German and English

German-speaking friends are visiting us. Their vocabularies, cultural knowledge, and structural command of English are impressive, and we speak together fluently.

This afternoon we worked on the little bit of accent that remains in my friend’s English speech.  It involves voicing the “g” of “German” or of “joy,” and getting used to pronouncing “th.”  The voiced “g” and the “th” are not only nonexistent in German, but if a child places her tongue between her teeth and produces a “th,” she is sent to speech therapy. My friend says there is a device which prevents the tongue from coming forward; it is placed behind the teeth and when the tongue touches it, it stings a bit.

Part of the problem is that she doesn’t hear the difference between the voiced “g” and “ch,” but the greatest challenge is getting the tongue to behave.

She devised a sentence, “I think I have a lot of joy,” to practice the “th” and the “j.” This turns out to be an excellent sentence, because the “f” before “joy” is transformed into a voiced “v” in order to accommodate the voiced “j” after it. She can easily pronounce “v” and this gets her throat thrumming, providing the voicing for the following “j.”

In every language there are a few last patterns, either grammatical or phonological, to master. In order to do so, one must sometimes go against taboos (in this case, saying “th”) or gymnastics of the tongue, lips, and jaw which feel very strange. These last little bits are the difference between speaking a language fluently, and speaking like an American.


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