Suddenly I'm aware of my accent and I can't stand it


#1

I used to think that my accent when speaking Japanese was, while not perfect was still pretty good for a foreigner . I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Over the past couple of months I been doing shadowing exercises and actively listening to japanese audio on a daily basis. Doing this has improved my ear and as a result had made me painfully aware of how strong my accent is. It has gotten to the point where I internally cringe every time I speak out loud.

Has anybody got any tips for improving my pronunciation/accent and any tips on how to continue practicing speaking while
also being extremely unsatisfied with how I sound.


#2

There’s basically nothing you can do to eliminate your accent entirely. Just listen to famous non-native speakers who have been fluent for decades. But you can become more natural in your pronunciation, intonation, and word usage and then no one will care that they can still tell you’re not a native Japanese.


#3

I can totally relate, I feel so gruff and as a native English speaker even “Germanic” when speaking Japanese, which is a kind of depressing (because my ideal is to sound Japanese, not that there’s anything wrong with German). And my laugh makes me shudder with how brassy and crass it uncontrollably is. I keep going because of a kind Japanese lady who reassured me, “Everyone has an accent, in Japan we have different accents, even here in America you all have different accents. The important thing is to keep talking anyways.” So while I still will work to improve my natural rhythm and pronunciation, I try to remind myself of the many English speakers I know with various accents whose voices I appreciate and enjoy listening to. It helps to maybe even imagine that a little residual accent could be considered sexy by a native speaker someday.


#4

While my vocabulary is laughably terrible, literally every single person I ever talked to while I was in Japan said my accent was perfect, and that I sounded like a Japanese person.

Japanese people are known for being overly polite, so who knows how accurate that is, but I’m willing to bet my pronunciation is at least alright.

First of all, continue listening to as much actual Japanese dialogue as possible. That’s definitely the first step.

The most helpful system for me while learning Japanese has been Pimsleur’s Japanese. They follow the same spaced repetition system Wanikani uses, except it’s all just audio lessons. They tell you a word in Japanese and what it means in English, and they’ll pretty much only ever ask you to say things in Japanese. You HAVE to actually say things out loud. When you start, what you think in your head, and what you actually say will probably be very different. Everything you hear Japanese wise from Pimsleur will be from native Japanese speakers. None of the terrible English accents you might here from other similar audio lessons. They also don’t overdo it with the super soft and nasally “proper” Japanese accents you’ll get from other audio. Just normal Japanese, like normal people actually talk.

Pimsleur is definitely what helped my pronunciation the most. The lessons are fairly expensive, but can be “acquired” easily by other means, if you get my drift.

There’s also a couple things you should know about Japanese that you can focus on mentally to improve your accent.

First of all, Japanese is really as phonetic as some people make it out to be. There are a lot of instances where sounds run together in a way that isn’t obvious if just reading the word.

Sounds like “su” and “shi” are almost always pronounced as just “s” and “shi” if they come at the end of a word, or are followed by a consonant sound.

Also, vowel sounds are a lot shorter than you’d probably be taught in any intro to Japanese course. “U” isn’t “ooo”. “E” isn’t a long A sound. “U” is more like a short “oof”, without the “f”. It’s hard to describe. Kind of like how Bill pronounces the “oo” in Sookie Stackhouse. (Google that if you don’t know what I’m saying.) “E” is almost exactly like a short “e” sound in English, like the “e” in “set”. This general idea goes for all vowels. They’re all pretty much never drawn out. Just barely make the sound, and stop.

Japanese in general strings sounds together much faster than you might realize, which again goes into the first point about sounds being shortened. You pretty much want to have every single sound be as short as it can possibly be while still differentiating it from other sounds. Which is actually because of the next point…

Something that you’d never realize, unless you were specifically told or watch a lot of Japanese people talk, is that Japanese is pretty much entirely spoken using just your vocal cords, tongue placement, and lip shape. Virtually no throat or mouth muscles are used. I’m probably describing that poorly, but when you’re speaking Japanese, the less you move your mouth, the better. It isn’t absolutely necessary to do this to have a good accent, but it helps. I move my mouth/throat quite a bit still when I speak in Japanese.

With all that said, the best thing you can probably do is “acquire” Pimsleur’s lessons by some means, and do those audio lessons. That, or find some youtube vids by Japanese people, and just spend a lot of time listening, pausing, and repeating.


#5

They’re blowing sunshine up your skirt. Not to say your pronunciation is bad, it might be perfect. But a foreign accent in Japanese is characterized more often by unnatural intonation than incorrect pronunciation, and the odds of having a native pitch accent pattern without a ton of practice are slim to none.

It also depends how long you spend talking. It’s easier to nail native accent on one おはようございます!than it is to keep it going for a conversation.


#6

Yeah. That’s why I pointed out most of my practice came from reciting audio lessons, and I also pointed out my vocabulary isn’t great. So, yes, I have a LOT of practice for VERY few words.

Don’t get me wrong. My students absolutely called me out whenever I pronounced things wrong, and it happened a lot, especially with names. But for a lot of my vocabulary, I learned it specifically through audio lessons, and never saw the word in writing before hand, so I never even had a chance to make an incorrect association with those words.

While Japanese, on paper, has pitched accents, in practice, this really only applies to some words. Maybe I’m completely wrong on that, but you’ll get different pitches and accents on the same word from different Japanese people in different situations. Pitch and accent seem to have switched more to delivering the tone of a sentence, rather than the meaning of words.

Also, I’ve had non-Japanese people who are fluent speakers (Actual N1 Level) tell me my accent is good, too. Maybe they aren’t as good of judges, but these people really had no reason to be overly polite to me. They ranged from girlfriends to drinking buddies. Plenty of people willing to take a jab at me when the opportunity presented itself. Haha.


#7

Every word in Japanese has a pitch accent (edit: every word fits a pitch pattern, not all are accented). It has to. If the first mora is low, the next has to be high, if the first is high the next has to be low, etc, so there are some specific rules that won’t get broken.

You’re right that different people in different regions use different pitch accent patterns. But they’re just that, patterns. A Japanese person won’t jump all over the place within one sentence, using a Tokyo pitch accent for the first word, then Kansai for the second word, and Kyushu for the third.

It doesn’t often impact understanding, but having jumbled or unnatural pitch accent immediately sounds “foreign” to Japanese people. So that’s why it’s considered a marker of a foreign accent.

I also don’t doubt you heard nice things from people, but yeah, I would toss any accent compliments you heard from non-natives out the window. Almost no one studies pitch accent.


#8

I was curious, so I just checked out Japanese pitch accent on Wikipedia.

Maybe I just got lucky. I lived in one of the “no accent” places, so maybe it just didn’t matter as much to the people around me. Haha.


#9

The “accent” on a word is the downstep from high to low. So I can imagine a place where they have no downstep for all words, but the trickiness would be not allowing your first language tendencies to creep in.

Sometimes it works well for English speakers. A word like 食べる has a downstep on the last mora, coincidentally making it similar to stress patterns in English. So English speakers often say that word with a proper Tokyo pattern with no practice. But then they will apply the same thing to other verbs that don’t have the same pattern without realizing they’re even doing it.

I’d be interested to listen to people from places that have no accented words. But that’s still a pattern in its own right.


#10

Studying pitch accent can be helpful. I’ve been cataloging a bunch of resources and there is some good discussion here:

I particularly recommend Dogen’s course on Patreon, if you don’t mind contributing. It’s really clear and well-organized.

I also am a believer in shadowing and believe it becomes exponentially more useful once you’ve spent some time studying pitch accent – and therefore know what to listen for. (although that’s just me talking about my own experience, as I’m just an intermediate learner and by no means an expert)

Good luck


#11

Without actually hearing a recording, there’s not much to say.

But, here’s a rundown of things:

1.) Make sure you’re actually pronouncing the sounds right. This can go a long way, and things like the fact that う is unrounded trip a lot of people up. That’s a lot more minor than something like ラ形 but it’s still worth noting.

2.) Long vowels and the Sokuon are important. Sometimes I even tend to over-exaggerate these. Just don’t ignore it. Words that have a length distinction in them like 叙情 is a good place to start.

3.) Pitch accent. Little bit on this. As mentioned elsewhere, this varies, and to some extent it’s whether you sound like you’re speaking in a Tokyo accent or not. But more importantly you don’t want any odd accents coming in here or stress accents. If it’s something totally off-base that’s what makes it sound more like a foreigner than a regional accent.

4.) Other appropriate intonations, it’s not always the same as English. Also, the general rhythm of the language. Putting your pauses in weird places can make you sound odd. For example, 私は。。。名前 and not 私。。。は名前.

5.) Last, but not least, and not as simple as it sounds pronounce English loanwords in Japanese and Japanese loanwords in English, properly. It may be hard to feel like you’re saying words “incorrectly”, but it can be grating when you’re trying to say バージョン and “Version” comes out. This also goes for words like カラオケ and 空手 that have distinctly different pronunciations in English.


#12

My Japanese friends always said mine was perfect and I’ve only recently realized that it soooo is not. o no Heck.

The dialect I speak has really different intonation from the general dialect, so it’s kinda hard to use most Japanese materials for studying intonation. A lot of people not from here often mistake my dialect for wrong Japanese and try to correct it, too. OTL I guess it’s hard to distinguish between my foreign mistakes and just my weird dialect so people don’t bother trying to correct it??


#13

I’m interested to know what you mean here. I don’t know what unrounded means, or what ラ形 is. I want to improve! :slight_smile:


#14

ラ形 here is just referring to the “r” sounds.

As far as unrounded, it literally means unround your lips. Just say a normal English “U” and you’ll notice this.

The thing about vowels is they exist on more of a spectrum than consonants. So multiple slightly different sounds can all still be a “u” for example.

Minor edit: I guess Unrounded isn’t the right word but “Compressed” anyway, here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Close_back_rounded_vowel#Close_back_compressed_vowel


#15

Ah I’ve caught myself mapping easy to say accent patterns to other words that shouldn’t use it. Something else for me to watch out for.


#16

Dogen seems to push studying pitch accent exclusively at least for the beginning of your studies. Would implementing his course in to my routine still be beneficial even though I am studying other aspects of japanese?


#17

Can you carry on a conversation in Japanese yet? If not, I wouldn’t worry about losing your accent. Learn to walk before you try to run.

Pitch accent is a very technical way to study Japanese pronunciation. If you’ve got a good ear, you may fine just listening to native speakers and mimicking their speech. Use whatever works for you.


#18

Yeah that may be the only thing I’ve heard him say that I really disagree with … I think he’s aiming that comment at people who’s goal is to have a near-perfect native accent, and people who have are willing to spend a long time getting there. It’s a very perfectionist mindset.

From my own personal experience (which is, again… imperfect but all I have to go on) incorporating some pitch-accent study in to your routine is unquestionably beneficial, and doing any is better than none. His course really doesn’t take too much time at all… at least not compared to the hundreds of hours you’re gonna spend on WK…


#19

That fact that you can hear it is actually an AMAZING first step. Getting yourself down is really counter productive. You seem of the right track! Practice paying attention and copying natural pronunciation and pitch. But also have fun with it! Be more happy when you get it right then you are mad when you get it wrong. It’s all heading you in the right direction. My three year old niece doesn’t have perfect pronunciation, but she will, and believe me it doesn’t stop her from bossing us all around.