Hitting a Wall on Pronunciation

(Sorry if this is the wrong section to post, it was just my best guess)

Over my year or so spent on WaniKani (and a few other resources), I’ve been having a recurring problem. I can “learn” Japanese pronunciation (understand the concepts reasonably well and begin using them), but I can’t seem to “master” them. By this, I mean that even after making sure to always imitate the sample audio and following some sample sentences elsewhere, it still consistently takes me around 5-6 attempts to pronounce a word to my satisfaction, about the same as when I started (even with really old words for me like 丸い). This has meant that even a fairly small number of reviews (say 1/5 of what seems “normal” - this would be probably around 80) easily takes up half an evening and a larger amount usually becomes my life before it burning me out.

So the question here is just: How can I make any sort of meaningful progress here and continue to pursue Japanese without taking up an absurd amount of time?

(One last note, memorizing words is not an issue. If I didn’t care about being able to say them, this would be super easy for me).

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It’s hard for us to say if you’re indeed struggling to pronounce it right or if you’re being too hard on yourself. Seems to me that you’re being extremely ambitious with how you study things. WK is mostly made to remember kanji, which means your method entails spending a lot of time on words you might never even use/see/hear in real content (I assume real content is your end goal). Taking the time to learn pronunciation during your WK reviews is commendable, but I’m not sure it’s the most optimal way to go about it, sounds more like a recipe to hinder your kanji progression and to risk stopping it altogether because of frustration.

A japanese proverb goes like this : 餅は餅屋 (for mochi, go to a mochi shop)


To be clear, you (generally) remember the readings themselves, right? You’re having trouble specifically with pronouncing the words out loud? If that’s the case I’d focus less on pronunciation as part of your WaniKani reviews. Pronunciation isn’t the point of WaniKani, so you’re putting a lot of unnecessary pressure on yourself.

For improving pronunciation, I think it’s also important to listen a lot, not just to individual words but also to sentences. For this you can use whatever medium you’d enjoy most: anime, podcasts, etc. (Just don’t learn pronunciation from music, as they tend to pronounce things weird in songs.) The more you listen, the more you get used to how the language should sound, which helps a lot. Obviously you do need to try saying things out loud as well, but it should come naturally over time. (The basics should at least. Pitch accent on the other hand takes a lot of work, but I wouldn’t worry about that right now.) If your basic pronunciation doesn’t improve naturally over time, you may need a teacher or tutor to help guide you. It’s hard to give any kind of specific advice beyond that without actually hearing your pronunciation of words or sentences. For all we know, you just have really high expectations of yourself and actually have decent pronunciation.


If it’s not too embarrassing, you could record yourself experiencing this pronunciation struggle and then we could listen and give an idea of how accurate your perception of your performance is.


Like everyone above me has said, it’s possible that you simply have high expectations, and that you are not in fact pronouncing words as poorly as you think. It’s also true that WaniKani wasn’t created as a pronunciation practice platform, even if I think it’s a good idea to pick up pronunciation while studying new words. However, assuming there is a problem, here’s what I suggest to tackle it – create clearer frameworks for your practice and pronunciation:

  1. Learn standard pronunciation for all sounds (two methods, not mutually exclusive):
  • Method 1 (skip this if IPA gives you a headache or if you’d rather not bother with it): Check IPA symbols for Japanese sounds. Study the explanations given for how to make those sounds if you are able to understand the technical language used. If not, at the very least, compare the symbols used for Japanese with those used for English (you can usually do this by comparing ‘IPA: Japanese’ and ‘IPA: English’ or articles to that effect on Wikipedia), and take note of those symbols that are different so that you know which sounds to work on.
  • Method 2: Look for Japanese pronunciation videos. If at all possible, you should look for videos and resources that offer diagrams of what the inside of your mouth should look like when you make each sound. The two main resources I would recommend are Wasabi Japan’s videos and pronunciation pages, and pronunciation videos by Japanese Pod 101. I’m sure there are other excellent videos, available, but these are the two main sources I’ve used. Campanas de Japanese (which is in English) also seems very good.

With either method, what you should aim to acquire is a good sense of the correct tongue, mouth and jaw position for each sound, along with the right movements to make it. You can then use this knowledge to create reference points for each sound so you can check yourself rapidly during practice. I think the main problem sounds for English speakers are the う vowel sound, some of the dental sounds (mainly し、じ、ち), the H row (especially ふ – it’s not an English F), the Japanese R (shared with Spanish, if I’m not wrong), and the Japanese W, which is basically a version of う. The えand お sounds might also require perfecting, but they’re not really sounds English doesn’t have. (Depends on the dialect of English you speak, of course.)

  1. Learn the framework for pitch accent so you can spot what to listen out for:
    I think watching Dogen’s introductory video should be enough, plus maybe a few other videos covering pitch accent (e.g. by Japanese Ammo with Misa, or certain videos covering common patterns). Here’s a post in which I compiled a few videos on pitch accents. There are two major things to look out for:
  • When does the pitch drop? (i.e. Which is the last high syllable/mora? The accent is said to be ‘on’ that syllable.)
  • How does pitch change when a particle is added? (i.e. Is the particle at the same pitch as the last syllable of the word?)

This should be enough for you to start categorising words (very roughly) in your head based on when the pitch drops. Basically, the general rule is that pitch rises starting from the first mora (quick note: きょう is one syllable, but two morae (kyo-u); one mora = one beat/clap), meaning the first mora is low and the second is high. It then stays high until the drop, and stays low for the rest of the word. Pitch drops only once per word, no more. Only exceptions to what I just said:

  • The atamadaka (頭高-head high) pattern, where the accent is on the first syllable, meaning that syllable is high, and the rest are low.
  • The heiban (平板-flat board) pattern, where the accent is on syllable 0 (i.e. unaccented word). The pitch starts low, rises and stays high all the way. The particle that connects to this word will be at the same pitch as the rest of the word.

When words combine to form compound words, the general rule is that they become へ-shaped: the pitch rises, stays high, and then falls. This isn’t always true, but it’s true for most compound words, regardless of what the original pitch accents were. Example: 記念– pattern [0]; 写真 – pattern [0]; 記念写真 – pattern [3] (if I remember correctly) Either way, the point is to know that there will probably be a pitch drop and to look out for it.

If I’m not wrong, another general rule is that pitch variations tend to flatten out when we speak fast, especially over the course of a long phrase. In particular, for 平板 words, there’s no need to ‘reset’ your pitch to ‘low’ in order to pronounce one: just start at whatever pitch you’re already at and pronounce it. If your pitch is already ‘high’, the 平板 word’s pitch pattern will typically become completely flat. If your pitch was ‘low’, there will be slightly more variation, but the 平板 word will still be basically flat.

In any case, I’m no pitch accent expert, so I think shadowing (i.e. careful listening and imitation) is the best approach, but just being aware of these patterns should help you look out for them and remember the pronunciations you learn better.


I’ve read that a lot of listening to Japanese is theoretically supposed to help.

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Thanks for all the advice! This will be my responses to a few of the points I found to be more important / helpful to avoid writing a ridiculously long essay or something along those lines.

I saw a few people make this point. I don’t think I am, though, since that would be too easy.

No point in quoting this, I just thought it was fun to say.

This also came up a few times, and is definitely reasonable.

I’d tried doing this from some sentence samples from a grammar textbook I was following. Now that I think about it, I should absolutely be listening to that isn’t trying to teach me grammar at the same time (and as the main focus). Thanks for the advice, but now I feel like a tad of a fool.

Lucky me, I’ve been nerding out over the IPA and other linguistics stuff for a few years. This makes it a lot easier to learn stuff. I had actually already looked at that a few times, but then I saw a few words written with sounds like velar approximates that I’d never heard any mention of anywhere else and that just made everything worse (I think I can pronounce it, but I wouldn’t know where to without any more context).

I hadn’t heard mention of that specific quirk before, I’ll make sure to look into it. Beyond that, I should have bothered to mention that my real issues have been about 1/3 pitch accent 1/3 r-column (I think this has gotten better recently?) and 1/3 ん.

This description was super helpful, in the past I was just bumbling around with highs and lows. I’ll make sure to read into that (and the particle funniness mentioned) more.

And guess what, it turned into an essay anyways!


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