أنا أتكلم الألمانية … Problems with pronunciation?

For the second article in a series Babbel explores pronunciation and clear communication.

This article is the second in a series of guides and suggestions for German classes with refugees — by Babbel. The articles introduce useful teaching methods regardless of prior pedagogical experience. Here, we summarize the experiences we’ve gained as part of our workshop for volunteer German teachers. The workshops are organized by Babbel language learning experts.


As anyone who’s learned a new language knows, correctly pronouncing new words can be difficult, especially when the language has different characters. And unfortunately, it’s not enough to learn a language’s script — if we want to make ourselves understood, then proper pronunciation is crucial.

Why, exactly? When we pronounce things incorrectly, communication isn’t possible, as the person we’re talking to simply can’t understand what we’re saying. At the same time, it should be remembered that pronunciation only has to be improved when the meaning of a word is altered, or the word is made incomprehensible. If pronunciation is different from normal but remains understandable, then it’s hard to criticize it. Clear pronunciation is a precondition for effective communication in a foreign language. For this reason, pronunciation exercises should be a part of language courses.

Because pronunciation training isn’t something that should be missed out on during language learning, this article is devoted to the subject. In the process, we’ve addressed the issue of what pronunciation exactly is, how pronunciation exercises could be integrated into classes and what tips and tricks there are for pronunciation lessons.


What does pronunciation mean exactly?

A prime example of how words can be pronounced differently is the way most Austrians and Bavarians pronounce the word “Eichkätzchenschweif”: Oachkatzlschwoaf! Admittedly, that’s a slightly extreme example of the difference between written and spoken language, but how does it happen that someone can read “Eichkätzchenschweif“ and say “Oachkatzlschwoaf?“ How can a word’s pronunciation become so estranged from how it’s written? Dialects affect not only the sound of a word (phonology) and its form (morphology), but also vocabulary (lexicon), sentence construction (syntax) and use of idiom.

Pronunciation is influenced by the correct stress, accentuation, intonation, rhythm, pauses, sounds, letters and syllables.

Therefore, pronunciation is how words sound in spoken language as opposed to their orthography.

No script asligns completely to its pronunciation. When learning a foreign language, the International Phonetic Alphabet can be useful. It’s particularly interesting for teachers because it shows the differences in pronunciation in written form and can clarify these differences for students. Even if someone can read a language’s written form, this is no guarantee that they can correctly formulate what they’ve read with the right sounds. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) clearly illustrates how what’s written should be spoken. Although IPA is very useful, a lot of people don’t know how to use it. IPA is a system which standardizes spoken language and is found in dictionaries (it appears in brackets after every word). Using IPA, one can pronounce a word correctly whether or not they’ve ever heard it. In our workshops, we made sure that refugees could use IPA to connect and distinguish sounds in German to sounds in their own languages.

Pronunciation exercises: a warm-up for lessons

In sport, training without warming up is dangerous, and warm-up exercises are often a precondition for a good result. It’s the same with lessons. Pronunciation exercises can be particularly effective as a warm-up exercise at the beginning of a lesson or even as a break between teaching blocks. However, a whole lesson shouldn’t be spent on the subject. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, pronunciation exercises are very demanding. Someone can learn the “theory” – the correct articulation of a sound – through an exercise alone, but it takes time to internalize it and make it sound natural. Whether someone can articulate a sound correctly isn’t dependent on the length of time spent on an exercise, but it is dependent on whether they repeat exercises regularly and often enough.

Students react differently to pronunciation exercises. Most students are a bit shy. Here, it’s important to include everyone and try to encourage them to learn. So that this is successful, it’s a good idea to do the exercises altogether first. This creates a great group dynamic and avoids making single students feel exposed and embarrassed. If one student is seen to be finding the exercise particularly difficult, then it’s better to speak to them about it in private after the lesson.

As previously mentioned, regular repetition is the most important thing for correct pronunciation. Therefore, it shouldn’t be expected that carrying out an exercise once is enough. Teachers should also make sure that they don’t correct too harshly, as this could damage the student’s confidence. During pronunciation exercises, too much emphasis should not be put on corrections, but rather rules of pronunciation should be explained and students should be encouraged to think critically and consciously about their pronunciation.

Pronunciation and grammar require different skills and are therefore taught and practiced differently. Learning vocabulary primarily trains the memory, while pronunciation exercises promote the ability to articulate different sounds, which doesn’t challenge the brain so much as the muscles in the mouth area.
During exercises, it’s important not only for the teachers, but also students, not to confuse correct pronunciation with accent-free pronunciation. Completely accent-free pronunciation can only be achieved by the very few and isn’t necessary to be understood in a foreign language; students can express complex concepts fluently and still have an accent. Before each exercise and correction, it’s important to ask oneself, as a teacher, whether it’s completely necessary. Of course, a lot of students would like to improve even though their pronunciation is already acceptable. This should be supported, but at the same time it should be made clear what’s essential and what’s just an extra exercise. This is important so those who aren’t as advanced don’t think their pronunciation isn’t good enough.

Practice makes perfect

Correct pronunciation can be learnt in different ways and with different kinds of exercises. In German, vowels, consonants, compound nouns and the pronunciation of “ch” and “sch” prove particularly problematic. Here are several ideas how pronunciation exercises can be integrated into lessons and are best explained actively with gestures and facial expressions.


German isn’t the only language that differentiates between short and long vowels.


The “i” in “bitte” is short. Many who learn German say “bieeeeette” at the beginning and make the “i” long even though it should be short.

Teaching method:

Through visualization, the teacher can show students whether the vowels in a word are pronounced long or short. With the “i” in “bitte,” for instance, the teacher shows the short, sharp pronunciation of the “i” with their hands, rather than a sweeping motion to indicating long vowels.


Example: “ch” after “a, o, u”
Pronunciation: “ch” is pronounced like an [χ] after an a, o, or u , like in “Dach, doch, Buch”

Very long words or syllables:

German is famous for its compound nouns which can get really long at times. See, for example: Grundstücksverkehrsgenehmigungszuständigkeitsübertragungsverordnung. Admittedly, it’s rare to find compound nouns as long as the above example. Nevertheless, correct pronunciation is particularly important so that when these nouns do come up they are still comprehensible. There’s a trick for this:



Teaching method:

Syllables can be pronounced correctly by separating them, starting with the last syllable and going backwards, ensuring words are automatically pronounced correctly.
This can be done either alone or together in a group. “Staatsangehörigkeit”:

  • keit
  • igkeit
  • hörigkeit
  • gehörigkeit
  • angehörigkeit
  • Staatsangehörigkeit


Another fun way to practise correct intonation in lessons is shouting. If, for example, a student shouts the word “sofa” across the room, then the emphasis is automatically put on the “o,” as with “computer” and the “u.”


Awareness of intonation can lead to better communication because the intonation of a language like Arabic, for instance, is different than in German. German is described by people from outside Germany as monotonous. If, for instance, a person whose mother tongue is Portuguese or Spanish speaks German, then they will mostly use the intonation of their own language.
If the example exercises here have piqued your interest, and you’re interested in pronunciation exercises for language lessons with refugees, then you are warmly invited to our workshops. (More information at presse@babbel.com.) Here, we go into detail about the difference between German and Arabic phonetics/pronunciation (among other things); which role pronunciation has in learning grammar and vocabulary; and which exercises are particularly good for learning a language.
Have you already tried pronunciation exercises in lessons? We’d love to hear from you! Share your experiences with us below!

Problems with pronunciation? Try Babbel Live

We know you’re probably tired of hearing it, but practice really does make perfect when it comes to overcoming problems with pronunciation. Thankfully, there’s an at-home option for it that doesn’t involve speaking to yourself in the mirror. With Babbel Live, you can improve your pronunciation and conversation skills with up to six peers in live, online tutoring classes led by an expert teacher.

Alina Wagner

Alina is PR Manager at Babbel. She studied political science and communications — with a focus on development policy in Latin America — in Berlin, Buenos Aires and São Paulo. She is fluent in Spanish, English, German and Portuguese. Apart from languages, seeing the world, and getting to know people and their stories, her interests include equality, philosophy, dancing and singing. Alina lives in Berlin.

Alina is PR Manager at Babbel. She studied political science and communications — with a focus on development policy in Latin America — in Berlin, Buenos Aires and São Paulo. She is fluent in Spanish, English, German and Portuguese. Apart from languages, seeing the world, and getting to know people and their stories, her interests include equality, philosophy, dancing and singing. Alina lives in Berlin.