Are you a beginner student of German who finds it difficult to distinguish between the ei and ie sounds?
Some of my students find this to be challenging, while others do not. As far as I can tell, it depends on whether you have similar sounds in your mother tongue or in your second language. For native English speakers, as well as for those who have learned English later, this can be especially puzzling.
Take the words receive and believe, for example. Here, you find the very same combination of vowels, ei and ie. However, both are pronounced as a long ee (/i:/) sound. This makes these two sets of letters confusing in German. After teaching a few lessons to students who have this problem, I’ve come up with the idea that a little visualization could help.
Now, before I go into more detail about this topic, there’s something you need to know about vowel sounds in German. A particularly tricky source of confusion is the fact that the German letter i is pronounced like the English letter e (/i/), and the German e is more like the /e/ in “bed,” though not quite.
In regards to the ei and ie in German, they unfortunately look quite similar when they occur in an unfamiliar word. However, ei is a diphthong, which means that it’s a sound that combines two vowels into one syllable. It glides from the /a/ to the /i/ sound, forming a sound much like the English letter i (/ai/). This /ai/ sound can be represented by several vowel combinations in German: ei (mein, Bein), ai (Saite, Laib), ey (Meyer, Beyer, both family names) and ay (Bayern, Mayer).
The ie sound is a different story. It is not a diphthong, but the e after the i serves the function of lengthening the vowel. As a result, the i (/i/) sound turns into a long ie (/i:/) sound. You should note that the vowel i is actually an exception.* The other vowels in German are instead lengthened by the addition of the letter h after it. For example: ah (die Wahl, der Zahn), oh (die Sohle, der Sohn), uh (der Stuhl, buhlen), eh (das Mehl, mehr), äh (die Ähre, wählen), öh (die Höhle, die Öhse), üh (fühlen, die Mühe).
*Note: The only exception to this exception that I can think of is the pronoun ihr, where the i does take an h.
Occurrences of ei and ie
These two sounds occur frequently throughout the German vocabulary. In the title, I used Leid (sorrow) and Lied (song) in order to show that they can be used in completely different words. Often, however, they are used in different forms of the same verb. Specifically, certain verbs that have an ei sound in the infinitive or the present tense, change to an ie spelling in the past tense and participle form.
- ich schreibe
- ich schrieb
- ich habe geschrieben;
- ich bleibe
- ich blieb
- ich bin geblieben;
- ich heiße
- ich hieß
- ich habe gehießen
Therefore, it is important to get it right.
Visualization as a Crutch
We all have different learning styles that are a mixture of the three main types: visual, auditory and tactile.
Most people are primaily visual learners, which makes the use of images a fantastic aid in the learning process. You can take a test on Education Planner to find out about your learning style and get some tips on how to improve it.
Now, an example: Ei (egg) is one of the sounds that we are trying to recognize. The meaning of this word inspired me to draw an egg and write the diphthong ei inside it, as can be seen in the picture below:
Moreover, the combination of the e and i has a roundish, closed shape that can easily be associated with the Ei (egg), whereas ie doesn’t look round at all. This little visualization, therefore, could be of help.
Furthermore, you can use the following example sentences to start to get an idea of how widespread these two sounds actually are. Give it a go and read them out loud.
- Sei leise! Sie liest.
- Dieser Leib ist weich und biegsam.
- Er hat ein Lied vom Leid geschrieben.
- Leidenschaft und Liebschaft schaffen Liebe und Leid
- Auf einer Leiter saß ein Dieb, und sang sich eins – ein Liebeslied.
- Der Mieter Meier, so meint der Vermieter Beier, schuldet ihm die Miete für Mai.
- Eine Biene saß auf meiner Vorspeise und rieb sich die Beine.
How did it go? If you want to improve your speaking, check out the links below.
Online Exercises and Tools for Pronunciation Practice
- Here is a little online listening exercise to help you differentiate between ei and ie. Just download the audio track, listen and fill in the gaps. You can even check your answers.
- The German POD 101 YouTube Channel provides an introduction to common German sounds, with explanations in English.
- The Hallo Deutschschule YouTube Channel has two audio playlists for A1 learners. There you can listen to and repeat German sentences.
- If you want to dive deeper into the technicalities of Standard German phonology, check out this Wikipedia page.
- Whatever language you study, it is a good idea to learn the proper sounds with the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet).
Correct pronunciation is crucial for communicating in a foreign language. After all, you want to be understood and have conversations that you can enjoy! Thus, we have looked at the ei and ie sounds as just an example. However, as we have seen, learning them is not just a question of correct pronunciation and grammar. They sometimes occur in words that are otherwise identical, but have completely different meanings. I hope my little Ei (egg) will help you to tell them apart in the future.
All the best wishes for your language learning adventure!
- Hero Image by Lisa Williams (CC BY 2.0)
- All other images by the author