There’s nothing quite like tongue twisters to give you a different perspective on a language, especially a language that seems as intimidating as German. There’s something playful and distracting about tongue twisters that gets the brain working in a way that is completely unique. The words suddenly don’t have much meaning as your focus moves almost exclusively to getting your mouth to make the right sounds.
Beyond being a great distraction from typical language learning, tongue twisters let you focus on the sounds you are making. It’s a nice break from conjugation and article changes. Instead of sounding silly because you messed up basic grammar, you get to intentionally sound silly while you try to get the sounds out right.
Perhaps you don’t want to practice with tongue twisters because you are already so self-conscious. Why would you do something that makes you sound that much more ridiculous? And aren’t tongue twisters more for children?
Tongue twisters offer something that no other tool has – focus on the words. Here’s why you can benefit from making tongue twisters a part of your German studies.
The Benefits of German Tongue Twisters
As silly as they are, tongue twisters are a great tool for improving the German language learning process. They aren't exactly topics for small talk, but they are definitely something you can practice as a warm up to actual conversations.
1. Practicing the Sounds
By practicing tongue twisters, you are reinforcing the way words are said, something that most people stop worrying about after the first few months. Think of them as a refresher for all of the sounds that we don’t have in English. German has a lot of sounds that aren't the same as English, but over time, we often stop noticing that we are relying on making familiar sounds instead of the unique German sounds.
2. A Way to Clear Your Focus
Unlike trying to express the ideas in your mind, tongue twisters put you in the moment: as you are trying to get your mouth and tongue to form the words properly, you stop thinking about how others see you.
Tongue twisters are a tool that really can help you learn to make the sounds. That’s why speech therapists make tongue twisters a part of therapy. It takes your focus off of the things that trip you up and gets you to think just about the words. You repeat the sounds and words to get them right. Unlike regular speech though, you are expected to make mistakes. Since mistakes are an expectation, you don’t feel quite so self-conscious about them. And you will make a different mistake with each repetition. It teaches you when to enunciate and how to shape your mouth when saying similar sounds.
3. Training the Tongue
Probably the most useful aspect of tongue twisters is that they focus on the sounds and how your tongue forms then. There are several sounds in the German language that are not in English. Dedicating time to reinforcing the way those sounds are made will help you to better enunciate. This should help your daily conversation since you are much more likely to say words clearly.
When you practice with tongue twisters, you are building and reinforcing those muscles to produce the right sounds, making it clearer what words you are saying. It is extremely helpful for people who learn German as their second, third, or later language to periodically reinforce the non-English sounds. We stop training our mouth muscles by the time we are 5 years old. Once you know a langauge, you don't have the same need to work those muscles. Tongue twisters remind you that you still need to train your tongue and other mouth muscles to more accurately make the sounds you don't have in your mother tongue.
Learning Your Zungenbrecher
Germans have their own term for tongue twisters – Zungenbrecher. The literal translation is “tongue breaker.” This is a little harsher than twisting, but only marginally so.
And after you try some of these Zungenbrecher, you may feel like your tongue – or maybe even your mouth – has been broken. Don’t worry, we will start with some easier versions to help you get your mouth around the flow and phrasing.
Starting with Some Easier Zungenbrecher
Since we don’t want to start with breaking your tongue, let’s ease into the exercise with some simple ones.
1. Lang schwang der Klang am Hang entlang.
The sound vibrates slowly along the slope.
This tongue twister isn’t particularly difficult, even if some of the repetition can trip up your tongue. It has an easy rhythm and familiar sounds, making it easy to repeat before you start talking to people in German.
2. Die Katzen kratzen im Katzenkasten, im Katzenkasten kratzen Katzen.
The cats scratch in the cat box, in the cat box the cats scratch.
This sentence is similar to the familiar Woodchuck tongue twister in English. It’s a nice tongue workout that repeats a few sounds that aren’t quite the same in German as they are in English.
3. Blaukraut bleibt Blaukraut und Brautkleid bleibt Brautkleid.
Red cabbage is red cabbage, and a wedding dress is a wedding dress.
This Zungenbrecher gets your mouth working with some very common German sounds that may not come naturally to a native English speaker.
4. Acht alte Ameisen assen am Abend Ananas.
Eight old ants ate pineapple in the evening.
This one provides a bunch of words you probably aren’t going to use with a couple of very common words. With every word starting with A, your mouth will get a real workout. It may not be particularly tough, but it is definitely more mouth work than most of the tongue twisters so far.
5. Es klapperten die Klapperschlangen bis ihre Klappern schlapper klangen.
The rattlesnakes rattled until their rattles sounded run-down.
This tongue twister starts slowly, then piles on the challenges toward the end. Essentially, you are given just enough to start feeling confident before the Zungenbrecher makes you question your own abilities. Unlike the other easy phrases, this one mixes the same sound throughout words instead of sticking to just the beginning of each word.
Moving into Some Harder Zungenbrecher
Now you’ve had a taste of the German tongue twisters.
6. Wenn du Wachsmasken magst, Max macht Wachsmasken aus Wachsmaskenwachs.
Max makes wax masks out of wax mask wax.
This one is definitely a bit trickier than the others, and you will have a hard time saying it slowly the first couple of times. It also starts moving more into the surreal meanings that are common with tongue twisters. What makes this one so good for practicing sounds.
7. Es grünt so grün, wenn Spaniens Blüten blühen.
It turns so green when the flowers in Spain flower.
This is one that we have in English, so you may be familiar with it. You’ll notice that it is a bit harder in German, mostly because of the unfamiliar sounds of the ü. This is a great way to practice that particular sound.
8. Bierbrauer Bauer braut braunes Bier.
Beer brewing farmers brew brown beer.
Mixing a bit of culture with some trickier sounds, this phrase actually makes a bit of sense, at least on a surface level. It’s the combination of B and R that tend to trip up the tongue.
9. Ob er über Oberammergau, oder aber über Unterammergau, oder ob er überhaupt noch kommt, ist ungewiß!
Whether he's coming via Oberammergau, or perhaps via Unterammergau, or not at all, is uncertain.
At first, this phrase looks really bad, but once you say it a couple of times, this Zungenbrecher is a bit easier. The way you form each word with your mouth can make it easier to form the words.
10. Der Pfostenputzer putzt den Pfosten, den Pfosten putzt der Pfostenputzer.
The post-cleaner cleans the post, the post is being cleaned by the post-cleaner.
This tongue twister makes the most of one of the most enjoyable sounds to make in German that has no English equivalent. Getting through a sentence with multiple Pf sounds is incredibly fun to do, even if it is moving into a more difficult Zungenbrecher.
Biting Your Tongue with Some Hard Zungenbrecher
Now that you’ve had a bit of a warm up, it’s time to get into some of the longer, more diabolical Zungenbrecher.
11. Fischers Fritz ißt frische Fische, frische Fische ißt Fischers Fritz.
Fischers Fritz eats fresh fish, fresh fish eats Fischers Fritz.
We did warn you that these are the hard ones to say, and this just shows how difficult Zungenbrecher can be. Take the F sounds and S sounds and mix them into a single sentence – it’s almost torture. Getting through this phrase once at normal speed is an accomplishment.
12. Graben Grabengräber Gruben? Graben Grubengräber Gräben? Nein! Grabengräber graben Gräben. Grubengräber graben Gruben.
Do gravediggers dig ditches? Do ditchdiggers dig graves? No! Gravediggers dig graves. Ditchdiggers dig ditches.
This one is similar to the longer English tongue twisters. Like the longer English phrases, this once minces words that are incredibly similar and throws them into a series of sentences so that everyone who tries it will sound incredibly silly.
13. Am zehnten zehnten um zehn Uhr zehn zogen zehn zahme Ziegen zehn Zentner Zucker zum Zoo
On October 10, at 10.10am, 10 game goats pulled 10 centners of sugar to the zoo.
The mix of Zs and Ns make this a really rough phrase to say. At the same time, it actually gives you the most steady rhythm to help you feel a flow to the words.
14. In Ulm, um Ulm, um Ulm herum.
In Ulm, around Ulm, all around Ulm.
This one demonstrates that a phrase doesn’t need to be long to feel like it takes forever to say. Since your mouth forms each of these words in a way that is very similar, it is tough to say this phrase without feeling like you need to talk in slow motion.
Hottentot potentate’s aunt assassination
Whoo boy, that’s a mouthful and then some. Before you can even start trying to say this twister, you have to focus a lot more than on any of the other ones in this blog. There are few languages that could have an entire tongue twister that is a single word.
Making a Habit of Practicing Tongue Twisters
Memorizing some of these tongue twisters can give you a way of practicing German when you have some spare time. When you are stuck in traffic, start repeating some of these phrases. After a long day at work, saying some nonsense words while trapped in traffic can lift your spirits.
Zungenbrecher are also a great way to get your mind focused on German before a class or discussion in German. Since most of us are more likely to feel self-conscious about speaking, the repetition and fumbling over the words will get you out of your head before you go and try to use what you know. Once you are more in the moment, it gets easier to speak more freely, even if your speech is flawed.
Tongue twisters are a perfect example of how making mistakes can be helpful. You can learn a lot from them, and yet there is always a need to use them to practice learning to speak German.