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.