So you’ve finally learned German, and probably spent years learning all of the erratic grammatical rules, genders, and adjective endings. But Germans still won’t take you seriously because you sound like this:
Yes, this is a problem many of us know well. Even after you’ve learned German and even summoned up enough courage to speak, you identify yourself as American immediately upon opening your mouth! And, as we know, in Germany (the west, at least), indicating that you are American is a sure way to get Germans to never talk to you in German, in favor of showing off their always-superior English. But how to get rid of the accent?
I won’t pretend that I have no remaining American accent. But, 3 years ago in Freiburg, I would introduce myself to someone in German and helpfully explain, “I’m from the USA,” and they would say, “Yes, I could tell.” Whereas this year, I was once on the tram speaking German with a few friends, and a stranger, having inquired about where we were from, told me he could only distinguish me as foreign because of my R’s. So I think I’ve come a long way. And I think that if I had put a concentrated effort into getting rid of the accent, I could have done it better and faster. So here are a few tips, which I think may apply to languages besides German, but how would I know?
1. Know your phonetics. This is obvious, and if you’ve been studying German for a while, you’ve probably got it down… but it doesn’t hurt to review! One effective and convenient tactic I’ve used for reinforcing the exact sounds of vowels, letter combinations, and words is to listen carefully to the pre-recorded announcements on public transportation (e.g. “Nächste Haltestelle, Hauptbahnhof!). They are all perfectly pronounced, and you’ll probably hear them so often that the sounds will be burned into your brain.
2. Spend time talking to and listening to native speakers. Preferably native speakers who speak conversational, but not overly slangy, German, and preferably not a strong dialect. Luckily, most college-aged people fit these criteria. (In many places, older people generally speak dialect and this will probably lead either to confusion or to you picking up the dialect!) What you want to do is to get an idea of how people really talk, and to pick up some useful phrases and pronunciations that are commonly used but are probably not in standard textbooks.
Native speakers’ everyday speech is generally less crystal clear than “textbook” German (z.B. saying something closer to “ham” or “hab’n” than “haben”), and far fewer end consonants are voiced in German than in English. This is the kind of thing you learn and grow accustomed to by listening to real, live Germans! And, of course, these relationships will give you a chance to practice your speaking skills.
3. Fake it ’til you make it. I was always petrified to talk in German class because I knew I was pronouncing things wrong… especially those damn R’s. It did not help that my German name in German 1 was “Britta”… I couldn’t even pronounce my own name correctly (and I picked it!!). At some point in college, where our professors expected us to speak a lot more in class, I knew I just had to do it… approximate the R sound the best that I could and hope that people would buy it. At the time, this led to my R’s sounding a lot like L’s… but at least I was saying the words!
Over the years, the sound has gotten easier, more natural, and closer to what it should really sound like. There are still some words heavy on R and CH that I may never say with full Germanity*, but I’ve come a long way since the days of my botched German name freshman year of high school. (Vis: I used to exclusively introduce myself as being from “den USA” because that avoided the R sound in “Amerika.” But now, I am more or less comfortable with either, although “die USA” is more geographically accurate.)
4. Sing! One of the best things I have done to improve my German accent is to sing in German on a regular basis! In case you didn’t have enough reasons to go to church while abroad… here’s another one! German hymns are perfect for practicing your German pronunciations. They contain a variety of important and common words and sounds; they are often repetitive so you can reinforce correct pronunciations; and because singing is much more deliberately metered than speaking, your pronunciations will be careful and intentional.
Because an entire congregation is singing along with you, it is a safe environment: no one will be able to hear you experimenting with different pronunciations or making mistakes along the way. Plus, you’ll be able to hear everyone else singing the same words, so you’ll know if you’re doing something vastly wrong! I have been able to overcome a lot of insecurities about my German accent by singing the hymns and participating in Mass responses every week. As a bonus, German hymns are incredibly beautiful and I’m glad I’ve gotten to learn some of them! (Here is one of my favorites from the Christmas season, and this one is a German translation of Adoro te devote by St. Thomas Aquinas.)
5. Repetition, repetition, repetition. This all takes patience and lots of practice. A fellow DAAD scholarship holder I met in Braunschweig told us that, after being made fun of for his American accent, he would spend hours in his room practicing. Apparently he practiced the infamous guttural R sound so much that he gave himself a sore throat! But it appears to have paid off because his accent is impeccable. Don’t give up hope… if you are really motivated to improve your German accent, you can make it happen!
And here’s another Ben & Jerry’s commercial, because they’re fun!
*This is a made up word, obviously, but I guess making up your own words goes along with the spirit of “Fake it ’til you make it.”