A young German Coast Guard recruit on his first day at work receives a Mayday signal. “We are sinking, we are sinking” cries the radio in a British English accent. “Hello, zis is da German Coast Guard” replies the recruit in a strong German accent. “Vat are you sinking about?”
OK, this story wasn’t real and came from my favorite language learning ad.
And while I found the ad funny I also thought that picking on the non-native speakers of English from Germany was somewhat unfair. All non-native speakers will speak with an accent unless they undergo a specialized pronunciation training like the one you can find in my Sounds of English section. And most languages don’t have that unvoiced th sound as in thinking. A Russian, Polish or French speaker could have easily made the same mistake.
And now rather than making fun of non-native speakers of English it’s time to help! Check out my list of top pronunciation mistakes made speakers whose first language is German.
English pronunciation mistakes made by German speakers
01 | German speakers replace English TH sounds with z and d
02 | German trilling R sound is a different sound than English R
03 | German speakers replace /w/ sound with /v/
04 | Speakers of German devoice English consonants at the end of the words
05 | German speakers skip dipthongs e.g. as in own
For the German speakers, the English TH sounds are very difficult to pronounce because they don’t exist in their native language. Neither the voiced th sound as in they, nor the unvoiced th sound as in thanks are present in the German language.
Since those sounds don’t exist in their language Germans often use the closest sounds they know well instead. They substitute d for the voiced th sound and z or s for the unvoiced th sound. Unfortunately, substitution makes it difficult for the native speakers of English to properly recognize words and phrases spoken by the German speakers.
Test yourself! Try to say they and day. Then tie and thigh. If they sound very similar – you need to learn a few tricks to get your perfect th sound.”
To make sure you’re able to pronounce the English th sound correctly and not substituting it with other sounds – follow my Ultimate Guide to the English TH Sounds.
Isn’t R just .. R? No, it’s really hard to realise that but there are variations of the R sound. For example the Russian R is much stronger than the American R. And Germany has its very own version of R which is very different then the English R.
The German R sound is often called the trilling R because the tongue strikes the plate a few times in a quick succession. In the IPA Phonetic alphabet the German version of R is denoted by the symbol of the capital R turned upside down (ʁ).
English R on the other hand is produced in a very different way. Here, the tongue doesn’t touch your palate, at all. In the IPA Phonetic alphabet the English R is denoted by the symbol of a small r turned upside down – ɹ (or in some dictionaries by simply r).
Test yourself! Try to say a few simple English words with the R sound e.g room, ready, car. Does your tongue stay in a safe distance from the palate?
Was or was? Was ist das? Was he here? German speakers of English often use their German w sound whenever they see the letter w in English texts. As an example they may pronounce the English word “was” in the exact same way as the German “was”.
And here’s the problem. The English letter w isn’t at all pronounced that way. Interestingly, English has the same sound as the German w – and it is the /v/ sound as in very or never.
Test yourself! Your lower lip touches your upper teeth and you’re lips are closed vs. rounded? That’s German /w/.
Speakers of German need to learn how to pronounce the English /w/ sound because it doesn’t exist in their language. To make the English /w/ sound shape your lips as if you were trying to give a kiss, don’t close them. And touch your palate with the middle part of your tongue.
Devoicing word-final consonants feel very natural to the speakers of German. After all that’s how the German language works. And it just doesn’t work that way in English. Let’s try: if you devoice the word bag – you’ll get back. Road becomes wrote and serve becomes surf. Not good.
As you can see from those examples you will find both voiced and de-voiced word ending in English. How to tell which one to use? Native speakers just know. If you’re not a native speaker you can simply check out the phonetic transcription of the word in a dictionary.
Test yourself! Go ahead, record yourself saying one of those tricky words you shouldn’t de-voice. Then compare with a native speaker recording from your favorite dictionary.
Here’s the final watchout. A few scientific studies showed that speakers of German even when trying not to devoice – wouldn’t voice as clearly as the native speakers. And so make sure you go all the way and use the native speaker recording to see if you’re there.
Many German speakers of English have problems with the dipthong /ou/. Why? As you may have already guessed this sound doesn’t exist in the German language. And so the German speakers tend to use the closest familiar sound from their language – in this case the /oh/ sound. For example: instead of own they would say oo-n.
Test yourself! Say own, over and older. Is the first sound a single sound /oh/ sound or /oh/ becoming /uh/?
If you want to produce a clear /ou/ sound – start with the /oh/ sound but don’t stop there. Instead gradually and continuously switch to the sound /u/. And there you have it!