Month: Nov 2013

Minimising a German Accent in English – Avoiding Devoicing

When German speakers learn English as a foreign language, there are many aspects of their pronunciation which can ‘give them away’ as being a German speaker. Some of these are very obvious and have been the butt of many jokes (See the Berlitz language school advert: “We are sinking” ~ “What are you (th)sinking?”). However, more advance learners soon fix these pronunciation errors. There are, however, a couple of aspects of pronunciation that can still make a German sound German when speaking English – and one of them is devoicing. Although most English native speakers may not notice this ‘unusual’ pronunciation, teachers will definitely pick up on it, and it can sometimes have important effects on the communication of meaning. This post should help teachers and German speakers understand what is meant by “devoicing” and what exactly leads to this pronunciation problem.


First of all, we need to understand a little bit of phonology. Namely the point that consonant sounds in English are either voiced or voiceless. When voiced sounds are produced, the vocal chords are close together and the air flow has to force its way through, which causes the vocal chords to vibrate. If you feel your throat whilst saying ‘mmmmm’, you should feel these vibrations. 

In contrast, when voiceless sounds are produced, the vocal chords are apart, and the air flow can pass through without causing the vocal chords to vibrate (= no vibrations!).  If you feel your throat and say ‘fffff’, you shouldn’t feel any vibrations.

You can find more information on which sounds are voiced and voiceless here:

This distinction between voiced and voiceless sounds is also accompanied by another feature which helps us to distinguish the sounds of English: the force with which the air flow is pushed out.

Voiced sounds are usually made with relatively weak breath force, and little muscular tension (because the vocal chords vibrate to make the sound, strong aspiration isn’t needed). This is called lenis articulation.

In contrast, voiceless sounds are usually made with more breath force and higher muscular tension (because there are no vibrations, strong aspiration is needed to make the sound). This is called fortis articulation.

So, generally:    voiced = lenis                   and                        voiceless = fortis

Devoicing is what we call it when a sound that is usually voiced, or ‘lenis’, is articulated with less vibration than usual, or no vibration at all.  In most cases, it is plosives and fricatives where devoicing is most noticeable. Because of the weak breath force of lenis sounds, though, it is still possible to distinguish a devoiced/lenis sound from the voiceless/fortis sound articulated in the same place and manner, which will be produced with more aspiration.

For example, when devoiced, /b/ can still be distinguished from /p/ (the voiceless consonant articulated in the same place and manner), because /p/ is fortis and we can hear the difference in the force of articulation.

When this devoicing can happen in English depends on the phonetic environment, i.e. the other sounds that are around the sound we are looking at. For example, at the ends of words, the vibration of the vocal chords is generally slightly less strong than at the start or in the middle of a word, and so consonants at the ends of words are often devoiced. This means that the pronunciation of /b/ in the words ‘bath’ and ‘cab’ can be slightly different in that the /b/ in ‘cab’ can be pronounced with less vibration, but basically they are the same sound – and not devoicing would also be acceptable.

In contrast, in German, the consonants at the ends of morphemes are always voiceless – this is not a devoicing of the voiced sound (where we would still distinguish it based on the force of aspiration), but the sound is actually a voiceless/fortis sound in its own right. For example, the standard pronunciation of the German words ‘Rad’ (bike) and ‘Rat’ (advice) is the same, and the consonant sound at the end of both words is /t/, the voiceless alveolar plosive.

In many regions (often around Trier, where I teach!), plosives are also often devoiced in German when they are at the beginning of a word or morpheme and are followed by /r/ or /l/. Although this is non-standard, it is very common. Think of, for example, the colours /plaʊ/ and /kraʊ/ 🙂

Many Germans learning English have difficulties with devoicing, as they transfer what they do in German pronunciation to their English pronunciation, and simply replace the voiced sound with its voiceless equivalent. However, the strong aspiration highlights their mistake. Using a voiceless/fortis sound instead of a devoiced/lenis sound not only sounds very unnatural, but it can also change your meaning entirely! For example, imagine on a camping trip you say to a friend, /pli:z pʊt ðɪs naɪf ɪn maɪ bæk/ !!!



Introduction to CLIL – Content & Language Integrated Learning

I am currently co-teaching a class on cultural studies and how culture can be taught and used within an EFL classroom. Imagine my surprise on hearing that my students – future EFL teachers at German secondary schools – had never heard of CLIL. The last couple of IATEFL conferences have been brimming with presentations and discussions about content and language integrated learning, but it seems not everyone has heard about this trend. And even those who have heard about it are not really sure what it means, particularly what it could mean for their teaching.

And so I set my students a project – to devise key questions that arose when they first heard about CLIL, and to produce a resource for introducing it to other teachers. They have agreed to let me publish their work here, partly to reach an authentic audience, and partly to introduce other teachers to CLIL who may not yet have heard about it or understood how they could use it in their own teaching setting.  I have added only slight edits to what my student teachers produced to make it more accessible to a more international audience. We would love to hear what you think about this introductory information – please use the contact form below or add your comments!

The following introduction to CLIL was researched and written by Juliane H., Helena L., Constanze Q.-M., Timon B. and Thomas H., and edited by me and Carol E. 

CLIL: Content and Language Integrated Learning

Key Questions:

  1. How is CLIL defined by different people?
  2. What do I need to know to use CLIL?
  3. What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of CLIL?
  4. Is CLIL used in the German school system?

1) How is CLIL defined?

Hartmut Ebke:
CLIL refers to the teaching of a current subject other than foreign languages in more than one language.

British Council Teaching English:
CLIL has become the umbrella term describing both learning another (content) subject such as physics or geography through the medium of a foreign language and learning a foreign language by studying a content-based subject.

European Commission’s Eurydice Report:
The acronym CLIL is used as a generic term to describe all types of provision in which a second language (a foreign, regional or minority language and/or another official state language) is used to teach certain subjects in the curriculum other than the language lessons themselves.

The most important fact all three definitions share is that new content, i.e. information/factual knowledge that the learners did not previously know,  is taught in a foreign language. In some cases this is called “bilingual education” , where subjects such as math, biology or physics are taught in a foreign language such as French or English. As we can see from these different definitions, CLIL can therefore take various forms which fall along a continuum between teaching an entire school subject through the foreign language, and using input on information students didn’t know before to teach them some new language points.

In many EFL classrooms, factual information and understanding of the target culture is transmitted, which is new to the learners, and this input is used as the basis for language exercises. For example, a text about a certain aspect of life in the UK can be looked at either from a content or from a language perspective. The same input is therefore used to teach both content and language in an integrated manner. Many EFL or other MFL teachers do this in the lessons, without considering it anything special or thinking of it explicitly as CLIL. In many definitions, though, this is what CLIL is, in a less “intense form than providing pupils with an entirely bilingual education.

2) What do I need to know to use CLIL?

For EFL teachers wanting to include some CLIL in their teaching, the standard principles of good teaching and organising a good lesson apply. However, there are a couple of points to bear in mind when starting to use CLIL with your learners.

  • To make the first CLIL-lessons easy to follow, they should be clearly structured and pupils may need to be informed about the dual aims of each lessons.
  • To support pupils getting used to CLIL, the teacher may want to allow them to speak in their L1  to clarify points, ask questions, etc, to ensure that content is not lost due to being taught in a foreign language.
  • A group of pupils may be overwhelmed if they start learning through CLIL in subjects at the same time – this might lead to “cognitive overload“ and content and/or language points may not be retained.
  • The teacher can further support his/her pupils by providing authentic language input in the target language, by working with word lists and explaining key words in context with examples, by training learners in pre-reading/pre-listening strategies specific to the subject area, and by exploring cultural knowledge comparatively with their native culture.
  • In CLIL-lessons, pupils should encouraged to view themselves as learning in real-life situations because it helps them to acquire the foreign language “naturally”, as they have done their L1.
  • Pupils should not only have receptive but also productive skills in order to acquire a foreign language step by step. If pupils did not have any of these skills, the new teaching approach would probably not work out. (student-centred & task-based learning) .
  • Teachers should employ a wide variety of media so that learners “have access to many forms of non-lingual information“ (pictures, films, graphs etc.) in case they have not fully understood the explanations of content in the target language.
  • The teacher should also create tasks that “allow learners to express themselves in a non-verbal way“ (paintings, music etc.) if the focus is on testing understanding of the content.
  • The teacher may also want to include silent periods“ in the lessons which make it possible that pupils can “decide themselves when they want to participate verbally“ and give pupils time to digest the new information – the information load may be larger than in normal content or language classes (taught separately), so this is more important than normal.

3) What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of CLIL?


  • Especially teachers in Germany could profit from CLIL, because teacher training in Germany involves two subjects
  • Especially students with a keen interest in subjects, e.g. natural sciences, history or social sciences may simultaneously be more motivated to improve their language skills in order to understand the contents of the subjects they are interested in
  • Pupils can access subject-specific language terminology they might otherwise not learn
  • Students can develop intercultural communication skills and learn to use language to communicate authentic information and research in intercultural situations.
  • Due to the points above, it can lead to improved overall language competence
  • There is the possibility of gaining international certification
  • It may prepare pupils for their future studies and/ or working life more effectively than standard EFL teaching
  • Alongside language, they acquire cultural knowledge and understanding of a specific subject


  • One condition for teaching CLIL is that teachers need training in two subjects, one of them of course being the target language. Keep in mind that in many countries teachers receive training only in one subject
  • Students struggling with the target language could also have difficulties in understanding the contents  using in CLIL
  • Students might not acquire subject-specific terminology in their mother tongue
  • Currently, there is a shortage of teaching materials for CLIL. Teachers have to produce their own materials on various topics at various language levels; a task which can be very time-consuming

4) Is CLIL used in the German school system? 

CLIL is used in around 700 different schools of different school types in Germany but projects show that the concept of CLIL has never been a part of teacher- training programs. Typically, CLIL is practiced in Germany in the following contexts:

Schools: mainly grammar schools, but also Realschule. Comprehensive and vocational schools have also started making use of this type of education.

With the following languages: mostly English and French, but also Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Russian (these last four in very few schools)

Subjects which are taught completely in bilingual education: in most cases Geography, History, Politics, but also Social Science, Biology, Physical Education, Art, Music, Physics and Mathematics. 4
See here for an example: The CLIL approach in North Rhine-Westphalia

1 Primary schools

The CLIL approach is mostly not applied in German primary-education. For further information click on the link below

2 Secondary schools
In year five and six the learners sometimes have the chance to prepare for CLIL by taking two additional English classes, but usually CLIL starts in year five and lasts until year ten. It is generally applied in geography first and later in history and/or political science. Depending on the school, students can continue in the upper level courses by taking “Grundkurse” with the CLIL approach. If they continue taking a course with the CLIL approach until year 13, it will be part of the Abitur and their certificate will include a note explaining which course was taken bilingually (Abendroth-Timmer 2007; Müller-Hartmann & Schocker-v. Ditfurth 2009, p.153)
Click link for more information: 

Vocational schools
In the field of vocational schools the Content and Language Integrated Learning method can also be used. It is more a self- contained learning with modules provided in which the focus is clearly job- related and with reference to later applications and professions. (Abendroth-Timmer, 2007)
Click for Further information

4 Universities 
“Until recently there has neither been any pre-service nor any in-service training. Most CLIL teachers learn the CLIL-specific aspects of their profession in the field, i.e while they are teaching in CLIL classes. Now some German universities (including Wuppertal) offer an additional pre-service teacher training programme for students who want to qualify as CLIL teachers.” (Wolff)
Click for Further information