Getting German pronunciation right is not as difficult as you might think. In fact, it’s much more straight-forward than in most other languages.
‘Straight forward’ and ‘German’ in the same sentence? Oh ja!
Surprised? I don’t blame you. It’s a miracle, if you think about how difficult most other elements of the German language are to master.
We pronounce each letter of the German alphabet the same way, no matter where in a word it appears. And even better: we pronounce almost every letter in a word – which means you’ll be saying goodbye to the English language’s love of silent letters, and hello to German mouth gymnastics!
Sure, it’ll feel unfamiliar at first; but training your muscle memory to form unfamiliar German sounds will get you speaking more fluently, much faster.
So once you’ve got the sound for each letter down, you can practically read any word out loud – even long compound words, like Vorstandsvorsitzende (chair woman).
Big confidence booster, eh? So let’s dive in and get you started.
Need extra help perfecting your German accent? Learn how to pass for a native with Busuu’s specialised German pronunciation unit.
Master the German alphabet
Let’s cut right to the chase, shall we? Take a look at the sounds of the most important letters, including – drumroll please! – the Umlauts ä, ö and ü.
The infamous German letter that looks like a ‘B’, but is actually called Eszett – a sharp, hissing, snake-like s sound.
|ß||Straße (street)||Like an ‘ss’ sound in English|
ß only exists in the lower case, and never comes at the beginning of a word.
If you really want to use cap locks to make a point, replace ß with a double s (ss).
In German, w sounds like the English ‘v’, which explains vy some Germans vill sound like zis.
|w||wo (where)||Like the ‘v’ sound in English|
The letter v has two possible sounds.
The most common (like in Vater) sounds like the wind blowing – it sounds like our English ‘f’.
The less common v sound (like in the English word vase) applies to loanwords that don’t have German origin – the v of those words sounds pretty much like our English ‘v‘.
|v||Vater (father)||Like an ‘f’ sound in English|
|v||Vase (vase)||Like a ‘v’ sound in English|
If you nail the sound of this letter, you’ve pretty much nailed the hardest bit of German pronunciation.
The German r is a classic sound that has the power to out you as a native English speaker within seconds, since it doesn’t exist in English.
Practise the German r sound by pretending to gurgle (without any liquids in your mouth, of course).
Can you feel that rough sound come to life at the back of your throat?
|r||Regen (rain)||Gurgling sound at the back of your throat|
People might pin Germans as precise and proper, but spoken German is a different story. When there’s an ‘r’ at the end of a word, it usually turns into more of an ‘uh’ or ‘ah’ sound. Have a listen.
|unter (below, under)|
German umlauts Ä, Ö and Ü
While probably the most recognisable letters in the German alphabet, they are responsible for producing the most unfamiliar sounds to English speakers.
No need to throw in the towel just yet. Here’s a trick that’ll help you get the sound just right.
The dots above the vowels a, o and u indicate a ‘hidden e’ that follows the vowel, which turns them into umlauts.
ä = ae
ö = oe
ü = ue
Knowing that umlauts consist of the basic vowel + e will help you remember how to form their sounds.
Let’s take muesli (German Müsli) as an example: in English, we pronounce it “myooz-lee”, which is actually quite close to the German original.
The ‘yoo’-sound formed in this word is already pretty much the sound of the German ü.
So, here’s how you can form an umlaut:
- Start off with the basic vowel sound (a = aah, o = ooh, u = uuh).
- Move that sound slightly, just as if you were going to form the German e-sound next.
- On the way from basic vowel to e sound, you’ll find the umlaut.
Have a listen below to compare the sounds.
|ä||ähnlich (similar)||Form the sound by moving from the basic ‘a’ to ‘e’|
|ö||öffnen (to open)||Form the sound by moving from the basic ‘o’ to ‘e’|
|ü||über (above)||Form the sound by moving from the basic ‘u’ to ‘e’|
Keyboards often offer special characters when you keep a letter pressed for a while, e.g. A for Ä and so on.
If yours doesn’t work like that, why not add a German keyboard in your settings?
Alternatively, you can replace each umlaut with its e-spelling (see above).
The sneaky exceptions
Of course, German wouldn’t be German if there weren’t exceptions to ze rules.
Although we said that every letter of the German alphabet sounds more or less the same, certain letter combinations might influence the pronunciation of a word.
Here are a few common examples you should look out for.
ei vs. ie
With ei, we pronounce each letter more or less separately, whereas ie is just one long ‘eeh’ sound.
|ei||einfach (easy)||Like an English ‘ay’ sound|
|ie||lieben (to love)||Like an English ‘eeh’ sound|
If you really want to sound like a native German speaker, you should perfect the German ch sounds.
At times ch can remind of someone having an itchy throat, other times it sounds more like a hissing cat, then again like a ‘k’ sound.
|ch||kochen (cooking)||Often harsh after vowel sounds (a, o or u)|
|ch||Milch (milk)||Usually soft after consonants (l, r, n)|
|chs||Fuchs (fox)||Like a ‘k’ sound when followed by an s|
Some final words of advice
So there you have it: German pronunciation in a rather thorough nutshell.
But try not to obsess over all this too much: chances are that you’ll be understood by natives about 90% of the time.
The important thing is giving it a go. Because once you start, there’s no knowing where you’ll end up…
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