The German Accent in English

Teaching Correct Pronunciation

Term Paper, 2009
18 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 The contrasts of English and German Phonology
2.1 Is a contrastive approach reasonable in phonology?
2.2 The consonants
2.2.1 Consonants in German
2.2.2 Consonants in English
2.2.3 Consonant contrasts
2.3 The vowels
2.3.1 Vowels in German
2.3.2 Vowels in English
2.3.3 Contrasts

3 German accent
3.1 Sources of error
3.1.1 Unknown sounds
3.1.2 Apparently similar sounds
3.1.3 Overuse of ‘new’ sounds
3.2 Stress, Syllabification and Intonation

4 Teaching pronunciation
4.1 Why is correct pronunciation important?
4.2 Priorities and Compromises
4.3 Youtube and SingStar.: New focuses in teaching

5 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Germans are rude and loud, British people are polite and reserved, Americans are polite and loud. Ah, yes, those cultural clichés again. [...] However, there is a tendency for some German-speakers to sound slightly rude when speaking English. There are two main reasons: first, some German accents sound harsh; second, German tends to be more direct, which sounds less polite to the ears of English-speakers. (McMaster 2002)

An accent almost always makes the conversation partner come to any sort of prejudgement of the speaker. It might sound unpleasant, as in the case of German accents from the view of some English speakers, or can lead to misunderstandings. Therefore, it is important for learners of English as a second language to pay attention to their pronunciation from the beginning.

I will analyse which contrasts between English and German exist and further look into the most common mistakes of learners and misperceptions that lead to a characteristic German accent. We can assume that there are mispronunciations with different degrees of ‘graveness’, depending on the probability to cause misunderstandings. So in the following, I will turn to the question why pronunciation should not be neglected in teaching and what corrections language teachers should give priority to in the teaching of phonology. The chapter on teaching mainly refers to the teaching of German students in secondary schools. The assumptions can however be transferred onto other teaching situations. I will show that the teaching of pronunciation will always have to be adapted to the learners’ individual language environment as this is bound to strongly influence their accent.

2 The contrasts of English and German Phonology

2.1 Is a contrastive approach reasonable in phonology?

While applied contrastive linguistics proved to be of only limited use for the teaching and learning of foreign languages in most linguistic domains, phonology is one of the fields in which the contrastive approach seems more expedient (cf. Kortmann 1998: 137).

On one hand, a comparison of the English and the German sound systems is reasonable seeing as all humans have the same natural ‘preconditions’ for speech. Although trained to produce different sounds in different ways, the vocal organs of all humans are all built the same way, so in a manner of speaking the organs form the independent variable in a comparison of phonemes. As Dretzke (1998: 180) summarizes: “As the speech apparatus is universal in humans, a contrastive approach to phonetic features is extremely useful and reliable.”

There are numerous theories on foreign language teaching and second language acquisition. However, we maintain that there is a high degree of interference between L1 and L2. Second language speakers can be usually be identified by their distinguishable accent, no matter how advanced they might be (cf. Gass, Selinker 2008: 178). Even though a contrastive analysis might not be able to predict all learner errors or explain all details of a German accent I will firstly illustrate the similarities of the German and English phoneme inventories.

2.2 The consonants

2.2.1 Consonants in German

We usually use three parameters to describe consonants: the place of articulation, i.e. with which speech organs a sound is produced; the manner of articulation, i.e. obstruent or sonorant and the vocal fold action, i.e. whether the consonant is voiced or voiceless (cf. Kortmann 2005: 63ff.).

There are symmetrical pairs of voiced and unvoiced plosives in German which can be described by their place of articulation: (bi)labial (/p/, /b/), dental (/t/, /d/) and velar (/k/, /g/). Nasals can only be voiced and are produced in the same place of articulation: /m/ is a labial, /n/ a dental and /ŋ/ is velar sound. Since the opposition bilabial-labiodental is not distinctive in German we can pool consonants which are produced with the lips together as labial. We find German fricatives can be labiodental: the unvoiced /f/ and the corresponding voiced /v/; dental or alveolar: /s/, /z/ and post-alveolar: /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ whereas /ʒ/ is primarily found in French loan words like Jargon, Garage or Gage. The glottal phoneme /h/ presents a special case since the frictional sound is not allocable but a cavity friction, i.e. rather an intensified breath which is articulated in combination with the following phoneme, like in hi, ha, ho. Furthermore, German has the voiceless dorsal (more precisely: palatal and velar) fricatives /ç/, /x/, /χ/. The lateral phoneme /l/ is, with the exception of some regional varieties, not retracted in German. The phoneme /j/ can be described as an unrounded front semivowel or glide. Depending on regional dialects and position, German has various allophones for the phoneme / r / which often causes difficulties for non-native speaker. However, since the focus of this paper will deal with the perspective of German learners of English we can simplify that in High German /r/ is realized as a uvular trill [ʀ], while in common speech, if not vocalised (leer à[le:ɐ]), it is most frequently a vibrant or fricative (rot à[ʁo:t]). (cf. Kufner 1971: 28-31)

According to König/Gast (2007: 12f.) affricates can be listed as a separate category of consonants. The labial affricate /pf/ and the alveolar /ts/ are the result of the High German sound shift; the post-alveolar /tʃ/ usually occurs in a syllable-final position, e.g. deutsch, Rutsch, but also at the beginning of a word, like in tsch ü ss. The voiced equivalent /dʒ/ only exists in loan words that originate from English, e.g. Jazz, Jogging.

2.2.2 Consonants in English

The consonant inventory of English shows many similarities with the German one. They share the same plosive and nasals /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /g/ and /m/, /n/, /ŋ/. Except for some exceptions in Scottish pronunciation, there are no dorsal fricatives. Like in German, we find the labio-dental /f/ and /v/ and the (post-)alveolar fricatives /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/. The sound /ʒ/ is not only a “‘loan phoneme’” (König/ Gast 2007: 11) in English, but is also found in words like usual (à [ju:ʒʊəl]). In loan words like garage, /ʒ/ is often replaced by a postalveolar affricate (à[gærɪdʒ]). In addition, English has dental fricatives: the voiceless /θ/ and the voiced /ð/. (cf. König/ Gast 2007: 10ff.) A combination of the phonemes /t/ and /s/ does only take place between bound morphemes and therefore is not classified as an affricate. Yet, we find the pair of alveolar affricates /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ in the English language. The lateral phoneme /l/ is velarized in English. There are several glides in English: palatal /j/, which we know from German, bilabial /w/ and /r/, which as stated by König/ Gast (2007: 13) “is best described as an apico-postalveolar approximant, represented phonetically as [ɹ]” (RP) or as lamino-postalveolar [ɻ] (GA).


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The German Accent in English
Teaching Correct Pronunciation
University of Freiburg
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german, accent, english, teaching, correct, pronunciation
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Clara S. (Author), 2009, The German Accent in English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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