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?
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]
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]
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.