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I am trying to learn German by watching movies and pocasts, but one problem I have is that I always have difficulties making out the adjective endings when people speak. Any tips on how I could train my ears for it?

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  • When I was a kid, pretty much the only mistake I made in writing tests was confusing dem and den. You can't hear the difference well in my parents' spoken German, they usually don't even say the whole article (and I guess the same is true for me). I still sometimes need to substitute the noun with a female noun to be sure about the correct case (and during those tests you didn't have the time). So, I guess, the answer is "You can't."
    – user6495
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 5:12
  • Know the grammar and hence know what ending to expect :) Btw, not an adjective, but I wonder whether the difference between "ein" and "einen" when I say them is sometimes only in my head.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 8:22

1 Answer 1

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Spoken German has three kinds of syllables:

  • betonte Silben (stressed syllables)
  • unbetonte Silben (unstressed syllables)
  • Reduktionssilben (reduction syllables)

The last kind (reduction syllables) appears only as last syllable of many German words (mainly inherited words, i.e. words that have been part of the German language for many centuries). This kind is even less stressed than unstressed syllables. With the usual pronunciation of reduction syllables, the syllable is rather murmured than spoken.

In spoken German language we have two vowels, that only can appear in these reductions syllables, and they sound very similar:

  • Examples where the last sound of the word is the schwa sound a.k.a. mid central vowel. This is one of the sounds that come out of your mouth when you simply open your mouth a little bit, let your lips relax, and let your tongue rest loosely in your mouth.
    IPA-symbol for this sound: [ə]

    jede [ˈjeːdə]
    schöne [ˈʃøːnə]
    große [ˈɡʁoːsə]
    diese [ˈdiːzə]

    You find this sound also in unstressed syllables of many English words:

    • sound for the letter "a" in "about": [əˈbaʊ̯t]
    • sound for the letter "e" in "taken" [ˈtʰeɪ̯kən]
    • sound for the letter "i" in "pensil" [ˈpʰɛnsəl]
    • sound for the letter "u" in "supply" [səˈpʰlaɪ̯]
  • Examples where the last sound of the word is the near-open central vowel. This is another sound that can come out of a fully relaxed mouth. The only difference to the sound described before is what the base of your tongue does in the throat.
    IPA-symbol for this sound: [ɐ]

    jeder [ˈjeːdɐ]
    schöner [ˈʃøːnɐ]
    großer [ˈɡʁoːsɐ]
    dieser [ˈdiːzɐ]

    This sound is a sound that is used in no English word as its standard pronunciation. Therefore the sound [ɐ] is not listed as one of the vowels to pronounce English words in the wikipedia article about English phonology. But many English words that should be pronounced with [ʌ], but also [ə] are spoken with a sound very similar to [ɐ] by many English native speakers.

    The wikipedia article about the near-open central vowel claims, that in Australia the letter "a" in "calm" is pronounced as [ɐ] ([kɐːm]; but elsewhere [kɑːm]) and that in California English native speakers use [ɐ] to pronounce the letter "u" in "nut" ([nɐt]; elsewhere [nʌt]). But I can't verify that.

The fact that [ɐ] is not a standard vowel of English, and that [ɐ] and [ə] are sometimes used as allophones in spoken English, means that native speakers of English never have a reason to learn to hear the difference between [ɐ] and [ə]. (Allophones are different sounds that can be freely interchanged without changing the meaning of even a single word.)

But in German the difference between [ɐ] and [ə] indicated the difference between masculine and feminine attributes of nouns.


German reductions syllables can also also have other kinds of pronunciation. Sometimes they are pronounced without any vowel, but with a vocalized consonant. But thats another story, beyond the scope of your question.

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  • What is with [ʌ]?
    – Babu
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 8:02
  • @ReineAbstraktion: Spoken German has between 20 and 30 different vowels, depending on how count them), but [ʌ] is none of them. Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 8:09
  • +1.I concur. Though some dialects might have the sound as by the example given here: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open-mid_back_unrounded_vowel Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 9:01
  • @planetmaker: Please do not post links to en.m.wikipedia.org or de.m.wikipedia.org. Please remove the part "m." and post only links to en.wikipedia.org or de.wikipedia.org. The "m." in the URL indicates the version that is optimized for mobile devices (phones and tablets). But on large desktop screens like on my 32" monitors this mobile layout looks ridiculous. When you remove the part "m.", users of large devices will see a version that is optimized for them and users with small devices will automatically be redirected to their mobile version within milliseconds. Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 6:40

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