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I have trouble distinguishing between long close vowels ([i:], [u:] and [ü:]) and close-mid vowels ([e:], [o:] and [ö:]). For example, when I hear a new word (for example, Löwe) I find it hard to tell if I just heard ö or ü, and if I try to pronounce it, I may pronounce the other vowel.

I've tried to open Google Translate and pronounce the words Uhr and Ohr through the mic to see if I pronounce them correctly, but many times I did it wrong and the other word was written.

The real problem is actually with the rounded vowels. It's much easier for me to distinguish between [i:] and [e:], but still sometime I go wrong.

I know that the long close vowels are pronounced in the same position as the long close-mid with the mouth more closed, but the problem still exists.

If you are interested to know why I have this problem, well, I think it is because the vowels system in my first language (Arabic) is very simple, and there are only close or open vowels, just [a], [i] and [u] both long and short version, nothing in between them. Even the short vowels are in the same position as the longs without changing in position like in German, and, as far as I know, and some dialects of Arabic contain open-mid or close-mid vowels. I think my dialect have open-mid vowels, so there is no problem with [ɛ], [œ] and [ɔ].

So are there any tips or advice you can give me to solve this problem? Again it's only about long vowels.

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    I think the only way to get better is practicing. Speech therapists often use minimal pairs (Minimalpaare) for listening or speaking exercises. Minimal pairs are similar words that differ only in a single phoneme. Example: lagen, legen, liegen, logen, lugen, lägen, lögen, lügen. Then you have to find someone who can speak the different words in a correct way or listen to your pronunciation and react. I don't know if speech synthesis or speech recognition by a computer is good enough for this type of training. Ideas (in German): deutschmusikblog.de/tag/minimalpaare
    – Bodo
    Aug 2 at 14:37
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    There is also a question about Minimalpaare here on German.stackexchange: german.stackexchange.com/q/34784/1487 Aug 2 at 14:47
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Well, you are learning a language that has at least 30 different spoken vowels, if you count long and short vowels separately and also stressed and unstressed vowels separately. (See this question). You have to count them this way, because for example the pronunciations of "Stall" (stable, barn) and "Stahl" (steel) differ only by the length of the vowel, and the two meanings of "umfahren" (1. drive around an obstacle without touching it, 2. make the obstacle fall down by driving over it) differ only by the stress that is put on the vowels.

Stall = [ʃtal]; Stahl = [ʃtaːl]
umfahren, meaning 1 = [ʊmˈfaːʁən]; meaning 2 = [ˈʊmfaːʁən]

30 is just the number of vowels that appear in Standard German words. But we use foreign words too, and often we also use the original pronunciation, so we also have for example [ɔ̃] in "Balkon" and "Beton" or [ɑ̃] in "Gourmand" and many people use [æ] for words like "Badminton" and you will hear it in Austria at the beginning of "erlauben". In German dialects you will find even more vowels that do not exist in Standard German.

I don't know any other language with a number of vowels as high as German.

So, you shouldn't worry about your troubles. Everybody, who learns German has these troubles too.

The problem is, that your brain is trained to recognize and reproduce only that sounds that you are exposed to very often. This is similar to recognizing fine nuances of colors. And the only way to come over these problems is training. Long and hard training. And this needs a lot of time, usually many years.

Here are a few suggestions on how you can improve your pronunciation:

  • Listen to native German speakers. Watch movies in German language (use subtitles if you are not fluent enough to understand the dialogues) Listen to native speakers, even if you don't understand everything. Try to understand as much as possible. This will train your brain to distinguish between the different sounds.
  • Talk with German native speakers as much as you can.
  • If you are a member of a group of people who all want to learn german, try to talk with each other in German as much as possible. You can't train the new language if you always use your first language. (Although my wife and me are both German native speakers, living in Austria, where everybody is speaking German, we still often talk with each other in English just to train this language.)
  • Don't give up. It will need some years, and the more you practice, the faster you will reach an acceptable level. I have heard Arab people speak German almost without any accent after just only 4 years.

Be careful with IPA-symbols!
Neither "[ü]" nor "[ö]" nor "[:]" are valid IPA-symbols!

The German letter "ü" can be pronounced as

  • [yː] like in "müde": [ˈmyːdə]
  • [y] like in "Büro": [byˈʁoː]

The German letter "ö" can be pronounced as

  • [øː] like in "König": [ˈkøːnɪç], [ˈkøːnɪk]
  • [ø] like in "Ökonomie": [ˌøkonoˈmiː]
  • [œ] like in "löschen": [ˈlœʃn̩]

The marker for the length of a vowel is not a colon (":") which is either 2 round dots or 2 small squares, but a distinct signs that is made from two small triangles pointing to each other: ("ː")

A good description of IPA symbols is available in German language: Liste der IPA-Zeichen. There are descriptions in English too, but I didn't finde one that is as good as this German description.

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  • Thank you very much for answering, i will take your tips into consideration. Can you please edit and correct the wrong IPA Symbols? I've tried to do that by myself but when i click "save edits" nothing changes. Aug 2 at 14:56
  • Hombre, there's a mixture of opinions and facts in there where I am tempted to shout out [citation needed] !
    – user41853
    Aug 2 at 15:23
  • Stressed-vs-unstressed isn't really a vowel distinction, though, is it? (Your IPA transcription uses the same vowel, whereas in English there's kind of a distinction, but that's because unstressed syllables often are pronounced with /ə/ regardless of the original vowel.)
    – chepner
    Aug 3 at 11:54
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    'I don't know any other language with a number of vowels as high as German.' -- I think you wrote the answer in one ;) (Although counting English vowels is even harder because of the insane number of diphthongs whose constituents don't necessarily turn up as single vowels.)
    – Jan
    Aug 3 at 12:11
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    Fun facts: I don't think I heard anybody recently use a nasalised vowel for Balkon or Beton, it's often either /oŋ/ with a short o or /o:n/ with a long o. Likewise, I don't think I ever heard anybody use [æ] in Badminton; however I hear [ɛ] a lot.
    – Jan
    Aug 3 at 12:13

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