Monday, 3 August 2015

Phonetic difficulties of German EFL learners - pt. 1

I plan to write several blogs on some phonetic differences between German and English and the problems arising from them for German learners, though in no particular order and certainly not exhaustive.

Today's blog first deals with the question: "Which English is to be compared with which German?" Looking back on my thirty or so years of teaching English phonetics and pronunciation at a German university the overwhelming majority of my (almost 2000) students were native speakers of German.
What kind of English should they acquire and what sort of German do they speak? The answers determine the results of the comparisons, and they determine, of course, the patterns learners should aim for.

Among the many variants of English spoken by native speakers two are usually taught at German schools and universities - General British (aka RP) and General American (and - if I'm being nasty - Denglish as a third variant). Textbooks and reference books describe and illustrate at least one of these accents, and school curricula stipulate one of them. As for German variants used by native speakers of German there's also a wide variety of accents, one of them being the codified or reference accent called "Standardlautung" by DUDEN1. This reference accent displays no regional features, is socially unmarked and preferably used in more formal situations.

I will restrict my comparisons to General British (= GB) and German "Standardlautung" (which I prefer to call 'German reference accent' or GRA for short). None of these reference accents can be delimited with great exactness, but when it comes to learning GB as a language in addition to German as one's mother tongue, it's much more important to look for problems and traps.

Next I'd like to draw your attention to pitfalls in the area of spelling. Does spelling cause any interferences? The answer is 'yes'.
We are all too familiar with the inconsistent reflection of pronunciation in spelling. Here are a few examples.
German /yː/ as in Krümel, wühlen, Thymian, Juist, Avenue.
German /v/ as in Suite, Wahl, Vase.
German /ʃ/ as in Busch, Prosciutto2, Chassis, Ski.
German /k/ as in Ochse, Hecke, König, Okklusiv, Quai.
English /eɪ/ as in great, veil, gauge, face, rain, bay.
English /ɔː/ as in law, author, ball, board, door, four, hawk.
English /ʃ/ as in machine, shine, sugar, fascism, schedule, aggression, special.
English /v/ as in very, Stephen, savvy, of.
These inconsistencies make it impossible to guess the pronunciation of a word by simply staring at its spelling.

Native speakers of German intuitively know that initial <w> is always /v/ and that initial <v> is either /v/ or /f/. When they come across English words with an initial <w>, some will automatically associate it with the German letter-sound relation and pronounce it as /v/ or by confusion pronounce English <v> as /w/.

Then we have interlanguage homographs (at least if you ignore capitalisation), eg. G,E<wild> with E/waɪld/ and G/vilt/ or G,E<tag, mine, will, wind, wolf, warm, ...>. Some learners may assume the pronunciation of the English words is identical with the German way of pronouncing them.

Nor must we forget English words that entered the German lexicon and were adapted to the German sound system in some way or other. Here are a few examples:

German pron English pron
family /'fɛmili/ /'fæmli/
laptop /'lɛptɔp/ /'læptɒp/
cash /kɛʃ/ /kæʃ/
camping /'kɛmpiŋ/ /'kæmpɪŋ/
attachment /ə'tɛʧmɛnt/ /ə'tæʧmənt/
job /ʧɔp/ /ʤɒb/
single /'siŋl/ /sɪŋgl/
story /'ʃtɔʁi/ /'stɔːrɪ/
homepage /'hoːmpeːʧ/ /'həʊmpeɪʤ/
action /'ɛktʃn/ /'ækʃn/

It's completely normal to use the Germanised pronunciation of these loans in a German context; you  sound fairly la-di-da, if instead of saying /mainə fɛmili maxt ʃtʁɛs/ you pronounce the sentence like this: /mainə fæmli maxt stres/. If the wind stands fair, an incorrect pronunciation will not cause any misunderstanding, but ... A safe way to avoid spelling ambiguities is /trænskrɪpʃən/. And this means you have to learn to shift your attention away from what is said to how something is said, which is no easy task.

1Duden Aussprachewörterbuch (2000:34f.)
2Prosciutto, though being an Italian loanword, is frequently used by Germans.


  1. I was a bit surprised by /ˈsiŋl/. I would have expected /ˈziŋl/.

  2. My Duden "Aussprachewörterbuch" (2005) has /ˈzɪŋl̩/ (p. 728); De Gruyter's "Deutsches Aussprachewörterbuch" (2010) gives both /sˈɪŋɡl̩/ and /sˈɪŋl̩/ (p. 930).

    1. ˈzɪŋl̩ is decidedly uneducated, sˈɪŋɡl̩ markedly affected, especially if pronounced with a dark l.

  3. The reason why I regularly hear 'single' pronounced with a voiceless /s/ is probably due to the fact that in the area of accents where I live and teach word-initial /z/ is a rarity.