Almost every German class tackles the alphabet at the very beginning because it is one of those foundational principles upon which the rest of the German language is based. It also introduces basic pronunciation which helps students know how to read and speak the words they are learning.
Here is a pretty good chart that explains how the different letters are pronounced, via german-lessons.net
That does a pretty good job of introducing the individual letters. For the most part, consonants are pronounced the same way as they are in English. Exceptions are the “j”, which is pronounced as the “y” in English. If you need help remembering this, just remember one of the basic German words you probably already know, “ja”, as in “yes”. Ja is pronounced “ya”, with the “y” sound.
The “q” is also pronounced a little different. “Qu” in English are pronounced as a “kw” sound, but in German words the “qu” is pronounced as “kv”. That takes a little practice for most English speakers, but it’s not really all that hard.
“R” is a difficult sound for a lot of English speakers, and there are different pronunciations of “r” depending on where it occurs in a word. There will be a whole post someday on the “r”, look for that. Mostly in words it is pronounced as a New Englander would. Think Kennedy when you see the word, “bar” and pronounce it more like, “ba-ah”, and you’ll be fine. The German word for why is “warum”, and is pronounced as, “va-ah — um”, with the slightest ever pronunciation of an ‘r’ in there. One of the most obvious signs that you are a native English speaker is using a heavy American “r” in a German word.
“V” is pronounced more like an English “f ” than a “v”, but that’s okay, because the German “w” is pronounced like the English “v”. I often think of the great automobile company VW (which is pronounced as Fow-Vay in German) when I need to remember the difference.
“Z” is another difficult letter for English speakers, because the sound does not exist in English anywhere but at the end of words, so English speakers find it hard to make that sound at the beginning of a word. It is pronounced like “ts” as in the ending of “hats” or “cats”. The only English word that has this “ts” sound at the beginning is “tse-tse fly“. Take some time to practice this until you can comfortably say the “ts” sound at the beginning of a word, like “Zug” or “Zeit” (train and time, respectively). A lot of German words start with Z.
The vowels are another story completely. I like to refer to the German Vowel Chart to help me pronounce them correctly. And this is where my background in Linguistics and phonetics comes into play. This chart uses the IPA symbols for these vowel sounds, which makes it both easier and more difficult. On the one hand, IPA is standardized no matter what language you are using, so we always know how a particular symbol is pronounced; on the other hand, though, some of the IPA symbols are the same as used in Latin-based alphabets so there is some confusion.
This chart may help with some of the pronunciation of these vowels,
Here is the German vowel chart that I will use a lot. I love it because it lays out the vowels as they are formed in the mouth and shows their relationship to all of the other vowels.
So, in this chart you can easily see that the /i/ is pronounced front and high in the mouth and is unrounded. We will go more into these features of vowels in a follow up post on just vowels, but those are the three basic characteristics of vowels: high or low, front or back, rounded or unrounded. The vowel /i/ is common in English and English speakers have no trouble pronouncing it, it is the vowel sound in words like “tree” or “be”. The vowel /y/, though is difficult for English speakers because it does not exist in English, but it is pronounced exactly the same as /i/, except that /y/ is rounded. So, if you say the sound “ee”, and then round your lips, you have the vowel /y/. That’s why I love this chart, it shows the relationships between different vowel sounds and also easily describes the three characteristics of vowels.
One thing we haven’t touched on yet are diphthongs, or two vowel sounds working together. That will come in a future post on vowels that reviews these principles and introduces new ones. For now, you should at least be able to sound out most written German words fairly well, even if you do not yet understand the meaning. Go give it a try!