Don't Forget Pronunciation


#1

Hey there!

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:

  1. The Japanese and English languages have quite different sound vocabularies.

  2. English pronunciation is significantly more difficult for Japanese-speakers than Japanese pronunciation is for English-speakers.

  3. 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.


#2

If you’re actually going to communicate with Japanese peeps, maybe pronunciation is a tiny bit more important than grammar almost? You can get away with a lot of caveman sentences if you have enough vocabulary and you can communicate it. If your pronunciation is weak tho, they won’t have any idea what you’re saying, even if you do know the difference between こと or の as a nominalizer.

In fact, because there are much fewer sounds it’s a bit easier to screw up words. There is a spoken difference between しょ and しょう for example and that’s easy to screw up.

I mean, if you don’t actually want to talk to anyone I guess that’s on you but. Yeah. Pronunciation is cool. Do like the cool kids.


#3

Dogen (of YouTube fame) does a series on pronunciation on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/dogen

I’m a subscriber and I like it a lot! It has definitely helped me become a more active listener, although I have trouble turning what I learn into an actionable study method (save for shadowing + recording myself when shadowing). I wish there were something like wanikani for pure pronunciation.


#4

+1 get into Dogen he’s great


#5

Another bit of advice is to get someone to help you.
You might have to wait until you go to Japan before you can find a friend to help you speak.
If you have someone to talk to in your area, that’s good too.

Otherwise, there are some apps and website you can use to speak to other natives.
I like HelloTalk. You can record your voice and listen to your conversational partners.

You might think you have good pronunciation because you can read phonemes(?) but without getting advice from an actual speak er of Japanese, you’re going to sound something similar to Engrish.

Do you know anything about Canadian [i] rising? Or whatever that makes people think we say “aboot” instead of “about”.
In Japan, they learn American English. It might be a little harder making your mouth vibrate differently.
I absolutely cannot do any trills which is why I have given up on Spanish.


#6

It’s super easy to find people to talk to on Skype. Just go to a site like japan-guide.org and put a post up on their language exchange forum asking for a native Japanese speaker. As long as you are clear about your goals (speaking via Skype specifically, not chatting on Line, etc), you’ll be get plenty of responses. Of course, being willing to reciprocate with English practice helps too.


#7

Great points! Thanks for the comments.

I haven’t specifically studied Canadian rising, but as someone from the American northwest, I definitely know about it. Though most Americans overdo it in their stereotypical impressions.

They actually learn a good amount of British English in Japan, too. Which I personally recommend because it’s easier in general for Japanese people to pronounce. But American English is popular for a variety of reasons. Too bad I can’t teach British English very well.

Luckily for us, Japanese dialects don’t have nearly as much variation as English dialects.

You can tooootally do trills. Everyone can, with practice. Sounds are only difficult or easy depending on previous exposure and practice. Newborn babies in Spanish-speaking countries are no better at trilling (on average) than babies in English-speaking countries. In other words, you’re physically just as capable of learning to trill as anybody in a Spanish-speaking country! Buena suerrrrrrte!


#8

Well, in my part of Japan, we use American English. I have no idea about other parts of Japan.
“Often” Off-tin and Off-in always get me. I never really paid attention to when I use either of them.

I have heard that British English’s pronunciation is a lot like how it’s spelled which makes it easier to read if you don’t know the word.


#9

What makes you say that? Are you just talking about in pronunciation? Elderly people in opposite ends of Japan might barely be able to communicate with each other in some cases.


#10

Hmm… :confused: Not too sure about this.


#11

Yeah, です is definitely not でいす, which is what daysu would be. Sounds like someone with a Southern American accent trying to speak Japanese to me, lol.


#12

1.) Yeah, I’m talking about dialect variation in pronunciation. But I suppose I don’t have objective evidence to support that English has more than Japanese. I generally find that different Japanese dialects have almost entirely the same sound vocabulary (though there are examples of variation, such as the “ng”-like [ŋ] in the standard Tokyo dialect). English, on the other hand, has a lot of sound variation. Scottish English has completely different sounds compared to Southern American English, or compared to New Zealander English. I think the elderly people you’re talking about would have trouble because of colloquialisms in the different regions.

2.) Actually でいす should be pronounced with the same vowel as です but just elongated. でーす and でいす are the same. But that’s an orthography thing, so not exactly related to your point.

My response to your point is that in my American dialect, the vowel in “desk” is different from the vowel in です which is different from the vowel in “day” (the last is a diphthong, with two different sounds ‘combined’). です is phonetically somewhere in between the other two

Most people think that the vowel in です is EXACTLY the same as in “desk,” so they comfortably use that English vowel to speak Japanese. It’s close! But linguistically it’s not the same vowel. And native speakers might not know why it sounds slightly off, but they will be able to hear the difference between a native speaker and a foreigner from those kinds of small differences. I guess I just mean to say we should try as hard as possible to start from a blank slate when we learn a new language. Then we can pick up the slight variation in sounds from language to language.

I’m starting to consider ways to make my explanation clearer. Thanks for the input!


#13

Saying “it’s the same but elongated” is another way of saying it’s not the same…? The comparison was not in isolation regarding the vowel sounds, it was to the two “words” as a whole.

I believe you when you say it’s not “exactly” the same as the e in desk spoken the way you pronounce desk (since that’s not a particularly huge claim), but I’d like to hear a direct comparison. Then I’d be interested to show it to my girlfriend and other Japanese people.


#14

There is literally no point in saying how です should be pronounced. In daily conversation, in my engineering office, in Japan, I will say and hear it pronounced it as です、でーす、ですー、っです、ですっ it even comes out as れす sometimes. It depends on who to and what you’re talking about.

So, basically, pronounce how you wish to be heard/portrayed…


#15

This just emphasizes listening well, isn’t it? Even English has many accents. My native language isn’t English, though. And, my English accent isn’t like my fellow native, nor Americans.

Speaking of which, in the past, I does take me time to learn to differentiate between r and d. Also, h sounds strange. Not to mention n, that the pronunciation depends, and I still couldn’t remember the rules.


#16

Off-topic, but not, at the same time. If anyone here speaks korean I’d be really interested in talking about how the phonetics compare, as from what I hear when I listen to japanese, they’d be easier to compare than English and Japanese.

I feel like the です question is similar to the consistently f*cked up pronunciation of ㅔ(e̞) and ㅐ(ɛ̝) in korean.


#17

I am not sure, but somewhat IPA is still not complete enough.

Maybe, you need tongue and soft palate training.

Also, sound differentiation needs to be practiced separately. --> This one is the very case when started learning English, but not so much with Japanese.


#18

The only difficulty I’ve encountered is that if you speak a non-native language with any variation in pronunciation, native speakers are more likely to get confused than if a native speaker pronounces it like that. I think they’re mentally less relaxed when listening to you (actively listening)because they’re anticipating a difficulty.

I speak korean with pronunciation from the south-east and when living there or speaking to someone from that area, I have no issues being understood, but when I talk to people from Seoul or elsewhere in the north they perceive my pronunciation as incorrect (and either have difficult understanding or correct my pronunciation) because they’re not expecting it from a foreigner (or perhaps because i pronounce some words the standard way and others with an accent).

The same with Portuguese, I speak with pronunciation from Rio and friends from elsewhere in Brazil correct my pronunciation - whereas my husband says it’s correct.


#19

I have only had problems with other non-native speakers not understanding what I said because they learnt to pronounce the words the ‘correct’ way. You can speak awful Japanese to a native speaker and most will understand you.

I have been in a 焼肉 place in Tokyo and we could tell right away that it was Korean run. The Korean staff couldn’t understand my Japanese, we assume he was expecting us to speak English or I didn’t have a Tokyo accent, my friend could understand me.


#20

The thing that gets me is vowel lengths. Since English doesn’t differentiate words by vowel length, I can never tell the difference when speaking and listening.