4 Tips to Improve Your German Accent as an American Posted by Sten on Mar 11, 2021 in Language
Learning German can be hard enough. But then there’s also the German pronunciation. As an American, it can be daunting to get this right, especially because German sounds so different from American. But it can be done! I remember meeting an American some years ago, and before he told me that he was from the States, I totally believed he was a native German – his accent was impeccable! He told me it took him about 10 years to get to that level, but it shows – with hard work, you can get there! Here are four tips (I am sure there are many more) that can really help you improve your German pronunciation!
1. Open your Mouth!
One of the first tips and most important tips I give non-native speakers when they try to speak German is to really open their mouth.
German is a language in which, ideally, every Buchstabe (m, letter) and every Laut (m, sound) are pronounced. And often, the moment somebody exaggeratedly opens their mouth to speak German, they actually start sounding quite German!
Because of this feature of German, Germans often also speak quite clearly in other languages, including English. While English is pronounced more from the throat, German really unfolds more in the mouth. I hope that makes sense. Don’t believe me? In the USA Network hit show Suits, Louis Litt’s therapist is plays a German and he has a bang-on accent. While the actor, Ray Pruscia, was born in New York City, he is fluent in German and specialises in doing accents. You can hear how he clearly pronounces every word, and how different it sounds. Here’s what it sounds like when I do this, a native German speaker but a non-native English one, saying the sentence:
I don’t know what you are talking about. Surely you think it’s crazy that we can’t live together. I will call your parents immediately.
And here’s that sentence in German both spoken in German and with an American English accent (well, mine, but I think I come pretty close):
Ich weiß nicht, wovon du sprichst. Du findest es doch auch verrückt, dass wir nicht zusammenleben können. Ich rufe deine Eltern sofort an.
It’s not perfect, me being both German and Dutch definitely makes it harder to fake the accent, as I sometimes also lean towards the Dutch accent speaking German, but I hope you see my point!
You might also notice that the open mouth method means speaking more slowly. I’ve been learning Italian in the past few months, and noticed that speaking faster often helps mask your uncertainties about whether what you’re saying is correct. So speaking more slowly can be scary, I know. But if you are at a point where you feel confident with what you know, this can be a great tip!
As you can hear, the open-mouth method does make the German more clear, but the American r and the wrong pronunciation of the ch is still problematic. Can we fix those?
2. Heed (and sometimes skip!) the German r
I know what you’re thinking: Wait, didn’t you just say that Germans pronounce every little thing? Why would I skip the r?
American English has a very “throaty” r (sorry, I am not a phonetics expert). Americans don’t really roll the r. Let me do that sentence with three different ways to pronounce the r to show you what I mean:
Ok, I have difficulty enough to roll an r. With this sentence, it’s almost impossible to do the entire sentence without taking breaks! If you can do it, I’d love to know (and hear it!). My girlfriend, who is Latina, could do it:
Anyway, back to the German r. As you can hear, the soft German r is barely there. It feels a bit like an “a”. When the r comes after a vowel and the r is not followed up with another vowel the r is often not pronounced properly anymore. This is a little contentious in Germany, actually, where some people are really upset that Germans don’t properly pronounce the r. The thing is, it slows you down a lot, so the r is kind of glossed over. Here are some German words pronounced to show you, both with a proper way that barely anyone uses, and the normal way. I recommend the normal way for everybody!
der Verbrauchermarkt (supermarket)
der Horizont (horizon)
das Glossar (glossary)
der Verräter (traitor)
der Marktschreier (pitchman)
So the cases I outlined, you can skip the r. But you can also clearly hear it in many of the examples above.
What you can try is to stretch your lips and make an exaggerated smile, like in the picture above. Then try to say the German r: rrrrrrrrrrrr!
It might help!
3. Get the German s right!
The s! The German s is a bit of a weird one. While the American s is just that, an s, the German s sometimes becomes something that reads like the American sh.
Let’s apply that to the sentence from before:
Ich weiß nicht, wovon du shprichst. Du findest es doch auch verrückt, dass wir nicht zusammenleben können. Ich rufe deine Eltern sofort an.
But that’s only with one s! What about the other ones?
Well, this rule only applies to the s at the beginning of a word, and when it’s followed by a consonant. See how sofort stays like it is? That’s because it’s followed by a vowel.
You actually also see that many words just get a sch instead of just an s – so der Marktschreier or die Schlange (snake) don’t have just an s. Why? I am not sure, but that’s for another post.
If you’re wondering – yeah my name. While in American Sten sounds pretty much like Stan, in German it officially sounds like Shten. I personally prefer it pronounced with the other s, so like you’d pronounce it if you didn’t know about this weird German rule.
4. The German ch – it’s not a k!
Lastly, a pretty important one. The ch in German sounds like you’re blowing a bit of a breeze through your teeth. You can combine it with your German r practice. After the rrrrrrr, open your teeth a little bit, and breathe some air out. You might notice that your tongue wants to push against your lower teeth – that’s good! If it doesn’t, try. My native-speaking mouth does it with 25 years of practice, so I think it might help a bit.
As you can imagine, this sound might really change how you pronounce your German. You might be constantly smiling and your mouth might get really exhausted. But you’ll get used to it! And smiling a lot is pretty healthy, too.
You could also try to imitate the hissing of your cat. It’s kinda similar. Or use the video above!
I am not sure what letters would prompt you to make this sound in English, but I’d imagine something like hhh comes pretty close. Let me know how you’d write it!
Just by the way: ck in German is just like you’d say that in English – like a k.
Again, applying this to our sentence:
Ihhh weiß nihhht, wovon du shprihhhst. Du findest es dohhh auhhh verrückt, dass wir nihhht zusammenleben können. Ihhh rufe deine Eltern sofort an.
I’m starting to have a pretty hard time doing this, because I get too close now to just say it with my normal German accent. Maybe you can do the sentence better than me!
Let me know if these four tips helped you pronounce German. If you have other tips or ways to make my tips better, I’d love to know, so please tell me in the comments below!
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