Conference Presentation, take two: On German Linguistics

Last October I had an opportunity to present a paper at BYU’s conference on Literature and Belief.  That was my first experience in academia, presenting at a conference, being a real scholar.   Next week I have the chance to do it again.

The Utah Foreign Language Association (UFLA) conference is being held at Utah Valley University on 3 November, and they have asked me to present.  Really, they asked me.  Sort of.  They noticed that they did not have very many presentations about German and so they contacted one of my professors at BYU, who immediately turned to me and asked if I wanted to present the research that I have been working on.

And what is my presentation about?  Using Linguistic Principles to Improve the Teaching of German as a Foreign Language.

There is a lot of talk, among certain circles at least, about foreign language instruction in the American school system.  Many believe that it is unnecessary and many believe that it is ineffective.  This is mostly because people have experience with learning a foreign language for several years in high school, but never being able to say more than a few words or phrases.  And it’s a downward spiral from there — these people become parents and legislators and they don’t expect foreign language programs to be more effective than they have been for them.  Teachers should always be looking for new or different ways to approach teaching to help students learn better, not all students have the same learning style.  Explicit linguistic instruction has been used in many college level foreign language classes, but not in many high schools.  Linguistic principles like morphology, phonology, and phonetics can be helpful even in a high school language classroom.



Morphology is the study of how words change to reflect slight changes in meaning.  the verb “to be”, for example, changes depending on the subject it is paired with (I am, you are, he/she/it is, etc.).  This is probably one of the most confusing parts of learning a foreign language for English speakers because English does not have much morphology, and we learn this language natively, naturally, so we don’t notice the complexities of our morphological system.  You learn the paradigm for “to be” and it becomes natural, so it sounds weird to hear some say “I is” (unless you live in one of the dialect regions of the US where that is acceptable).  But learning how to conjugate a foreign verb always seem so difficult.

As we look at the history of English and German, we can find connections that help make this process a little less foreign.   Shakespeare or the King James Version of the Bible, which are still classified as Modern English or Early Modern English, still have evidence of verbs changing depending on subject, and maybe this is why they are difficult for students to read.  We read “thou hast” or “he hath” which is reminiscent of German’s “du hast” or “er hat”.



Phonology is the study of the sounds of a language, and often teachers refer to phonology when they talk about pronunciation, but phonology can also help with vocabulary, if we take a look at historical phonology and the sound changes that have taken place.

The High German Consonant Shift – which occurred about the 5th century AD, is a shift in stop consonants (p,t,k) to become fricatives or affricates (pf or ff, ts or ss, ch).  This shift occurred in High German languages and separated High German from Low German, from which English is derived.  So, words that in English have a p, t, or k we see pf or ff, ts or ss, or ch in German.  So the word ‘ship’ in English, we see the word ‘Schiff’ in German. (And what’s even more interesting is that there is a subsequent sound shift that shifted ‘sch’ to ‘sk’, so the word became ‘Skiff’, and was then borrowed back into English. Skiff and ship are related words!)

So a student who understands this sound shift could look at a German word and retrace the sound shift to find a related English word.  Say the student read the German word “hoffen”, recognize that the “ff” was probably originally a “p”, so the word may have been “hopen”, which they should recognize as the English word “hope”.  Knowing about this sound shift, and others, like the Great Vowel Shift that affected English in the 1400-1700s where many English vowels changed the way they were pronounced, can help students find and recognize related cognate words and boost their ability to understand what they read, without having to turn to a dictionary for every other word.



In addition to historical phonology, the field of phonetics deals specifically with articulation and the perception and production of sounds.  Teachers do touch on this when they teach pronunciation, but a more explicit approach could be beneficial to some students.  By showing a vowel chart like the one below, teachers can talk about the characteristics that make up different vowel sounds, helping students understand which vowels are front or back in the mouth, high or low, and rounded or unrounded.  Students can also see the relationship between different vowels in this chart.  They can see that /i/ is slightly higher and more front than /e/, which can help them learn the difference between these sounds.

German Vowel Chart


Praat — is a free, open-source software for acoustic and speech analysis.  It has become the gold standard and is used in college level courses world-wide to discuss acoustics and linguistics.  It may seem overwhelmingly difficult at first use, but with a little training it can be used to help students see their own speech patterns and compare to a native speaker.  The formants (shown by the rows of red dots below) can be plotted on a Formant Chart, like the one below, which (not surprisingly) resembles our vowel chart.  This can show students if they are producing their vowels in the right position.

Praat screenshot
Formant Chart



3 thoughts on “Conference Presentation, take two: On German Linguistics

  1. Pingback: NaNoWriMo: 2011 « Catchy Title Goes Here

  2. Csb

    Hi, I found your blog while I was searching articles related to a similar research on Hungarian (my mother tongue) students who study Italian. I am particularly interested in the part woth Praat because I will examine phonetic differences. I would be interested if you could help me where to find materials (yours or others’) on examining phonetical features of language learning. Thanks in advance.

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