german pronunciation

5 Most Common German Pronunciation Mistakes

german pronunciation

Are you having trouble with your German pronunciation? Below, German teacher Tyler S. shares the five most common German pronunciation mistakes and how to avoid them…

Learning how to speak proper German can be difficult. Don’t be discouraged, however, if you feel stuck and can’t figure out how to pronounce certain sounds.

After all, it’s hard to articulate sounds when they don’t exist in your native language.

In this article, I will walk you through the top five most common German pronunciation mistakes that students often make.

Each section introduces its sound(s) as spelt in German, and provides an explanation of pronunciation that includes examples.

1. The sound “z”

One common sound that English speakers have trouble with is the letter “z”. Students often pronounce this letter like the English “z”, as in the word “buzzing”.

This, however, is incorrect if you’re speaking German.

The German letter “z” is pronounced like the English letters “t” and “s” combined, like in the word “cats”. If you want to sound like a German, replace the letter “z” with the English sound “ts”.

See examples below:

  • zwei  (two)
  • der Sturz  (crash)
  • das Flugzeug (airplane)

2. The umlauts “ö”, and “ü”

When it comes to German pronunciation, these two vowels are probably the most difficult sounds to master. However, I have yet to have a student who hasn’t been able to learn how to pronounce these sounds. It is all a matter of practice!

“ö”

This sound doesn’t exist in the English language. However, if you can pronounce the “e” sound as in the English word “every”, you can pronounce this vowel.

Simply make the English sound ”e” as in “every” that I just described. Once your mouth is in this position, all you have to do is round your lips.

See examples below:

  • das Ö(oil)
  • öffnen  (to open)
  • ökonomisch (economical)

“ü” 

This sound also doesn’t exist in the English language, but its easier to pronounce than “ö”.

First, say the English sound “ee” as in “me”. Once your mouth is in this position, you once again only have to round your lips to produce “ü.”

See examples below:

  • über  (over, above)
  • müde (tired)
  • kühl (cool)

3. The sound “ch” and its alternate forms

The German letters “ch” together represent two different spoken sounds depending on which vowel comes before it in a word.

“ich/ech”

If “i” or “e” comes before “ch”, the “ch” makes a hissing sound, almost like a cat. When producing this sound, touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth or your hard palate.

Leave just enough space for air to leak through. The air leaking through this passage between your hard palate and your tongue is what creates the hissing noise.

See examples below:

  • ich (I)
  • mich (me)
  • milch (milk)

“ach/och/uch”

If “a”, “o”, or “u” comes before “ch”, the “ch” makes a harsh noise toward the back of your throat. This sound also sounds like hissing, but it’s produced at the back of the throat instead of using your hard palate.

If you’re having a difficult time, try making the English sound “k”. The trick is the make the “k” sound into a continuous hissing sound by letting air leak through the closure between your tongue and the back of your throat.

Making the sound should feel like gargling water, but your vocal chords should not be vibrating for this sound.

See examples below:

  • das Bach (stream)
  • das Loch  (hole)
  • das Buch  (book)

If you’re still confused about the proper German pronunciation, here’s a video that demonstrates the sounds:

4. The rules of the letter “s”

Most of my students think the letter “s” is the same as in English. They are partially correct. This is another one of those German letters that has two sound values (similar to how “ch” works).

The sound “s” in German can sometimes sound like the English “s”, but most of the time it sounds like the English “z” sound. The steps for deciding which sound this letter represents are simple:

If the “s” comes at the end of a German word, it’s pronounced as the English “s.” If the “s” is not at the end of the word, it’s almost always pronounced as the English “z”.

Lastly, a double-s sequence such as “ss” in a word is always pronounced like the English “s”.

See examples below:

  • der Eis (the ice)
  • sieben (seven)
  • der Esel (the donkey)

5. The rules of “st” and “sp”

The sound sequences “st” and “sp” are special in German. When either of these sound sequences occurs at the beginning of a German word, its pronunciation slightly changes.

This is actually a very easy pronunciation mistake to fix, as most students just need it to be explained to them formally.

If you see “st” at the beginning of a word, it’s pronounced as the English “sht.” If you see “sp” at the beginning of a word, it’s pronounced as the English “shp.”

See examples below:

  • die Straße (the street)
  • der Strand (the beach)
  • der Spaß (the fun)
  • der Sport (the sport)

 If “st” or “sp” is not at the beginning of a word, it is pronounced just like the English “st” in “stop”, or the English “sp” in “spooky.”

If you take the time to study these helpful German pronunciation tips, you can radically improve your German skills. Not to mention it will get rid of an accent that you may have from your native language.

Viel Spaß beim Lernen! (Have fun learning!)

Photo by Alexander Baxevanis

Tyler S.Post Author: Tyler S.
Tyler S. teaches in-person German lessons in Minneapolis, MN. He received his Bachelor’s degree in German and linguistics from the University of Minnesota, and has experience working as a teaching assistant and private tutor with TakeLessons since 2008. What’s more? He can speak 7 different languages! Learn more about Tyler here!

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