Don't Forget Pronunciation

Learning correct pronunciation can also help with listening comprehension! I’ve found that some of my high school students in Japan can’t understand me when I say certain words because they’ve only been exposed to the katakana pronunciation.
A lot of times these are words that I physically cannot pronounce differently, like “are” or “bath.” As you said, they can’t hear the difference between these words and words that would be pronounced similarly in katakana like “all” and “bus.”

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I think the main difference between our thinking is where we set the bar for “good enough” pronunciation. I think we agree that communication is the most important thing in language learning.

But for me personally, intelligible is not enough. I bet Japanese people can say your surname well enough to be recognized after practicing a few times, but I doubt they can sound like a native speaker saying it, even after saying it hundreds of times.

Same goes with ふ. If a foreigner was recorded saying “かふんしょう” (hay fever), and if Japanese native speakers listened to it (without seeing the speaker), they would easily be able to tell the speaker wasn’t native. Depending on the foreigner’s experience with Japanese pronunciation, the listeners might even have trouble identifying the word without context. But because we are foreigners, they give us a break.

I’m aiming for a native level of pronunciation. I probably won’t ever achieve that level, but I think it’s an important goal for the sake of overall Japanese proficiency.

(By the way, I did a little searching, and I found that in many New Zealand accents, “desk” and え are indeed the same. At least according to Bauer et al. So my example in my post isn’t a good one. I made a generalization that only applies to most of the English-speaking world.)


For an isolated word, it might be possible to achieve native level pronunciation, but achieving native level intonation when speaking full sentences is probably a much higher hurdle in Japanese. That’s the key factor in a “foreign accent” in Japanese. Even subconsciously emphasizing a word the way you would in your native language will stand out as foreign to a native speaker.


I did hear people say that their elementary Japanese was better understood in Japan than their upper-intermediate Korean was in Korea, so maybe it’s a thing?

The thing that always infuriated me / made me laugh (depends on the kind of week I was having) was this:

all in Korean
elgillie: thank you
cashier: omg, your Korean is perfect, amazing! Thank you!

elgillie: can I get a 20litre garbage collection bag?
cashier: for which district?
elgillie: names my district
cashier: oh we’ve no 20l for (your district)
elgillie: no problem, do you have 10litre bags?
cashier: yes we do
elgillie: ok, then give me two of them
cashier: do you have a loyalty card?
elgillie: yes I do, here you go
cashier: takes out piece of paper and writes down price on the paper and hands it to me, instead of just reading it
elgillie: blinks :neutral_face:


Yeah, I never had an issue with being understood if I was lazy with ㅔㅐ. I do hear a marked difference between them, but maybe that’s because I didn’t spend much time in Seoul.

The biggest issue was that in gyeongsangnam-do they don’t really pronounce the diphthongs sometimes, so 돼지고기 becomes 대지고기, 의사 becomes 이사 etc. (I’m assuming you read hangeul based on your post). People from gyeonggi and seoul would normally pick up on those pronunciations and either repeat them to clarify, or correct my pronunciation. I don’t have a difficulty with the diphthongs, but I found in gyeongsang that people would correct me in the opposite fashion - so I was screwed either way…lol

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No one has even mentioned the Japanese pitch accent system. You’re not going to sound native without it:


Hard g or soft g. Which will you be?

I was including pitch accent as part of intonation, when I mentioned intonation, but yeah. Perhaps it’s not included in the official meaning linguistically, I’m not sure.

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I have forgotten that I haven’t learn about intonation anywhere. I have been taught that it exists, but for what words?

It’s very difficult to find good descriptions of pitch accent for basically every word written down… you’re probably best off just trying to find recordings of words and matching it.

I live in Kansai, and was basically told “yeah, we’ve got Kansai pitch accents, but we know other places are different, so it’s not a big deal if you say a word differently from us.” Even if the reason I say it differently is because I simply don’t know the pitch accent.

People fret about it, but honestly, context usually saves the day.


The pitch accent system applies to all words. Not all words are accented but that is part of what has to be learned when learning a new word. Is there an accent on the word and if so, where. I think I recall reading that most foreign words are accented–including words borrowed from Chinese. So unaccented words are all/mostly native Japanese words (but not all or most of native Japanese words are unaccented?). [Edit2: This could be completely wrong–can anyone confirm?]

Here is a dictionary with pitch accent marking in Japanese:

I just discovered this site, but it’s great! To get familiar with their intonation annotation scheme, you can select “Pitch Contour: Show” in the search criteria:

I couldn’t get the audio to work for me.

THIS. It’s nice if you try to make an effort to pronounce Japanese vowels, consonants, and intonation like native speakers but really this should be the least of your concerns.

Unless your career ambition is to be an NHK broadcaster or something.


My textbook says pitch accent varies so much from dialect to dialect, that it is the least important part of pronouncing Japanese.

Yeaaaaah… Pitch accent doesn’t apply much to living where I live, in Kyushu. So I got lucky. But it definitely exists, and is an important aspect of Japanese pronunciation in most of Japan. It’s really tough for me to use Japanese pitch accent instead of English stress when I speak Japanese.

I agree it’s one of the least important parts of pronunciation, but to be consistent with the message of my original post, I still think it’s important to realize it exists, and to understand it.

As I said, intonation / pitch accent is your biggest hurdle to sounding native, and I agree that it’s not important for communication, because context usually matters more and Japanese people are used to hearing other variations on it.

It’s just that without it mastered, you’ll be spotted for a foreign accent instantly no matter how good your pronunciation is.

Just have to accept that.


나도 경남에서 살았어요. 2년동안 창원시에서 살았고 서울에서 1년동안 살았어요. Elgillie는 어때요? 경남 어디 살았어요?

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아 맞나? ㅋㅋ

부산에 살았었지만 전 남자친구가 창원에서 왔어서 나는 창원을 많이 방문했어요 ^^

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This is a heated topic, but I appreciate the chance to hear about such things. There are a few remnant way-off pronunciations from when I was first (poorly) learning the language that are encoded pretty deeply now; and in some ways I’m finding more I didn’t know I had as I learn more.

I have to fight my brain not to read ”おお” like “eww” (don’t have the same problem with ”おう" even though they should be pronounced the same) and I probably still have a few wrist-slaps to go before I stop wanting to say e.g. “ookie” a la Addams Family for 大きな.

I’ve tried listening to a few examples and it turns out I literally cannot hear the difference between “dehs” and ”です”. In my mind and probably when speaking, I pronounce that “e” like Eskimo even though I think I have the correct pronunciation anywhere else で pops up.

Also, haven’t heard this mentioned yet, but I’m also shaky on Japanese words I learned as English words. I have to (at best) hesistate and at worst might mangle without thinking on:
さけ (Sockey)
ひろしま (Heeroshimuh)
てりやき (Terry-yakey)
ラメント (Ramin)
たかみね (Takameenee)
したけ (Shitockey)
…basically any word that ends in an “e”. That seems particularly, consistently way off, in American English at least.

Edit: That’s not to say English is “wrong”; Saying “Carry-okie” in an English sentence is as correct as saying "コンピュータ” in a Japanese sentence. You’d look a little pretentious or even a bit foolish insisting on saying カラオケ in the middle of an English sentence. Related to that, I wonder about names. Mine (Riley, ライリー)is already pretty rare in English. I have literally never said ”私のなまえはライリーです”and had it understood the first time.EVER. Especially non-native Japanese speakers will be trying to fit that to an English name in their heads and come up empty, and I’ll say it two or three times before I just say “Riley”. Any advice on whether I’m better off just saying "わたしのなまえは”Riley"です” when introducing myself to native speakers? Non-native speakers?


Ooooooooooooooh!!! I love studying Japanese pronunciation. Being able to create sentences and form your words may be the most important asset to a language… But in terms of really connecting with someone, and talking freely - pronunciation is the most important thing I think. When someone has a really strong accent with an odd speaking pattern, even if their grammar is perfect, it feels like a wall is built up and it makes it seem like the person isn’t quite as good at the language as they may actually be.

If you have really good pronunciation, and can speak smoothly, it makes you look like your a LOT more advanced in the language then you actually are. Of course a good pronunciation can only get you so far, but if you can speak well, it can really improve the way people see you and interact with you.


The key thing (for me, at least) is to remember that Japanese only has 5 vowel sounds. And unlike English, the writing system is really really consistent. When a word is written with え or け or せ or め or れ etc… The vowel is the same 99% of the time.

あ - “ahh” as in car
い - “ee” as in key
う - “ooh” as in moo or boo, but further back in the mouth
え - slightly different than NW American “eh” in mess (Never “ee,” like key)
お - slightly different than NW American “oh” in slow

Try to get away from romaji spelling as much as you can, because we’re used to seeing many different sounds represented by the same roman letter. Try to think in kana. That helps me.

Yeah, I also say words I learned first in English incorrectly. ハンバーガー / ハンバーグ (hamburger) is especially difficult for some reason. I totally agree with you, and I generally pronounce “karaoke” Carry-okie in English to be clear. With the same idea, I try to pronounce English loanwords in Japanese pronunciation as best as I can.

For your name, I see two options:

  1. You can practice the らりるれろ sounds especially vigorously, and say your name slowly in Japanese. (This is super difficult, and takes a looooot of listening and speaking practice.)

  2. For native Japanese speakers you can say your name “Lailee,” which will be more consistently understood (probably). But of course, that’s just substituting one English sound for another, incorrect one. For non-native speakers with English understanding I see nothing wrong with just saying your name normally.

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My suggestion for your name would be 私はRileyです。ラ・イ・リー。Start with your native pronunciation and then slowly give the syllables.