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Which Difficulties Do German Have Learners with the Phonetics of English?

Which Difficulties Do German Have Learners with the Phonetics of English? | ITTT | TEFL Blog

In this essay, I will deal with the pronunciation difficulties of German learners of English. In particular, I will treat some issues at the segmental level.

Although both English and German are Germanic languages, the sound inventories of these two languages are quite different, especially the vowels. In the following table, the sounds are listed which exist only in one but not in the other language:

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Gisella F. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

English German

Consonants Consonants/θ/, /ð/ tʃ/, /dʒ/ /w/ /x/ /ҫ/

Vowels VowelsMonophthongs Monophthongs/y, yː//eː/, /ø, øː/ /oː//ɜ/ /ɔ//ʌ/ /ɐ//ӕ/ /ɑː/,/ɒ/ /a, aː/

Diphthongs Diphthongs/ei/ /əu//ɔi/ /ɔy//iə/ /ɜə/ /uə/

The consonant inventories are quite similar. Only a few consonants are not existent in the other language, like the English consonants /θ/, /ð/, /tʃ/, /dʒ/ and /w/, which can cause certain difficulties for the German learners.

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German vowel inventory shows 17 vowels and 3 diphthongs. Like all Germanic languages, German has a rich vowel inventory, especially front, and central vowels. English has more back vowels. Depending on the variety, English has between 11 (GA) and 12 (RP) vowels and 5 (GA) bis 8 (RP) diphthongs (Hall 2003: 107). Moreover, German has more (8) rounded vowels than English (3-4) (König/Gast 2012: 24).

Besides these differences in the sound inventories, there are important phonetic differences between English and German in the realization of phonological similar consonants summarized in the following table (König/Gast 2012: 17):

Type of consonant process E Gvoiced obstruent final devoicing NO YESvoiceless plosive aspiration of word-final vol. plosives NO YESlack of release of word-final vol. plosives OFTEN NOglottalization of syllable-final vol. plosives OFTEN NOlateral velarization of syllable-final /l/ YES NOvelar nasal [ŋg] within morphemes YES NO[ŋg] before vowels other than schwa NO YES

different flags

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I will discuss only the final devoicing in this essay

In second language (L2) acquisition, L2-learners tend to use sounds of their first (L1-)language in the L2. In linguistics, this strategy is called 'transfer', i.e. the fact the speakers of a language can transfer features of their L1 language when learning a second language. The transfer can be positive or negative. German and English, for example, have both phonemic distinctions in vowel length (English bit: beat, German bitten: bieten). In this way, German learners have no difficulty to produce the distinction in vowel length, differently from learners with other L1s who don't perceive this distinction - like Italians or Poles.

Negative transfer (or interference) happens when some structural features from the L1 are the source of features which are transferred but which are not grammatical in L2. However, not every error in the second language is due to negative transfer.

One type of interference is called 'substitution'. This refers to the usage of elements that are already acquired in L1 for elements that are not yet present in the L2. For example, English learners of German use [k] instead of [x] as in Buch [bu:k] for [bu:x]. Similarly, German learners of English tend to produce mid-front [ɛ] instead of the low front vowel [æ], especially in English loanwords as in manager ['mɛnɛtʃər]. This is a possible correct pronunciation in German, but not in English. The substitution of the vowel [æ] through [ɛ] leads in minimal pairs - like in the following pairs - to severe mergers of words (Hickey 2014: 2):bad [bæd] - bed [bɛd]bat [bæt] - bet [bɛt]latter [lætər] - letter [lɛtər]

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Way to pronounce

In German, some speakers tend to produce e more closed. In this way, there is a real tendency of [ɛ] in German to become [e], like in the word Mädchen 'girl' which instead of [mɛ:tҫən] is realized as [me:tҫən] from some speakers (Kohler 121: 172). This tendency in the L1 German seems to be transferred also to the L2 since German speakers generally have great difficulty in producing the much more open [æ] correctly. Moreover, they are often unable to distinguish [æ] from [ɛ]: man [mæn] vs. men [mɛn], bat [bæt] vs. bet [bɛt]. Since German learners know that there is a vowel distinction between singular man and plural men, they replace the English vowels through vowels from the German inventory: man [mɛn] and men [mın].

A further transfer takes place with the so-called final devoicing, which is in German obligatory. In the final position, voiced plosives must be realized voiceless, e.g. Bad 'bath' [ba:t]. Therefore, there are in German no distinctive minimal pairs: Bad - bat as both words are pronounced in the same way [ba:t].Since in English final devoicing doesn't exist, the transfer of final devoicing into English leads again to the neutralization of some minimal pairs:pup [pʌp] - pub [pʌb]debt [dɛt] - dead [dɛd]dock [dɒk] - dog [dɒg]life [laıf] - live [laıv]

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A further type of transfer concerns a principle of pronunciation in German, which is transferred to English. In English, an s after a sonorant – /n, l, r/ – is normally pronounced voiceless: pulse, tense, curse all have [s] at the end. The s is produced voiced only with place names like Kensington, Swansea, and words like parse, the version with some speakers. German, on the other side, has exactly the opposite rule: [z] is the normal realization with the only exception in a final position where final devoicing takes place. This means that German speakers tend to pronounce a word like a conversation as [kɒnvəɹzeiʃən] rather than [kɒnvəɹseiʃən].

Transfer happens also in the field of phonotactics, i.e. the position and sequence of sounds in words. In German, the sound sequence [tʃ] can only be realized in word-medial or word-final position, as in Deutschen [tʃ] or Klatsch [tʃ]. Native words don't show this complex sound. When producing English words which have [tʃ] word-initially as e.g. chips [tʃ], German speakers tend to simplify the [tʃ] sequence to [ʃ], producing the word ships, which of course has another meaning.

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Several transference phenomena take place at the suprasegmental level. For the reason of the place, I couldn't pay any attention to them here.

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