One of the hardest areas of English for a Japanese learner is pronunciation.
You can have flawless grammar and an immense vocabulary range but without the right awareness and practice, pronunciation can let you down and make it difficult for listeners to know what you are trying to say.
This article will improve your pronunciation by looking at the differences between English and Japanese, specific problem areas for Japanese learners and how to overcome them.
So, let’s make a start on improving your pronunciation!
First let’s look at some of the general differences you are likely to encounter between the two languages.
Number of Phonemes
A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in language.
An example in Japanese would be “か” which is made up of a /k/ sound and an /a/ sound. (two phonemes).
Altogether, Japanese has around 15 – 29 of these phonemes. English however, has 44! This means there are plenty of new sounds to learn.
Not only are there more consonant sounds to learn. These consonants also appear in places that may feel quite odd for a Japanese learner.
Consonants appearing at the end of words as well as grouping consonants together (clusters) can be particularly tricky as these sounds appear rarely in the Japanese language.
While tonality is used in Japanese to distinguish between certain words (e.g. 橋 & 箸), in English we change a lot more.
Not only is the pitch slightly higher on stressed syllables, we also tend to say the syllable louder and can make it last longer.
As well as syllable stress, we can employ the use of word stress to change the focus of a sentence.
Did Dave steal the cookie? (The speaker wants to know what dave stole.)
Did Dave steal the cookie? (The speaker wants to know who stole the cookie.)
L / R (らりるれろ)
Now we’ve looked at some of the general differences we are ready to look at some of the details and what better place to start than the L / R sounds.
This is one of the most common pronunciation issues I experience with Japanese learners and for good reason. The English “l” and “r” simply don’t exist in Japanese.
Any English loan words that use these get transformed into (らりるれろ) and so you will need to retrain your ears and mind to both distinguish between the “l” and “r” and then to be able to produce them.
L Sound (Light L)
The light l is the easier of these to master. It is very similar to the (らりるれろ) sound in Japanese but we do need to change it a little.
Instead of lightly flicking the top of your mouth with your tongue, you will need to push the tongue harder into the top of the mouth before flicking it forwards. This will create a much clearer sound.
L Sound (Dark L)
This sound is similar but could be a little trickier as it doesn’t exist in Japanese. The dark l is the sound that comes at the end of a word.
In order to create this sound we first open the mouth (while keeping the tongue flat) and then simply raise the tongue and touch it to the top of the mouth (after a vowel).
This is easy to do but to ensure it sounds right, keep the tongue forwards in the mouth (just behind the front teeth) and make sure you push the tongue up hard enough. It will take some experimenting to find the right place but keep practising once you’ve found it to build the habit.
This is usually one of the most difficult sounds in English for a Japanese learner to make. Let’s break it down.
- Start with the lips slightly apart but keep the teeth fairly close together. The mid / back of the tongue wants to be raised slightly and touching the back teeth. Keep the front of the tongue low.
- Open the mouth and pull the tongue back in the mouth slightly. Again, keep the front of the tongue low!
It’s a good thing to watch yourself in the mirror as you do this and focus on where your tongue is. This will be the hardest part to get right.
Once you have the basics down then use the R / L tongue twisters in order to build dexterity and sound more fluent.
S / Sh (し)
Let’s look at the word “sin”. The first syllable has an /s/ sound followed by an /I/ sound.
However, the natural instinct may be to pronounce this word as “shin” because “shi” (し) is what would be used in Japanese.
This is an area that is more mental than physical as making this sound is fairly simple and all of my students can make this sound on request.
Pick a few words that use this sound and focus on your pronunciation on a regular basis. This problem will soon disappear.
V / F
Two sounds that again don’t exist in Japanese. Let’s look at how to make both.
The /v/ sound often gets morphed into a /b/ sound in Japanese. It is close but we need to modify it slightly.
First, it’s important to note that the lips should not touch when making this sound.
Instead, you want to make your top teeth touch your bottom lip. Vibrate the vocal cords as usual (while your teeth are still touching the lip) and then open the mouth.
To make the /f/ sound it is better to ignore the ふ sound in Japanese (which is often used with loan words).
Instead, start with the /v/ sound (top teeth to bottom lip) and apply more force to the sound to make the English /f/.
It will take a little longer to make this sound as you have to move your teeth into the right place before opening the mouth but with time it will become more natural and quicker.
The voiced and voiceless Th sounds are very common in English so it’s important we get them right.
A lot of learners will want to make the /s/ and /z/ sounds. Although close these aren’t quite there.
In order to make to make the th sounds we want to start with our tongue in the same place as /s/ and /z/. However we need to push the tongue forwards into our front teeth.
This will block the air flow slightly and give us the right sound.
Again we can use Th tongue twisters in order to build dexterity with other similar sounds.
Closed syllables (syllables ending with a consonant) are difficult because like other things mentioned in this article, they don’t exist in Japanese. Most syllables in Japanese are open (they end with a vowel).
This means that there will be the urge to add an extra vowel to words such as “hot”, “cat”, “bed” etc. (It doesn’t help that there are loanwords for these! “ホット”、”キャット”、”ベッド”)
The way to train this area is to focus on the length of the vowel at the end and gradually shorten it.
We can take a word like “bed” and practice like so:
Another tricky area. Consonant clusters are where we have several consonants in a row:
They can be difficult again because there are no vowels in between but the good news is we can train them in the exact same way as consonant endings.
We can take a word like “text” and practise it like this:
As mentioned before, in English there are many more sounds to learn. There are around 12 monophthong vowel sounds. These are simple vowel sounds where the mouth stays the same shape as you make the sound (similar to how vowel sounds are made in Japanese).
In order to make these sounds you must first know what they sound like. You can look at the monophthong list which has examples of each vowel sound.
You can also use the IPA vowel chart which will play the audio for each vowel sound by itself and you will need audio.
Once you can hear the difference you are ready to try making the sounds. Take your time experimenting with your mouth and tongue placement. Keep adjusting until you can mimic the sound you hear.
This may be difficult at first as you are having to move your muscles in ways that they may never have moved before. Keep practising as often as you can. Just like in a gym, we are training muscles here so it will take time to develop the dexterity needed to consistently produce the right sounds.
Diphthongs are a more tricky area. In Japanese every vowel sound is treated as a separate part of a word.
Let’s look at the loan word “バイバイ”. Here we can see there are 4 syllables. However in the English “bye-bye” the a->i sound is treated as a single syllable.
This glide between simple vowel sounds is known as a diphthong and there are around 8 of these in English.
[ʊə] = poor
[oʊ] = host
[aʊ] = arouse
[aɪ] = eye
[eɪ] = pay
[oɪ] = boy
[ɪə] = here
[eə] = bear
The first step in mastering these is mentally seeing these as single units of sound. Once you can see them in this way the pronunciation becomes easier.
We then just need to speed up the transition between the two different monophthongs until the target sound is achieved.
As you’ll have seen throughout this article there have been a number of strange symbols such as “ʊ” and “ə”. These are used in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which is a standardised way of spelling words according to how they sound.
What this means is that instead of looking at a new word in English and guessing at the pronunciation, we can use the IPA spelling and know exactly how a word should sound.
As you can imagine, in a language like English where a word can sometimes be pronounced in a completely different way to how it looks, this is extremely useful!
In order to use this powerful system you must first figure out what the symbols represent on the IPA wiki.
After this you can search for pretty much any English word that you want using the Cambridge Dictionary. Not only does this dictionary have the IPA spelling for the words listed, but it also has the audio so you can check you have the right pronunciation.
If it helps then try writing out the IPA spelling next to a word you are trying to memorise the pronunciation of. It will take a little longer but your pronunciation will be much more accurate!
These are some of the most common pronunciation issues that Japanese learners have. Make sure to check out the pronunciation guide for general English pronunciation tips.
Remember to listen to the language as often as you can in order to become familiar with the “sound of the language” and be patient with your own progress.
The last thing to say is that although some people make great progress through self study, you are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t check your pronunciation with a teacher.
I’ve had students that have been self studying for years and in a single lesson I’ve managed to highlight areas for improvement in their pronunciation that they’ve never even known were a problem area.
Even if you can’t commit to studying with a teacher on a long term basis, one or two lessons will highlight the areas you need to focus on so you can improve by yourself at a much faster rate.
Check out the English Lessons page for more information and good luck with your studies!