German is on the tip of your tongue

22 March 2017
door Regina Coeli

“Ein alter Affe auf einem Apfelbaum aß einen Apfel auf.“ This is a simple German sentence that many Dutch people have problems getting their tongues around. The reason is that German articulation is completely different to that of Dutch. “If you want to speak German properly, you have to realise that you won’t be able to, if your pronunciation is Dutch.”

So says Dorothea Alkema, a German language trainer working at Regina Coeli. For the past ten years she has been looking into German language pronunciation and the specific problems that Dutch speakers have with it. Furthermore, she puts her expertise into practice in the classroom.

Pronunciation is all about the rhythm, the melody and the sound of the language

“I have discovered that pronunciation exercises are good for learning a language. Pronunciation is all about rhythm, melody and sound. As you are doing these specific exercises, your whole body completely relaxes. That is why the exercises are particularly good for course members who learn intuitively or who have a musical ear. They are also good for learners with a high passive level in the language but not enough confidence to communicate easily in German. The exercises I do with my course members are lighthearted but the thinking behind them is certainly not. I have read and learned a lot about differences in pronunciation between languages and how pronunciation can be improved.”

According to Dorothea, the most significant differences in pronunciation between German and Dutch can be summarised as follows:

1. German is articulated clearly
“When a Dutch speaker says ‘Kweenie’, you can’t hear when one word ends and the next begins. In German that’s unthinkable. Even within a single word, the vowel sounds are clearly separated from one another. Take the word ‘Theater’ , for example. A German speaker would say ‘The-aa-ter’. A Dutch speaker would say something more like ‘Thee-jaa-ter’.”

Other examples where there is short pause before between syllables are:

  • Ver | ein
  • Über | all
  • Be | achten
  • Ver | antwortlich

2. Articulation is at the front of the mouth
“German uses the front of the mouth for articulation. Take the word ‘bal’. The English word ‘ball’ is pronounced towards the back of the mouth whereas the German ‘Ball’ is pronounced right at the front of the mouth with the tip of the tongue immediately behind the front teeth.”

3. Word stress does not shift
“In German, the stress is usually placed at the beginning of the word. What is even more important to realise, is that the point of stress then stays the same, whatever the word formation. In Dutch, the point of stress shifts depending on the word formation. For example, wanhoop (noun) – wanhopig (adjective).” 

4. Pronunciation of p, t and k
“P, t and k are breathed consonants in German. Hold your hand ten centimeters in front of your mouth, say one of the consonants and feel the breath on your hand. Or hold a piece of paper the size of an A4 in front of your mouth. If you pronounce the ‘t’ in Dutch, the piece of paper won’t move. In German, it should move.”

Tips to improve your German pronunciation

  • Before you enter into a discussion in German, say a sentence in German to get yourself into the right language mood. Good examples are:
    o Das Ei esse ich aber immer erst am Ende.
    o Ob er aber über Unterammergau oder aber über Oberammergau oder aber überhaupt nicht kommt ist ungewiss.
    o Ein alter Affe auf einem Apfelbaum aß einen Apfel auf.
  • Read out loud to practise the pronunciation, melody and rhythm of the German language.
  • Sing along with German music on Youtube.


Dorothea Alkema studied German Language and Literature at the Universities of Marburg and Hamburg and Cultural History at the International University of Florence. In Germany she collaborated on a dictionary devoted to the works of Goethe. When she moved to the Netherlands, she taught German. During her teaching career at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, she became interested in pronunciation and that interest has remained with her to the present day.

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