students read one word at a time then reread the whole sentence together. I say each word, then they repeat. Then I say the full sentence and they repeat that. It kind of reminds me of that scene in the Pink Panther movie with Steve Martin.