Whether you're learning German because your job demands it or chose German courses to fulfil a school requirement, you surely know that it takes work, dedication and not getting discouraged when you plateau at a certain level (usually intermediate).

As a language learner myself, I too know that it takes a lot to learn another language, especially a lot of time... which makes me wonder about all of those adverts promising that you can learn a language in a matter of months. Don't you wonder about that, too?

Your Superprof isn't going to guarantee you'll speak German fluently in a matter of months - nobody could guarantee that! However, we do have a few hacks to help you speak German better that we'd like to share.

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Learn What Each Letter Sounds Like

At first glance, the German alphabet looks remarkably similar to the one this article is written in; that's because it is. Furthermore, of the German alphabet's four extra letters, ä, ö, ü and ß, only one of them is completely foreign. So, perhaps it won't be so hard to get the hang of speaking in German... right?

You say 'to-may-to', I say 'to-mah-to'...

The tomato/tomahto debate has spilt into mainstream
How English speakers worldwide pronounce the common name for this fruit proves that not all letters make the same sound. Photo credit: hedera.baltica on Visualhunt

Nothing shows how pronunciation can vary better than that classic tune. Even from one type of English to the next, letters can sound completely different! So, even though all English types have their roots in German, that language's letters will sound vastly different.

Indeed, as a beginner to intermediate German learner, you may find yourself constantly flummoxed by how letters that look the same could sound so different in another language.

The German language makes things a bit easier, though; their letters do not change sounds. Think about the English C, for example. If it's followed by E, I or Y, it makes an S sound but, when followed by A, O or U, it sounds like K. Speaking of vowels...

In German, vowels do not change their sound regardless of what letters come before or after them, nor do they generally create new sounds when paired together - think of English's 'out' or 'boot'.

Of course, there are exceptions to that rule; let's look at them now.

A Pivot to Letter-Pairs

If you know any Deutsch vocabulary whatsoever, it's clear to see that letter-pairs and trios abound. How are they pronounced?

Let's shine the light on just one word, Europe, to show that only specific letter-pairs make. English speakers say 'You're up' (stress on 'you're') but Germans pronounce it 'Oi-ro-pa'.

The 'Eu' vowel pair always sounds like the British 'Oi!', whether it's used to denote a continent or a group of people - as in euch. Note that the 'äu' pair also sounds like Oi!: träumen and aufräumen are two words that use that combination.

Other letter-pairs to know about include:

  • 'ei': sounds like 'eye', found in bei, mein and Eis
  • 'ie': sounds like 'ee', found in Liebe, wie and fliegen
  • 'au': sounds like 'ow', found in Traum, kaufen and aus
  • 'ig': sounds like 'ich' when at the end of words: traurig, lustig, schmutzig.
  • 'ch': sounds the same as in 'Loch', found in machen and sachen
    • note that, if led by another consonant, as in Maschine or Milch, it sounds like the English 'sh'
  • 'sp' and 'st' sound like 'shp/sht' when at the beginning of words: spielen, Straße and stehen
    • beware that, if 'st' is in the middle of the word, it remains 'st'
German and English alphabets are quite similar
The German alphabet is remarkably similar to the English one Photo credit: chrisinplymouth on VisualHunt.com

That's pretty much it for the letter-pairs. There are a few other rules - 'V' sounding like 'F', for example, that you'll likely pick up in your German classes but the rest of the letter sounds are fairly straightforward.

Aren't you happy that the German G is always 'hard' (girl, grass), never 'soft' (giraffe, judge)?

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Learn Where the Stresses Are

Perhaps it's not much of an issue now but, not too long ago, Brits and Americans had a hard time understanding each other simply because they stress their words differently.

Is it 'labratory' or 'laboratry'? Americans stress the first syllable and practically swallow the second one, which is the syllable that British speakers stress. There are plenty of other words that are stressed differently, depending on whether a Brit or American is doing the talking.

No matter which language - even those beyond the different types of English, if you don't stress words properly, it's likely nobody will understand you.

Strangely enough, how to stress individual words is seldom covered in language classes and there are no clear indications of which syllable should be stressed. Perhaps language teachers believe you'll discover syllable stress on your own.

Fortunately, in German, the rule is easy: stress the first syllable. Now, for the curveball: you have to distinguish between separable and inseparable prefixes before you can find the first syllable. Even those are fairly easy to spot; they include 'be-', 'ge-', and 'ver-', among others.

The rule, in full: If the word starts with a separable prefix, stress the root word's first syllable, not the prefix. If the prefix is inseparable, stress the prefix.

Discovering that the German language has a bit of music and rhythm to it - contrary to what all of those naysayers believe, you may find that knowing their syllable stress makes it easier to remember vocabulary.

Break Bigger Words Down

The German language is remarkably precise, with many words that have no direct English translation. Schadenfreude is one renowned example, and if you've ever seen a VW advert, you're surely familiar with Fahrvergnügen, a mashed-together word representing the pleasure of driving.

Indeed, the German language is full of such word mashups. In our German reading comprehension companion article, we pointed out that many of those monster-long words are actually several small words scrunched together. Each word consists of two or more syllables although it's quite common for the stray one-syllable word to get squeezed in.

The longest German word has 80 letters and is made up of nine separate words. By contrast, the longest word in the English language counts a puny 45 letters... but it's all one word, not several mashed together.

How can anyone claim to be fluent in German if they can't say at least a few of these monster-words?

Such words are common in everyday German. To rattle them off fluently, simply break them into their individual words, stress syllables accordingly and, the next time you're chatting with your German friends, you will be able to astound them with how fluently you can say them.

Did you ever think that sentence diagramming would be so useful?
Perhaps all that time we spent diagramming sentences was not useless, after all! Photo credit: The Rachel Maddow Show on VisualHunt.com

Master Sentence Structure

English sentence structure is fairly straightforward: subject-verb-object. If you're asking a question, reverse the subject and verb. Make a few exceptions for compound verbs and independent clauses and you've mastered the art of English syntax. Now, it's time to learn how it's done in German.

Basic sentences follow the same S-V-O pattern: I want milk becomes Ich will Milch. However, if you need to say I bought milk, the structure changes to Ich habe Milch gekauft - the helper verb is conjugated and the action verb comes at the end of the sentence.

You can also change the word order to add emphasis: Milch habe ich gekauft - Milk is what I bought.

There are plenty more syntax rules in German, such as separating compound verbs and putting all the verbs at the end of the subordinate clause. You will learn all of them as you progress through your German language courses, either as targeted lessons or when you write sentences in German.

As you get more practice writing in German, you'll soon find that German syntax will naturally carry over into your speaking.

Start Talking

The idea that speaking German will inevitably make you more fluent in German is both obvious and critical.

Speaking is a skill that, like any other skill, improves the more we use it. Thus, it stands to reason that, if you want to speak German fluently, you should speak German every chance you get.

Should you  not have a native German speaker on standby, you might talk yourself through cleaning your room by describing each step of the process, describing the clothes as you put them away and making your bed in German. Do the same for preparing a meal, going shopping and so on.

As mentioned in the accompanying How to Get More Listening Practice article, technology affords us the chance to make friends with people anywhere in the world. Considering that travel is severely curtailed just now, chatting online with a native German speaker would be your best chance to exercise your speaking (and listening!) skills.

By contrast, some language learners refuse to speak in their target language, either out of shyness or fear that their mistakes would invite ridicule. Perhaps, in a bullying world, that might be true. But not from the language learning community.

Chatting with those community members, you're more likely to find support and encouragement; that population share your goal, after all. Why not take a chance and reach out? Find out for yourself how quickly you can advance under the kind tutelage of a total stranger in another country?

Of course, we're not discounting chatting with a German tutor online. Superprof has hundreds of German tutors, both in Germany and the UK. If you'd rather rely on a brand you trust for fully vetted German speakers with teaching experience, Superprof has a German speaker for you!

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Jess