To my fellow Japanese enthusiasts and language learners, I thought I’d share something that’s been on my mind in recent months:
I don’t think pronunciation gets enough focus. I’m not an expert on Japanese or pronunciation, but I studied linguistics, with a special interest in phonetics. So I’m not completely ignorant, either. I’m currently teaching English in Japan for JET, and my experience has highlighted some important things:
The Japanese and English languages have quite different sound vocabularies.
English pronunciation is significantly more difficult for Japanese-speakers than Japanese pronunciation is for English-speakers.
Like kanji, grammar, listening, or vocabulary, we should practice pronunciation intentionally.
Maybe these are obvious to you. Maybe you disagree. I don’t know your life. But I’ll explain anyways. I will also oversimplify complicated phonological and phonetic concepts. A lot.
1.) Sound Vocabularies
Japanese has only 5 vowels. English has about 15, depending on your dialect (I’m West Coast American, forgive my bias). So, to speak native-ish Japanese, we need to limit our vowel vocabularies. I’ll give a few examples.
The vowel in “cat” is written in International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as [æ]. This sound doesn’t normally occur in Japanese. Instead, Japanese has a deep “ahh,” closer to the vowel in “car.” That means, we need to learn to always pronounce あ like “car.” Always. So “hamburger” (ハンバーガー) becomes Hahm-bah-gah. Yikes, that spelling looks gross.
Here’s another example about a consonant: Japanese ふ isn’t pronounced “foo.” …or “hoo” The “f” sound is instead a quiet sound made by shaping your mouth gently for “oo” and blowing air between your lips. This sound isn’t in English, and it’s limited in Japanese to the ふ / フ kana (it doesn’t occur in は ひ へ or ほ). If you think I’m crazy, try listening to audio of native speakers speaking with that sound in everyday language (characters in anime often speak with exaggerated pronunciation, so I don’t think those shows make for good listening material). Contrast what native Japanese speakers say with English “f” pronunciation.
Lastly, in general, Japanese speakers don’t move their lips/cheeks as much as English speakers when they talk. When they learn to speak English, Japanese people are sometimes taught to make the “oo” sound by rounding and pushing out their lips more than they’re used to. They are also taught to pull their cheeks to the side for “ee” in English. So, in contrast, we have to keep our lips more neutral for vowels. If you live in Japan, you might notice that some native speakers hardly move their lips at all when they speak.
The point is, pay attention to pronunciation. It is not easy to sound natural in any foreign language, so listen hard. Practice using your mouth in a different way than you’re used to.
(If you’re thinking of a sentence that starts with “That’s” and ends with “said,” don’t.) :]
2.) Engrish is Engrish for a reason
Learning to limit your vowel vocabulary to 5 sounds is one thing, but learning to extend it to 15 sounds is another thing entirely. Imagine: you know how to say, [a] [i] [e] [o] and [ɯ]. But now you’ve gotta learn [æ] [ɛ] [ʌ] [ʊ] [ɪ] [ɚ] and the difficult-to-define [ə]. Vowels aren’t even the reason Japanese people’s pronunciation is made fun of! Normally Americans laugh at their “r” and “l” consonant pronunciation. But the truth is, “r” is an extremely rare sound among the world’s languages. Generally, sounds that are uncommon in the world’s languages are uncommon because they are difficult to distinguish from other sounds, or because they are difficult to produce. Notice that even kids born in English-speaking countries often mispronounce “r” until late in their language development.
So if, like me, you’ve ever laughed at an English interview of a Japanese person, or Engrish in Japanese songs (putting aside grammar and very strange word choice), you should practice your own Japanese pronunciation first, before you criticize.
3.) 練習しかない (It’s nuthin’ but practice)
The human brain naturally learns pronunciation by mimicking what it hears. This magic happens all the time, but if you focus on it, you’ll get better faster. Watch your favorite Japanese celebrity, or listen to your textbook CD (めんどうくさいけど), and try to repeat what they say. Pay attention to the sounds individually, and say everything slowly at first. Again, I wouldn’t recommend music or anime for this because pronunciation is often irregular in those media.
Many have pointed out on this thread, that Dogen, on both YouTube and Patreon, provides good pronunciation content, too.
So train your ear to hear when the sounds you say are different from the sounds native speakers say. Then let your brain do the rest. That’s my no-Ph.D-but-still-valid advice.
3.5) Final Disclaimer:
Okay, okay, yeah. Pronunciation isn’t the most important thing in the language learning world. I still think it’s more important to communicate with vocabulary and grammar than to sound like a native Japanese voice actor. But because Japanese has a small sound vocabulary, if you ambiguously pronounce something you have a yuuge chance of being misheard. Donald Trump has had this problem in English, bigly.
Kay? Kay. Thanks for reading.
INTELLECTUAL DISCUSSION, BEGIN.