How To Pronounce Japanese Like A Native

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Photo by Rebecca Miller
April 17, 2017

In his excellent book Japanese Beyond Words, Andrew Horvat tells the apocryphal story of a couple walking in the park under a beautiful moon. Entranced by the scene, the man looks over and whispers to the woman what sounds like 好き sukiです (I love you). After a very awkward silence, the man manages to explain that he was actually trying to say tsukiです (the moon), saving everyone’s blushes.

Horvat points out that this misunderstanding could have been avoided if the speaker had practiced saying the words “prints of” before inadvertently declaring his love. The “ts” sound in this English word-coupling has a similar sound to the Japanese つ and can be used as a “place setter” until you have the correct pronunciation down.

つ is so tricky for English speakers to get their mouths around that it is written in three letters — compared to the two letters that most other Japanese characters are represented by. The good news is that the other two characters that are represented by three letters, し and ち, are somewhat similar to their equivalents in English characters.

There are differences though. The Japanese versions of these words should be pronounced closer to the teeth as opposed to the palette in English. Imagine focusing your breath on the back of your upper front teeth to master these sounds.

While し,ち and つ require three letters to represent their unique sounds, on the opposite end of the spectrum are the ん-sounds which only require one (or two if you include な, に, ぬ, ね, and の) letter to represent them. However, in this apparent simplicity lurks a trap for unwary learners: there are actually many different ん-sounds all represented by the same character.

Even native speakers are not aware of this aspect of their language. If you want to surprise a Japanese native speaker, tell them that there are four different ん-sounds in the sentence 難波 nanba千円 sen en miつけた.

While most Japanese people immediately recognize that な and ん are different sounds, they are often surprised to discover that the character ん has three different pronunciations here!

Of these three ん-sounds, many learners find the ん-sound in the middle of 千円 notoriously difficult. Unlike most n-sounds in English, the Japanese ん is aerated in a tricky way for English speakers.

Luckily the writer Tony Backhouse has a solution for this in his excellent book The Japanese Language: An Introduction. He recommends that we use the “n” sound of the word “sing” as an approximate equivalent to this tricky ん-sound for practicing in class.

Glottal stops

After you have mastered these tongue-twisting sounds. The next thing to master are sounds that don’t take place in the mouth, but rather in the glottis in the larynx. Often called “glottal stops,” they are sounds made by briefly trapping air in the glottis.

In Japanese, this is indicated by the っ-symbol, especially with the consonants “k” and “t” such as in the words ばっかり (only) and 経った (time passed). The similarity between the short form of ばっかり and the word for an idiot (ばっか and ばか respectively) should be sufficient motivation for anyone to spend time mastering the Japanese glottal stop!

English doesn’t have so many glottal stops but to get an idea of what one feels like put your hand gently on your throat and say “uh-oh.” While it is quite different to both っか and った, it will at least give you the feeling of the glottal movement.

While the っ involves some throat gymnastics, another tricky sound い simply involves less gurning than its English equivalent. The ee-sound of the word “sheet’” offers a good temporary substitute for the い-sound of Japanese and is a great way to practice the common phrase いいだね (it’s good).

While everyone has a story about not being understood while speaking Japanese, a part of this is that many Japanese lack exposure to non-native Japanese, so aren’t able to infer the meaning from slightly irregular pronunciation. By using these equivalents as training wheels, practicing repeatedly and then asking native speakers to give you feedback, you will be able to master pronunciation in far less time.

Have you ever made any pronunciation mishaps when speaking Japanese? Or got any tips for mastering the right pronunciation? Let us know in the comments! 

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