Paul's Blog

Native Languages Guide: German

If you are a native German speaker, you've probably already had one word in particular come to mind when you think of difficult English words to pronounce: squirrel.

An article published on had this explanation:

      Linguists break words into clusters — groups of consonants that have no intervening vowels. In German, "-rl" is an end cluster, Gussenhoven explained. It comes at the end of a syllable, as in the common German name Karl, rather than forming a syllable of its own. Thus German speakers try to translate the two-syllable English word "squirrel" into the monosyllabic German sound "skwörl " in the same way that "squirm" becomes "skwörm." 
But that doesn't sound quite right, and Germans know it. "Dissatisfied with this result, the German speaker tries to produce a real 'R,' of the sort you get in (Rock 'n) Roll, in the end cluster, wreaking havoc," Gussenhoven told Life's Little Mysteries.
      He outlined the steps a German should take to pronounce "squirrel," and boy, does it sound like no fun.  
      "The solution is to say skwö first and then Roll. If the speaker then also manages to avoid saying (1) sh for [s] and (2) [v] for [w], and uses the vowel in the first syllable of getan  [German for 'done']  instead of (3)ö in the first syllable and instead of (4) o in the second syllable, and (5) makes the r like the English r and (6) the l like the 'dark' l of English, the result will be quite acceptable," he wrote in an email.
     No wonder it's so difficult for Germans to nail the English name. Gussenhoven said "squirrel" is a shibboleth, a word notorious for the way its pronunciation identifies its speaker as a foreigner.


Let's take a closer look at some other issues that trip them up.

Some of the general problems with German's English pronunciation are, Germans tend to confuse the /s/ and the /z/ sound as in the words husband, always, chose, design.

Several words which Germans seem to also pronounce the same are the pairs:

pass and path

seem and theme

all so and although

Understandably, Germans often confuse the /v/ sound in English with the /w/ sound, since w's are pronounced as v's in the German language.

So typically, wine is pronounced vine or very well is said as very vell.

Some of the most pronounced difficulties are with the /R/ sound and /æ/.

When the /r/ appears at the end of a word or before another consonant, it is exceptionally difficult for Germans, as you saw in the pervious video clip.

One tip that will help you Germans pronounce English words correctly is to make certain you pronounce the /r/ sound at the end of words.

For example: If you say mo instead of more

If you only say fa instead of far and most difficult to understand ha instead of her.

The æ sound is a little more difficult to notice, understand and pronounce. To see if you have difficulty with this sound, a test sound be to pronounce the word bad. Did it sound like bed? Another is to pronounce the word sand. Did it sound like send?

Then you have a problem saying /æ/.

Here are a few more practice words: flash and flesh

man and men, Texas and taxessalary and celery

Are you a native German speaker? What words do you have difficulty with?

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