Zweite Lektion / Second Lesson

Read It, Say It, Hear It

Because our aim is to speak German, not just to read it, we're going to emphasize pronunciation from the start. Nothing will help our progress so much as saying the new words and phrases out loud. Even hearing your own voice will help attune your ear to the sounds and make it easier to understand others.

Also, as you memorize simple phrases, you'll gradually get a sense of word order and sentence structure. Then, as your vocabulary increases, you have some concepts already working for you that you can use with the new words.

As we move ahead, be sure you're confident about the knowledge from the previous page. You'll get chances to use that knowledge later, but the lessons themselves won't be repeated. For instance, it's assumed now that you can count to vierzehn and know how to pronounce the eu diphthong.

More pronunciation principles

Vowel sounds in German are pure; except for the diphthongs, the vowels keep the same sound throughout the syllable. It's almost easier to say what I don't mean than what I do, so let me describe what we want to avoid: Think of the word school. It is a one-syllable word that is really pretty complicated the way most of us say it.

school = skoo-uhl

As in many words, we change the vowel sound as we begin to form our mouths to say the consonant. Say it out loud and listen for that second syllable.

In German, the word really does have two legitimate syllables, but each vowel has only one sound throughout its duration.

die Schule = dee shoo-leh

This one fact, well applied to your speech, will do more than any other to help you drop your American accent. It will take a sharp ear to catch yourself sliding your vowels around, though, because it's so natural to us. Listen carefully as you say the word go? How many distinct sounds does the o get? Probably at least two, and depending on how you count them (and where you grew up), probably one or two in addition to those two . (I used to joke with a South Carolina friend that he used twenty-seven syllables to say water.) Try to say go with one pure vowel sound—the way a German would.

Most consonants have the same sounds as in English.  But sometimes they change sounds, depending on where they are in a word. If there is a change, it's usually toward a softer sound at the beginning of a word and/or a harder one at the end. Huh? What does that mean? Look at the letter S in this short sentence.

Was lesen Sie?  [Vahs lezen zee]
What read you? = What are you reading?

Notice that the S has two different sounds, depending on whether it comes before a vowel (zee sound) or at the end of a word (ess sound). I'd like to break it to you gently, but I maybe should just come out with it: S has another sound when it's at the beginning of a word and is followed by t or p; then it becomes sh. Here is an example sentence with the three different pronunciations of S.

[ich shtricke ...    shahl ...       .....  zechsyehriguh  shvester]
Ich stricke einen Schal für meine sechsjährige Schwester.
I'm knitting a      scarf for   my      six-year-old   sister.

The letter g also has several different sounds. In English you can't always know how to pronounce a g: "Give me a ginger snap,"or worse, "I'll wager that's a lager." Once again, German has rules to help out.

Most important, g is never pronounced like our soft g in ginger.
G is almost always like our hard g, with two exceptions.
At the end of a word, g = k.
      (There's an exception to this exception: -ig = -ich.)
G after N is like the ng in singer, NEVER like the ng in longer. We talked about this in lesson one.
      (There's an exception here too. But later, much later.)

Again, the best way to learn the rule is to learn a sentence.

[ich za-guh den zinger, gooten tahk.]
Ich sage den
Singer, Guten Tag.
I    say  to the singer, good  day.

Consonants are generally pronounced separately. Only examples can make sense of this rule, but here's a good one.

English "thank you" = [thang-k you]
German "Danke" = [dahn-kuh], not [dong-kuh]

Say the hard consonants emphatically. A T is never said like an extra-hard D, nor a P like a hard B.

Bitte = [BIT-teh], not [bid-uh]. Think of someone asking you, "Did you say bidder or bitter?" You would emphasize the T just as it should always be emphasized in German.

The last of the consonants: Here are the only other exceptions to "consonants sound just the way they do in English." Learn these, because this will not be repeated.

j = English y; (You already know this: ja = yah; or think of Carl Jung.)

qu = English kv (Not too many words here, all imports. You can safely forget this.)
(Except Eckehart points out a crucial "qu-" word for shoppers — Qualität.)

v = f (You already knew this from the number 4.)

w = v

That's it!

Pronunciation IS important, but . . .

. . . we could go nuts learning all the rules. For instance: Most of the German vowels can have a short sound or a long sound (much like English). The long U (as in Ruhe, silence) has the sound of our oo as in room. But there is a short U, as in Mutter, pronounced like our u in put. However ...

If we make it to lesson 38, we'll have dealt with all the things that are really important, and we can return to this--which isn't. The fact is, the differences in long and short vowels simply don't add that much to the comprehensibility of your speech. My rule of thumb is: Aim for the long sound, but let yourself fall a little short of the extreme in unaccented syllables, and you'll usually get the sound that's called for. Even more important: listen; use your ears and you'll pick up these nuances.

Please add your comments about this lesson, this page, the Web site, or anything at all you'd like to say (preferably in German!) to me or the rest of the Phamily who stop by here. Your post will become a part of this page.

Ich heiße:

  (My name is:)

Ich möchte sagen:  

  (I want to say:)

Meine addresse:


10. Juni