Picking the Right German Accent for You
Most everybody who wants to learn a new language has “a good accent” as one of their goals. But it turns out that no matter where you go in the world, this is a slippery definition. Should an English learner sound like they come from Chicago or Johannesburg? If you study Vietnamese, should you pick the six tones of Hanoi or the five of Ho Chi Minh City? German learners are hardly exempt from this problem.
In today’s article, I’ll introduce some of the major accents in the German-speaking world, show you how they differ, and finally give you a few of my best tricks for nailing pronunciation.
Where do they speak German?
Well, Germany, for one. But let’s not forget Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, and South Tyrol. Not to mention the actually quite astonishing number of municipalities around Europe where German is recognized as a minority language. And lastly, there are many hundreds of thousands of people who grow up speaking German in Africa and South America.
So despite the existence of a Standard German promoted by the German government, the German language is hardly limited to one variety. Even under the DACH of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, there’s a whole tapestry of German accents and dialects to discover. Let’s take a closer look.
In Switzerland, everybody is educated in standard German, also known as High German. The Swiss standard has a few very small differences in vocabulary compared to the German standard, and they also do away with the letter ß – preferring a doubled s. They also often roll their Rs, which you won’t find people doing in Berlin. But although everyone can speak and understand High German, among Swiss people you’ll usually hear Swiss German. This is another thing entirely.
Swiss German is only partially mutually intelligible with High German, and when written out it seems like an entirely different language. People at all levels of society use Swiss German, so you can hear it all the way from the boardroom to the farmer’s market. In addition, there are many different dialects of Swiss German spread out around the country. Foreigners tend to find Swiss German difficult to pick up because of relatively few learning materials, however, with enough practice and a solid knowledge of High German you can speak with the Swiss in their own language as well.
In Austria, there is again a government standard as well as a series of local dialects. And just like with Switzerland, there are a few small quirks of vocabulary. For instance, since the two governments developed independently, Austrian German legal vocabulary has quite a few terms not found in German legal dictionaries. The Viennese dialect is one of the most recognizable Austrian dialects, but a traveler going the length of the country might notice that the dialects practically follow state lines.
Lastly, German as spoken in Germany is far from homogeneous. They say that the standard comes from somewhere around Hamburg, but each city has a distinctive accent and native speakers can almost always tell where someone comes from. Some of the regional dialects are just as divergent as Swiss German, and Low Saxon has already been recognized as a minority language separate from High German.
So: You’ve got your job offer in hand from a Swiss bank, or your acceptance letter to a German university, or your ticket to a resort in the Austrian Alps. How can you perfect your German accent so that you really blend in once you arrive?
Step one: Listen
If you haven’t been doing it already, get your hands on some native material in the German accent you want to learn. You can’t put on an accent that you’ve never heard. YouTube is an amazing resource for this of course, but you can also get a little more creative. Many European TV stations put their broadcasts online, not to mention the scores of internet radio stations from all over the German-speaking world.
Not only should you aim to consume a lot of media from the area you’re interested in, you can also intensively listen to one speaker and really burn their speech patterns into your mind. Download a short segment from one of these sources and play it on repeat while you do a mindless task like cleaning. You’ll find that after you take out your headphones, the words are still ringing in your ears with exactly the same rhythm and intonation of the native speaker. As a bonus, you’d be surprised what you can understand just from listening to difficult material over and over. It’s more than you’d think!
Step 2: Record and Refine
I mentioned this in my German Pronunciation article, but it’s a really good tip that goes ignored too often. Almost every phone and computer these days has a great built-in microphone, and you probably keep it by your side all day without ever using it. Once you’ve listened to lots of your target language material, you actually become quite good at recognizing a “foreign accent” in German. Without ever studying complicated phonetics, you can develop a sharp ear for what a native should sound like.
That means that if you record yourself speaking German and play it back, you’ll recognize all too well what the mistakes are. Most of us hate listening to ourselves! But it really can be an amazing tool for self-correction. A native tutor won’t want to interrupt you every time you make a small mistake, but when you listen to yourself they’ll be painfully clear. Try isolating a tiny fragment of native speech and recording yourself over and over until you’re satisfied. It’ll be a lot easier to match a few seconds of native speech at the beginning, and then you can move on to short sentences and connected thoughts. Remember, native speakers blend words together all the time, so focus on what you actually hear instead of any written text or transcription.
You can read dozens of articles about pronunciation, or you can switch on the microphone and start improving right now. So take the next step to mastering your German accent today!
Alex Thomas started seriously studying languages five years ago and will never stop. He has visited Germany more than any other foreign country and makes it a point to never use English while there.
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