Transcript S1E3: Sounds Tricky

Here is the transcript of S1E3: Sounds Tricky. You can read more about this episode on the episode web page.

This transcript has been edited for readability.


LG = Luke Green
AS = Anke Sennema


  • In this transcript there are some phonetic symbols. Here are some of the ones that are perhaps less familiar because they do not directly correspond with letters of the alphabet: [ʃ] is the sound in "Schule"; [a:] is the sound in "fahren"; [ɛː] is the sound in "Käse" (at least, in many parts of Germany); [o:] is the sound in "Sohn"; [∅:] is the sound in "Söhne"; [u:] is the sound in "Kuh"; [y:] is the sound in "Kühe"; [ʊ] is the sound in "muss"; [ʏ] is the sound in "müssen"; [i:] is the sound in "Biene"; [ç] is the sound in "ich"; [x] is the sound in "Buch". The other phonetic symbols that are used ([h], [t], [s], etc.) correspond on the most part with those letters of the alphabet, so [t] is in "tun", and so on.
  • Where square brackets [ ] are used, I am referring to speech sounds. Where pointed brackets < > are used, I am referring to spelling.


LG: When you learn a new language, you’re not only confronted with new words. It’s not just a case of getting used to new grammar rules. You’re also very likely to come across new sounds and combinations of sounds that you don’t have in your first language. And of course, German is no different. It can be quite intimidating to hear words with all these unfamiliar sounds and clusters, it all sounds very alien. And German is a language that has a lot of these speech sounds. We have words that start with <pf>, like Pferd, or <gn> like Gnade, and we have words that sound nothing like English at all, like Knecht or Streichholz. How can we deal with these new sounds? Do we have to learn how to produce them in order to be fluent in German? That’s what this episode is all about. We’re going to be looking at some of the sounds in German that are a bit more difficult for people to learn, and how we can get the hang of them. So let’s do it, let’s crack on with the show.

[Theme music]

This is Yellow of the Egg. The podcast where German is the word on everyone’s lips. I’m Luke Green, and this is episode three, Sounds Tricky.

[Theme music]

AS: I think, in general, you always start from your first language, and everything which is different from your first language, this is a challenge.

LG: Anke Sennema teaches at the University of Vienna at the Department of German Studies. There she teaches courses centring around German as a foreign and second language, with phonetics being one of her main research interests. She focuses not only on what is difficult to pronounce, but also what is difficult for learners to hear. When you’re getting used to a new sound system in a new language, everything can seem unfamiliar and therefore unattainable. The good news is that the sounds you hear in German aren’t actually too different from those you hear in English.

AS: In terms of the linguistic system, I think German and English, they share a lot of their consonant system structure, and it's structured in a similar way when it comes to the place where sounds are produced. So in both languages you have bilabial sounds, for example, and also the manner how sounds are produced, like we have in both languages fricatives, like the “f” or the [ʃ]. So there are many similarities.

LG: This provides a good starting point. When you realise that actually the German sound system is quite similar to English, it becomes slightly less intimidating. I said slightly.

AS: German, when it comes to vowels, we share the same, yeah, vowel system, but German has a few peculiarities, like the Umlaute.

LG: The Umlaute, or umlauts, are the sounds that we make which correspond to the letters with these double dots above them. So while the letter <a> is pronounced [a:] in German, the <a> with the umlaut is pronounced [ɛː], which is a much less familiar sound for many English speakers. In the same way, the letter <o> is pronounced [o:] in German, but the umlaut <o> is pronounced [∅:], also a new sound. And as for the letter <u>, this is pronounced as [u:], but with the umlaut, it’s [y:]. New sounds like these can cause some confusion for learners who are not familiar with them.

AS: Many people can't really hear the difference in German between the [i:] and the [y:]. So this is- we have the [i:] sound like in hier, or the [y:] sound like in Mühe. So this is a distinction which is for many learners kind of hard to perceive, and then very hard to pronounce as well.

LG: As for the consonants, as we’ve heard, most of them are the same in German as they are in English. We have our “f”s, our “p”s, our “m”s and our “t”s, and these are all pretty much the same. As an English speaker, you’ll probably be able to read German words fairly accurately on the basis of your knowledge of English. Well, to a certain extent at least. There are some consonant sounds in German that you just don’t hear in English.

AS: When it comes to consonants, a friend of mine, he's English, he learned German for a couple of years now, and even though he's really really very good, but when you catch him at a moment where he doesn't pay attention really, he still makes this, or still finds it hard, the [ç], this ich-Laut, we call it, and he always uses like ik. So this seems to be very hard as well, the distinction between [ç] and [x] and [k]. So I think, especially when you have an English language background, very often you say- you replace the [ç] by “k”, so it's not ich but ik, and I think this seems to be a difficulty as well.

LG: In German, where you see a <ch> in writing, this can represent a number of sounds. The most common are the sounds heard in ich and in Buch, so [ç] and [x]. These are both fricative sounds that do not really occur in English. A lot of the time, learners deal with unfamiliar sounds by falling back on the sounds they already know from languages they already speak.

AS: And then it's about, kind of, what's the closest sound of that, or the exemplar of that new sound. What gets closest to your native sound. And there, the [ç], I think the equivalent is the [ʃ]. So instead of ich it’s ish or the ik. I'm getting reminded more often, like, of the huge Turkish-speaking community in Germany, and this is a feature they use, like that ish, ish gehe, for ich gehe. So this is what I hear often, kind of, in this Kiezdeutsch, or in urban areas where you have a lot of Turkish migrants, or coming from Turkish backgrounds, then you have the [ʃ] instead of the [ç].

LG: Learners tend to resort to sounds they have from their own language, or from languages they’ve already been learning, to replace the unfamiliar sounds that their mouths are not yet used to. In these intermediate stages before the new sounds are fully acquired, we hear things like ik or ish instead of ich. And to be fair, these are valid pronunciations of ich, even among native speakers. In certain parts of Germany, you might hear people say ik or ish, depending on the region. However, even if this wasn’t the case, it’s unlikely that this would be a huge problem if you can’t get the hang of the [ç] sound.

AS: It's not important for the general, kind of, for general understanding because you have the sentence, you have the word around your segment, around the sound, you have the word and the sentence and the whole context. So it's only very seldomly, I think, that fine phonetic detail really really makes a difference because you don't use words in isolation. You have always the context with it, so I don't think it really impedes understanding conversation.

LG: Still, even though it might not be the most necessary thing in the world to acquire all of the sounds of German and be able to produce them exactly how a native speaker would, many speakers of course would like to sound as close to first language speakers as possible. So if you’re struggling with the [ç] sound, or you’re trying to teach someone this sound who’s struggling with it, here’s a little tip for the English speakers out there. The English language actually holds a secret: we actually do have this sound in English, but only in a few words. Take for instance the word huge. If you pronounce it very slowly and exaggerate the sounds, “hhhhuge”, you can hear at the beginning. We actually pronounce this “h” not just as [h], but as [ç], so “huge”. So if you keep saying this word out loud and really exaggerate this first sound, like “hhhhuge”, you should be able to notice after a while how your mouth feels when you produce that sound. You can try adding vowels to the beginning of the word as well to get used to the sound in different contexts. So we can add [ɪ] at the beginning, so “ihuge”, so the word then contains ich at the beginning. Maybe that helps some of you who are struggling with that sound. So in addition to new vowels like the umlauts, we have the new consonant sounds [ç] and [x], among others. But even the familiar sounds can cause trouble if they are combined in unfamiliar ways.

AS: In terms of consonants, there are a couple of consonants which are different, but as well the phonotactic rules, what is allowed, which combinations are allowed in the language, and there are some differences between English and German. Like you had this example here of the village in Lower Austria, it’s Gschwendt, “g”, [ʃ], [v], Gschwendt, and I think this is a rather unusual construction in English. So this would be, kind of, when these consonant sequences occur at the beginning of a word, and also when they occur at the end of a word, like when you look at the four seasons and the German Herbst, ‘autumn’, has this combination of a fantastic four phonemes at the end, Herbst, Herbst, and if you put this in a sentence like die Launen des Herbsts in the genitive, then you have even a fifth one, and this, this really makes it hard for learners of German, kind of, so this, I think, is quite a challenge for learners.

LG: People are generally implicitly aware of the phonotactic rules of their own language, that is, the rules which govern which consonants can form clusters. A lot of the clusters that exist in German are simply not allowed in the English sound system. That’s why there are German words that start with clusters like [sts] like in Szene, [pf] like in Pferd, or [kn] like in Knopf, or even less common ones like [b̥ʃt] like in the company name Bständig. These can seem a little terrifying because you don’t get this in English. In fact, if you consider English words like knee or knock that are spelt with <kn>, this <kn> used to be pronounced as [kn] just like in German. Over time, this combination fell out of practice in spoken English and such clusters became simplified. So although we don’t have [kn] in English anymore, you can see from the spelling that it wasn’t always this way. So what are some of the ways that learners can get around these new and difficult clusters?

AS: I think in terms of clusters you try to break them up, make them more easy, more understandable for yourself. Kind of, a cluster, you insert vowels, you break them up. Instead of a Pfund, you say “Puh-fund”, you insert a schwa there. So it's kind of insertion of vowels, you break the clusters into their parts and, kind of, put a vowel in between them. Or you leave sounds, you leave out sounds, you see a very complex cluster. You see Herbst and you panic and you say “Hebst”. And without the “r” this is perfectly, it's no problem. And if you talk about *Hebst, *Hebst and summer, or *Hebst and Sommer, pardon, this won't be a problem. So you leave sounds out, you simplify them. This is another way in terms of dealing economically with this load of sounds you have to produce. So just make it easier, leave some of them out and try to concentrate on the main sounds. So this could be a strategy. And then the insertion of vowels. Another strategy is, kind of, talk faster: “Sommer und Herbst”. That you think, “oh, if you talk, if you're quick, and you can, kind of, nobody will notice that you can't- that you don't pronounce them properly sound-by-sound”.

LG: This might sound like cheating. Just speak faster and leave out some of the sounds, and hopefully no one will notice, and you’ll get away with not pronouncing the whole cluster as it should be. But if you think about it, your own language might have consonant clusters that you don’t pronounce fully when you speak fluently. If we think about English, we definitely don’t pronounce every sound in every cluster. Think about the words last and Monday. Say them together and we usually get “las- Monday”, and we drop the [t] from last. It takes more effort to say “last Monday” than “las- Monday”, and that’s effort we usually don’t make when we’re speaking without really thinking. But also in individual words we don’t pronounce every sound. If you think of the ordinal numbers in English: first, second, third, fourth, and then you get fifth, which many people pronounce as “fith”, and then we get sixth. You’re not pronouncing that fully in a fluent conversation, you’ll probably say “sikth”. And let’s not even get started with twelfth.

AS: What I found with learners of German in Iran, I worked at the University of Tehran with a couple of students, and I thought: “Hmm, what are they going to do? Do they put in vowels or, kind of, are they just fast and whoosh, go over the difficult cluster?”. But they were just very accurate, so they pronounced sound-by-sound, segment-by-segment. So you could do this as well, just because you want to make sure you don't miss anything out, you don't want to miss a difficult sound, so you do sound-by-sound. But in the end, this is much more difficult than for understanding that, kind of, keeping the word fluent. So there are different strategies what learners do and very often I think everybody is glad when the difficult sound is over, so to rush- to rush a bit on the difficult part, this isn't too bad, because fluency is always, kind of- fluency indicates competence as well. So I think this is a strategy people use very often.

LG: It seems to be the case that fluency can be hindered in some respect by trying to pronounce every single sound, whereas leaving the odd sound out or simply glossing over them in faster speech can give the impression of greater fluency. Native speakers of German often simplify their clusters, too. For instance, the word jetzt is often reduced to “jetz-” in fluent sentences, so the [t] is dropped at the end. So sometimes, reducing tricky clusters can even help you blend in with the native speakers. Still, even the simplest of consonant clusters can be tricky, especially if they’re unfamiliar and if your native language doesn’t allow them. Take, for instance, the Vietnamese language, which Anke examined in a study of hers.

AS: In the Vietnamese language you don't have clusters at all. And for them it's really, it’s really hard to pronounce clusters in German. So what they did is, they could distinguish the sounds very well. They had problems distinguishing clusters in the coda position, at the end, when it came at the end of a syllable, at the end of the word, then it was a problem for them to distinguish the sounds. Because in Vietnamese, the end of- the final part of the syllable, you don't seem to pronounce it that accurately.

LG: If you come from a language which doesn’t have clusters at all, or doesn’t have clusters in a certain position, any combination of consonants can prove to be a challenge, whether it’s something simpler like [pf] or [kn], or whether it’s something more complicated like in Herbst or Szene. But then there’s also the question of perception. If you come from a language without certain sounds or clusters, there’s the matter of being able to produce them, but can you hear them and distinguish them in the first place? Earlier we heard the example of the vowel sounds [i:] and [y:], like in the German words for bee like the insect, and stage, so Biene and Bühne. For me, I struggled to distinguish the sounds [u:] and [y:], and their short versions, [ʊ] and [ʏ], for instance in the words for print and push, these being drucken and drücken. I just didn’t hear the difference between the two. Drucken, drücken, drucken, drücken… And because I couldn’t even tell them apart, I didn’t feel there was much hope for me to be able to actually produce them myself.

AS: The question is always what comes first. Is it perceiving the difference? Is this important, or can you say, well, maybe I can produce sounds, and you don't rely so much on your ear. So, but, usually you start from the beginning, kind of, you have to perceive differences first, and then you are able to make them yourself as well.

LG: So how can we get over this first hurdle of even hearing a difference between similar sounds?

AS: Yeah, I think for teaching perception of a difficult sounds, it's always useful, kind of, to put them in a context with another sound, and that's why we use minimal pairs, working with minimal pairs for this. And a minimal pair is a word that differs only in one specific sound like bin and pin, so you have the [b] and the [p], and the rest of the word is the same, and then you just ask “do you hear a difference between the two of them, or is there no difference?”

LG: So for the difference between similar sounds, minimal pairs like drucken and drücken, or musste and müsste, are key. The more you listen to such pairs of words, the more you will be able to isolate the sounds that are different, and over time you’ll be able to hear the difference yourself. There are also other, more playful or visual ways to get to grips with new sound distinctions, for instance which could be used in teaching settings.

AS: Then also trying to use your imagination as well, working with gestures as well with your hands, kind of, to indicate distances between sounds. You could always kind of place to people in the classroom, one presents the [i:] and the other one the [u:], and a third student wanders from the [i:] towards the [u:], and then at a certain point you come to the pronunciation of the [y:]. So [i: – y: – u:]. So this is like the way the sound takes in your mouth, you kind of do this in class by walking between two points, so, kind of, it depends a bit how playful you can be with your class, what are the options, what’s the scenario as well.

LG: And of course, depending on the scenario, you’re going to be able to take advantage of different ways in which to distinguish the sounds from each other. Once you’ve got the hang of the difference between the two sounds in terms of your perception, you can then work on how to produce them.

AS: And in terms of the [i:] – [y:], the [y:] is so close to the [i:] sound, and it's just a bit more, kind of, if you picture your mouth, it's a bit more back, the [y:], and has more lip rounding. So gestures might help as well when you come to teaching issues. And you say “oh the [i:] is a much more stretched or tense vowel, whereas the [y:] has more the rounding”.

LG: If you say the sound [i:], you should notice that your lips become spread, almost like you’re smiling. If you say [u:], you’ll notice that your lips become pulled together, they become tighter and rounded. Now if you want to try and produce the [y:] sound, like in Bühne, try rounding your lips, almost like you’re going to give someone a kiss or you’re drinking through a straw, and while your lips are rounded, keep them rounded and try to say the word Biene. If you keep your lips rounded, it should come out like “Bühne”.

AS: Teachers, they use images or metaphors as well to try to convey this idea of sound as well. It's not only via your ears. There are certain teaching methods who involve your hands as well. A lot of research goes into the area. Are you a better learner if you only listen to sounds, or how important is seeing speakers as well, seeing the mouth of the other person? But I think using as much help from gestures, from visual aids as well, imagination, I think this helps a lot with when it comes to learning new sounds.

LG: Even if it doesn’t start out perfect, it will get better with time and practice. And there’ll be good days and not-so-good days, so it’s important not to be disheartened if it doesn’t work immediately. Accuracy in pronunciation is dependent on many different factors, and it can change all the time.

AS: Sometimes it's, at least for myself, I notice that linguistic skills, or pronunciation skills, they always kind of- it's not something you acquire and then it's written forever. It depends a bit on the time of the day as well. In the evening when you're more tired, then many more mistakes happen. It depends as well on whom you are talking with. Usually it's like, when you talk with first language speakers then this makes a difference than if you speak with other second language learners. So I think there are many factors that influence your pronunciation as well, and it's not only that you can “ohh yeah but I know how this is sound- I can produce this sound”, it always changes a bit as well, kind of, how well you can produce the sound.

LG: So it’s important to remember that even if you can’t get the hang of a certain sound on one day, or if you keep messing up your [u:]s and your [y:]s, it doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You will get there eventually. As we heard earlier, if you’re not able to produce a sound or cluster with absolute accuracy, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, it’s often not even important anymore to get rid of one’s own accent and to adopt a native accent of the target language. Even in some exam settings.

AS: In 2018, they are the new descriptors in the European framework for languages, and there it says as well that speaking with a foreign accent is not a way, or it is not a criteria anymore for getting to a certain grade, that you are B1 or B2. Your foreign accent is not a meter anymore, or at least not so strong as it has been before. You're allowed to, kind of, to sound like, to sound French as well. Yeah, you’re allowed to sound German, you allowed to sound English.

LG: So do we need to work on accent and pronunciation at all?

AS: It's sort of your ticket, your entry into conversation in a foreign language, and it also reflects your own identity. So therefore, I think correct, or being able to be understood has a very high priority.

LG: So it’s more dependent on how you want to come across, whether you want to make it obvious what your first language is as part of your own identity, or whether you want to assimilate and integrate yourself more with the native speakers of German. But in addition to that, while we might still be understood if we don’t acquire all these German sounds, it can certainly make it easier if we do. If nothing else, it’s a challenge that’s extremely rewarding to take on. To be able to produce a German consonant cluster in a fluent sentence for the first time, or to be able to produce the German sounds with such accuracy that you pass as a native speaker, there’s a certain feeling of accomplishment that’s hard to deny. So is there a key to acquiring native-like pronunciation?

AS: It's all about motivation, I think, in the end. Just picture a situation you really want to be in, and you really want to do well, like talking with a certain person or in a group. And don't, kind of, don’t be too ambitious. I think shorter sentences, and don't be afraid of making mistakes. I think this is the main thing. I think in the end it's the main thing. Just go out and make your mistakes on the top of your voice. It's more a matter of attitude, yeah, I think that's it.

[Theme music]

LG: Thank you so much to Anke Sennema for joining me for this episode. You can find more information about her and her research by going to the Yellow of the Egg website, that’s, and going to the page for this episode. I’ll put up links to her webpages and her email address if you want to get in touch with her. She is also one of the authors of a book that came out recently, which is about multilingualism in schools and why it’s a good thing as opposed to a threat. It’s called Deutschpflicht auf dem Schulhof? Warum wir Mehrsprachigkeit brauchen. The book is in German and is part of the Duden collection of publications. It’s available to buy now, I’ll put the information on the podcast website along with information about other publications of hers, so please do check that out, it’s definitely worth it.

If you like what you’ve been hearing on this podcast so far, please support it by subscribing for free wherever you get your podcasts, and by giving it a positive review and a five-star rating. That would really help keep this going. And of course, spread the word, tell your friends, and help get this podcast out to as many people as possible. We’ve got lots of really interesting topics coming up, so it’s worth sticking around. If you want to get in touch, you can send an email, You can also find me on Instagram @YOTEpodcast, that’s Y-O-T-E-podcast. So with all of that being said, thank you so much for listening, and until next time, machts es gut, servus aus Wien.

[Theme music]

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