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Overcome Pronunciation Hurdles with Your Japanese Students

The more you understand your student, the better you can educate them; and pronunciation is no exception.

By 3 min read 14

It is always said that the more you understand your student, the better you can educate them; and pronunciation is no exception. Understanding the madness behind why native Japanese speakers have certain pronunciation problems will not only bring you success as a teacher, but will change how they view and hear English forever.

During English as a second language lessons with Japanese students, pronunciation is always one of their biggest hurdles. Here are some of the most difficult sounds for Japanese English learners, and how you as a teacher can help them sound like a native.

L and R

How many times have you heard your Japanese student talk about subjects like the presidential “erection” or  their “reft and light” hands? Probably too many times to count, all while you’re using all of your willpower to keep from laughing. While it may seem funny at times there is a reason behind it.

In Japanese, the “らりるれろ” sounds in their alphabet are written in romaji as “ra ri ru re ro,” but in fact are not R sounds at all. These sounds are made by a flick of the tongue on the roof of your mouth, which literally creates an in-between L and R sound never used in English. So, in their minds, r and l are combined anyway, so what’s the difference?

This is where an excellent teaching point (and lots of patience) comes in. Teach them that the L sound is actually done by sticking your tongue between your teeth, don’t let it flick the roof! And the R sound, that one doesn’t let the tip of your tongue touch anything. It just sits there, with the back slightly raised, no flicking! This seems simple, but really takes hours of practice for someone who’s never tried this before.


I’ll never forget the time that one of my Japanese students told me about Generar Mak-Aa-Saa. I repeated, “makasaa?” He said, “Yes! Don’t you know him?” It wasn’t until after I had him write it down that I realized he was saying “General MacArthur.” Then I also realized we have a lot of work to do.

The さ (sa) sound in Japanese is very common, and even comes in handy for the English sound too. But unfortunately, it is the closest sound they have to our TH (voiced or unvoiced) in English. So, you’ll get words like “sat” (that), “sing” (thing), and “saad” (third) that can really alter the meaning of the whole conversation.

At this point, you can give them another toungue-tip! Showing them that the tip of your tongue goes behind the front teeth and let’s minimal air pass through might just change their whole perspective on the “th.” And next time you talk about history, you just may hear a “Mak-aa-thuh” in the mix.

FU or HU

Finally, the most unsuspecting sounds that need focus in a lesson: the “fu” and “hu” sounds in English. The nearest equivalent in Japanese is the ふ sound, which can be written as fu or hu in romaji. However, the japanese ふ is literally a cross between the English fu and hu, slightly allowing air to pass under the teeth but not as harsh as an F sound. So, you’ll get students who say “I pulled my food over my head” or “foo are you?” This is because, again, their is no distinction between the two in their language.

So, take the time to explain the harshness of an F sound as opposed to the gentle O shape of the lips for an H sound. They will appreciate the correction and be happy to not describe food on their head in the future.

Of course there are other major obstacles to deal with when learning English, but starting with the basics of pronunciation will give students a huge advantage. And these are lessons for any age, any skill level; because anyone can make these mistakes if they have grown up in a primarily Japanese environment.

Take the time today to understand these pronunciation differences and how to teach them to your Japanese students.

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  • Great post – Thanks for sharing!

  • Jinxter says:

    I have helped my American born friends (I am half-Japanese, born in Japan, parts of my childhood and all of my teen years spent in Japan) pronounce the らりるれろ sounds by telling them to pronounce an L & D sound at the same time. I also liken it to a Spanish rolled R, with less of a roll.

    Now with my Japanese friends, I would tell them the L is pronounced by touching the tip of the tongue to the bottom of the front teeth. I would also attempt to teach them how to say Love…a word with 2 sounds Japanese does not have, L and V. I would tell them to pronounce the V by placing the tip of their bottom teeth against their upper lip. I would have them exaggerate the movements and after several weeks, most of my friends could say L and V sounds quite well. R sounds on the other hand…My Mom still has issues with Rs.

  • Risa says:

    In the experience of my colleagues and I, Japanese schools push American pronunciation. There are quite a few ALTs from other countries, but the spelling and pronunciation that is expected of the students is that of America.

  • jeri says:

    sank you for explaining this soroughly.

  • Boey Kwan says:

    Though that’s true, we are teaching the students the English language. In English, ‘r’ is pronounced a certain way, just another quirky but respectable difference between languages!

    Note: I’m actually Chinese, and I agree. It’s like how most of the world’s population have what we call “small eyes”, but somehow the larger-eyed people are labelled “the norm”. xD

  • yohan says:

    I feel the same. So sometimes I have to show the formation of the tongue,mouth and so on or give them the illustration. It’s much more difficult if it’s an online class.

  • Josh Craft says:

    I usually point out words that sound similar, like your example of “food and hood”. My favorite is “birthday and bathday”. I end up saying something really silly, the students laugh, but understand there is a difference, and don’t want to make that mistake.

  • Ronald Ivan says:

    There’s also the V and B, G and Z and J, and also getting them to pronounce words that need to end with clear consonants sounds.

    • kelsey says:

      Yes, those are some of the other common ones. Japanese pronunciation is just much more simple compared to English.

  • Winnie the Pooh says:

    This is great. It’s a good idea to teach people all about the proper points of articulation for pronunciation (as a speech therapist would). Drawing pictures of the vocal tract from the side w/ the tongue position for articulation of troublesome sounds is a great way to help people get it. I would definitely suggest for anyone to teach about place of articulation, manner of articulation, and voicing–all essential phonetics subject matter for understanding [how to adjust] pronunciation.

    Note on R: there are 2 major ways people articulate this. The ‘bunched’ method as described in the post, and the ‘retroflex’ method which is curling the tip of the tongue up & backwards. I generally do a retroflex R. The latter will help you if you ever decide to learn Mandarin, too.

    Note on TH: an x-treme effective way to correct this immediately would probably be to just sandwich the tip of the tongue between the teeth*. (This is actually how a lot of people, including myself, articulate it normally.) This sound is often referred to as an ‘interdental’ fricative to indicate that point of articulation, but it’s also more generally referred to as a ‘dental’ fricative. The tongue being in a tooth sandwich, or behind the top teeth, are all technically OK ways to produce the phoneme, at least in English. In my opinion, though, trying to articulate it behind the top teeth sounds too close to an alveolar sibilant (or fricative), putting it in lisp territory. I think strictly interdental articulation sounds the most ‘proper’. These variations don’t change the meaning of the sound (in English they’re allophones), but some people can tell the difference.

    *Do it lightly. I will not be held responsible for biting your tongue.

    • kelsey says:

      Thanks for that info! This is really great for people who want to teach professionally and take pronunciation lessons seriously.



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