Having an accent when you speak Japanese isn’t always a bad thing – unless it prevents other people from understanding what you’re saying! The good news is that there is indeed a way to learn how to speak with a Japanese accent, even if you’re not Japanese!
But how do people get accents in the first place? Or better yet, how can they get rid of them if that’s what they want to do?
I’ve identified 7-reasons why people have gaijin accents (sometimes thick, and sometimes not so thick) when they speak Japanese.
See them below to find out if you’re guilty of engaging in any of the causes of a thick accent, and if so, learn what you can do to stop them and thereby improve the way your spoken Japanese sounds!
1 – You’ve Been Learning Spoken Japanese With You Eyes, And Not Your Ears
It’s really not your fault. Humans have evolved to rely very heavily on their sense of sight to take in new information and figure out what it means.
Just think about how much you favor learning new things through your eyeballs, rather than your ears:
- Reading books or instructional manuals
- Watching videos
- Seeing other people do something
- Looking at a step by step guide that shows pictures of the process
But when it comes to learning how to speak a language, you really do have to use your ears.
When you use you eyes, you are learning to read Japanese. But the spoken word only actually exists within the auditory world.
Kana and Kanji, are a written representation of the spoken language – They are not the spoken language itself.
What’s the solution? Spend more time learning Japanese by hearing it with your ears, instead of primarily learning it through reading books and such.
2 – You Use Your Gaijin Mouth To Speak Japanese Words
I watched an interesting video once: It was a guy speaking Japanese, but with different accents from around the world.
What was fascinating about it was that I could identify which country each accent was from just by listening to it, because they all had that same “flavor” in Japanese as they do in English.
In other words, a Russian accent actually sounds the same when someone speaks Japanese, as it does when they speak English.
That’s because every language has its own range of available sounds. When you learn a new language, there is a tendency to use the sounds of your native language to produce the words in the new language.
It’s usually not an intentional thing, it’s just that it’s easier to use the sounds you’re most familiar with. But that means it’s harder for Japanese people to understand you, because you’re using sounds that literally don’t exist in native Japanese!
What’s the solution? It’s a two-step process: Step 1 is learn the native sounds of Japanese. Step 2 is only use those sounds when speaking Japanese.
3 – You Haven’t Gotten In Enough Listening Time With Japanese
Have you ever had that experience where you’re listing to a song you really like, and all of a sudden you hear a new instrument or melody within the song that you never heard there before?
The reality is that it was always a part of the song, but you just couldn’t hear it because your attention was always focused on the main parts of the song, and the subtle parts got drowned out.
But with repeated listening, your brain starts to pay less attention to the main parts of the song since it has already heard them 10 or 20 times, and instead your attention picks up those little things you had always missed hearing!
It’s the same thing with language.
At first, your brain and ears are only going to catch the big obvious parts of the spoken language. But after you’ve listened to words and phrases for dozens and hundreds of hours, you are going to start picking up on all those smaller aspects of the language that you just couldn’t hear before.
And once you’re able to hear them clearly, you’ll then be able to reproduce them yourself.
What’s the solution? Listen to lots and lots of Japanese. You don’t have to understand everything you hear the first time, or even the tenth time. With repeated listening, your brain will get better at fully hearing everything that’s said.
4 – You Lack Confidence While You Are Speaking Japanese
Have you ever listened to someone speaking your native language when they were really nervous or full of self-doubt?
They sounded kind of weird, didn’t they? Their voice was shaking, there were lots of pauses and awkward silences, and you could tell that they wern’t really sure what to say next.
A similar thing happens when you speak Japanese, but you’re not confident in yourself while doing so.
If you start speaking Japanese, but you’re really scared while you do so, then you’ll tend to trip over words, mess up pronunciations that you’re normally fine with, and often times put unnatural stress on different syllables in words.
But when you’re confident in yourself, and in your ability to speak Japanese, you speak at a normal pace without really thinking about it too much.
When you’re confident, you’re relaxed! And this relaxed state of mind is the lubricant that allows your words and phrases to slide out of your mouth in a very natural way.
What’s the solution? Learn to speak Japanese with confidence! It is usually a combination of two things: 1) – Knowing lots of words and phrases, and 2) – Having a lot of experience using those words and phrases.
5 – You’re Creative With The Language, Instead Of Being A Copy-Cat
Language is really just a memory game. When you break it down, all languages are simply a collection of repeated patterns.
If I were to say to you, “This is so easy, it’s like shooting …. in a …..!” Pretty much all of you would know that the two words I just blanked out are fish and barrel.
Even though technically I could have used any two nouns in there, the fact of the matter is the “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel” is a common pattern that everyone is familiar with.
Here’s the point I’m trying to make: Japanese has it’s own patterns, and they are different from English.
The way you phrase certain things in Japanese is often completely different from how they are phrased in English. And yet most people try to take an English phrase and change it word by word into Japanese.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work. The Japanese population doesn’t really know those English patterns.
What’s the solution? Learn the Japanese patterns! This can be done either through a lot of exposure to natural Japanese in books and shows, or you can ask a native a question such as, “How would you naturally say ‘this phrase’ in Japanese?”
6 – You’ve Stopped Trying To Improve, Because “Eh… It’s Close Enough!”
Have you ever noticed how some people live for years and years in another country, but never really master the local language? I believe what happens is that they only learn enough to “get by” in their day to day interactions with natives.
Why don’t they learn the language to fluency? Because most of the time they don’t have to in order to live their lives.
If you live in Japan, but your life if still filled with English things (books, movies, video games, news, etc) then you probably won’t ever get to a high level of the language, and that includes a high level of phonetic mastery!
In order to attain this true mastery, you have to alter your life (at least a little) so that you are getting a constant supply of the language that you are learning.
What’s the solution? Start changing your life into Japanese. Want to buy a new anime that looks really good? Get the Japanese version instead. Rinse and repeat this philosophy into as many other areas of your life as you can.
7 – You Still Have To Think About What You’re About To Say
When you think about how languages are actually used in real life, you realize that it’s all about speaking in phrases and sentences.
What’s interesting is that a complete sentence has a certain *musical* quality to it.
- There’s some rhythm.
- There’s some rhyme.
- There’re some breaks.
- There’re some rushes.
- Sometimes you hear tonality.
- Sometimes you hear flatness.
And all of these things happen at the speed of thought! You make the music of conversation as your thoughts appear in your head.
Hey, some people even talk without thinking first!
But unless you’ve mastered a certain amount of Japanese, you will still have to think about the words you’re using and the correct way to organize them with grammar.
It kind of kills the fluidity that natives use, and it also alters the way your words sound when you say them.
What’s the solution? Lots of practice speaking the language. First you want to learn a lot of words, and get the sound part of the language down. But after that, you have to use the spoken language a lot, until you get to the point where you’re not even thinking about it anymore.
A Little Bit Of An Accent Is Actually Rather Charming
I can only speak from my own personal experience, but I actually prefer it when people from other countries have a touch of an accent when they speak my language.
I imagine a lot of Japanese people feel the same way about foreigner’s speaking Japanese too.
Sure, it’s impressive as hell when a non-native speaks the language flawlessly (they might even be a spy!), but there’s that little bit of mystique and mystery added when you add a piece of your home country to your words when you speak.
The only caveat is that it cannot, in any way, slow down comprehension for the person listening.
Pretty much everyone can understand their native language as quickly as another native can speak it.
So when you have to spend an extra second or two trying to comprehend your language through an accent, it slows down the conversation and makes the whole thing turn into work.
People don’t like to work to understand what you’re trying to say to them. Plain and simple.
That’s the primary reason to eliminate, or at least reduce, your natural accent when speaking Japanese.
And if you’d like a way to speak Japanese with a native like accent, you’ll definitely want to read this.
What do you think? Should you aim to speak perfectly like a native? Is it OK to have somewhat of an accent?
Let me know with a comment below!