Tactics

How to Improve on Your Japanese Pronunciation

This post is a little long, and was inspired by an article that I read on AJATT that was aptly named How to Pronounce Japanese.

I’m not going to go over the basics of Japanese pronunciation in this particular post, since the Beginner’s tab on the menu of Japanese Tactics does that pretty well (I hope).

But rather, I’m going to show you how to improve on your Japanese pronunciation as it is right now.

Beginners can certainly find a lot of value in this post, as it is one of those “how to learn” type of articles. But I’m mainly thinking of people (anyone) who speaks Japanese already, but with an accent that they’d like to get rid of, or at least reduce.

Let me start off by telling you about an insight I gleaned from a behind the scenes video on anime translation and adaptation. It all starts a long, long time ago…

When I Was a Kid

I remember watching a video about how they make the DUBs version of Japanese anime. It was the process that they use to put English words in the audio, in place of the Japanese that the animations were originally created for.

One of the only things I remember them saying is that they always have a hard time making the English words match with the movement of the mouth.

They said it was because in Japanese, there are only 3 mouth positions used in animation:

  1. Closed
  2. Half-way open
  3. All the way open

But in English, the human mouth actually has additional positions in animation like “tall, wide, round, thin” and so on.

In that article I read on AJATT, khatzumoto says to “keep you mouth tight” when speaking Japanese. And he is dead on with that comment!

With English, we tend to flap our mouths around like a kite in the wind. But in Japanese, all the vowels are long (if you don’t know what that means, don’t worry about it) and you barely have to move your mouth in order to create the sounds for the correct pronunciation of Japanese words.

There is one other example that I want to share with you. It has to do with the video game Final Fantasy XIII (also known as Final Hallway, lol)

Normally, video games that were created in Japan and then got localized in America got the same treatment as anime did. That is, the people doing the translation and editing would ask “what English words can we use that mean the same as the Japanese dialog, but still match the Japanese mouth movements?”

But Final Fantasy did something that nobody had ever done – they re-animated ALL mouth movements in the game to match the English words perfectly!

Interesting. But what’s my point?

The Japanese language uses less movements and shapes for the mouth, than English does. 

And yet, many English speaking students are utilizing their “English mouth” to speak Japanese.

You probably haven’t been told this before, but you need to use your “Japanese mouth” when speaking Japanese.

This is one of the reasons why some people have really thick accents. Because they’re using the wrong mouth and tongue positions for the Japanese language.

Some people say that “you will never eliminate your accent entirely” But we already know that that’s a load of crap.

Case in point, all the major governments have spies. Spies have perfect accents, otherwise it would give them away every time they opened their mouth and started talking.

You can read more about the story about how this literally happened here in the USA, where Russian spies had fooled all of their neighbors for years into thinking that they were native Americans.

Yes – you can achieve a perfect accent in any language. And that includes Japanese.

Luckily for you it is an easy fix for Japanese in particular. You don’t have to learn any new sounds (except for ら-り-る-れ-ろ) but instead you just have to limit or restrict some of your mouth’s movement when speaking.

But like anyone who has tried to break a habit will tell you, it’s way easier said than done.

You’ve been using your mouth to speak English your whole life, and now you’ve got to consciously stop talking the way you normally do, and instead talk the way a Japanese person would.

I’m going to give you some techniques, some “tools” if you will, that will help you to use your mouth correctly (like Japanese natives), and therefore improve the way your Japanese sounds.

But first, let me explain why some people naturally have a perfect accent, while others don’t.

Learning Japanese with Your Ears vs. with Your Eyes

You ever wonder why it is that children who grow up learning multiple languages tend to have a pitch perfect accent? But on the other hand adults pretty much always have some sort of accent that gives them away? Why is that?

I don’t have any scientific articles to link to, but I have a theory backed up by personal experience that it’s because of the way that children learn a new language, versus how adults typically learn it.

Children, usually can’t read all that well. At least, not until they are older and are in grade school. Don’t argue, just bear with me until I get to the point!

That means that when a child learns a new language, all they have to go off of is the way that language sounds. And they just mimic it as best that they can, over and over again.

In fact, the sound is the language in the child’s mind!

Compare that to adults though, and what is the first thing that they do when they want to learn a new language? They go pick up a book. Or make a search online for basic phrases. In other words, they learn a new language through sight.

This leads to the big problem: The input doesn’t match (≠) the output.

Now, this situation isn’t really a problem when it’s with a dead language (like Latin) and the only place you can find it is in books, but Japanese is far from being dead. It’s alive and kicking baby!

You can get close to (and guess) what a language sounds like by reading about the pronunciation rules in a book, but until you actually hear someone speak the language, you don’t truly know what it sounds like.

Trust me, there are a lot of subtle things that you don’t pick up on until you hear someone speaking Japanese correctly, over and over again.

It’s like learning to ride a bike by reading a book about it. You can get the general idea, but you won’t get it until you start riding that bike!

Here’s another reason, for Japanese in particular:

Ever wonder why people who stick with Rōmaji tend to have less than great Japanese pronunciation? It’s because the English alphabet was never intended to represent the native sounds of Japanese.

That’s what hiragana is for.

So when you see words written in the English alphabet, your brain says “OK, let’s speak us some English” but then you tell it “Wait, wait! This is Japanese, not English! Speak me some Japanese!”

It gets in the way and slows the whole process down.

But when you learn the elemental sounds of Japanese first, and then match those sounds with each hiragana that represents said sounds, then your brain doesn’t get in the way because you see hiragana, and think of the corresponding Japanese sound.

When you see the word “tooi” written like this in Rōmaji, you might be tempted to pronounce it like “tu-ee” or maybe “tu-eye” since that’s how it would be said in English. But when you see it written as 「とおい」 in hiragana, there is no confusion.

That’s one of the reasons you should learn hiragana right from the start.

Note that I only said hiragana and not all three writing systems! You can pick up all of the kana in hiragana within a week – tops! Leave katakana and kanji for later.

How to Sound Like a Native

Let’s start this list as if you were a beginner and then progress to the more advanced practices.

#1 – The first thing you need to do is learn the basic sounds of Japanese. That means finding an audio course or some videos on YouTube that will allow you to hear natives speaking.

This is actually one of the reasons why the two programs Pimsleur Japanese, and The Michel Thomas Method for Japanese are so incredible powerful: they are both pure audio!

Although the “other students” in The Michel Thomas Method don’t have perfect pronunciation themselves since they are non-natives, so Pimsleur Japanese might be the better choice out of the two for this reason alone.

What this is going to do is absolutely force you to listen to exactly what Japanese sounds like, and not rely on English comparisons (“a” as in father, “u” as in Luke, etc) which is what you would be doing if you learned pronunciation rules from a book.

Going over pronunciation rules is fine when you’ve got specific questions, but the primarily way you should learn the correct Japanese sounds, is by:

  1. Listened to them
  2. Repeating them (mimicry)

I include mimicking sounds in the process of learning the sounds because what you hear come out of your mouth, isn’t necessarily what other people hear come out of your mouth. It takes practice to reproduce a sound perfectly.

#2 – The next step is to learn hiragana. I personally think you should have the elemental sounds down first so that you can see a kana, and then match it with corresponding sound that you already know.

If you learn hiragana first before learning the sounds, then you have to learn two things at once (instead of just one) and you will probably be using Rōmaji to learn how to say each kana (we don’t want that, remember?). This opens you up to having bad pronunciation.

But it’s probably not all that big a deal if you learn hiragana and the elemental sounds at the same time. It’s just more work at one time.

#3 – After hiragana you want to learn how whole words and sentences sound. If you started learning with something like Pimsleur Japanese, then you’re already used to this (totally fine) and you know things about Japanese pronunciation like:

  • Equal stress on all syllables
  • If the ending vowel of a word is the same as the beginning vowel in the next, it tends to sound like one long word (not two).
  • Elongated vowels
  • Stop sounds
  • Rising intonation on questions
  • The two different sounds that ん can make
  • When certain vowels are considered “silent”

These are the things that are still within the category of “the sounds of the Japanese language”, but they only really occur within the context of a whole word or a phrase. You won’t really run into them when you listen Japanese one kana at a time.

Let me elaborate on a few things I just mentioned:

a) When it comes to giving every syllable equal stress, it’s not “ka-wa-EEE DE-su NEE” it’s just か-わ-い-い-で-す-ね. You can stress certain syllables to show emphasis (or emotion) when you’re at a more advanced level. Just make sure that it’s very intentional when you do, as you don’t want to stress syllables by accident.

You can always speak like the Google Translate robot if you have to, in order to give each syllable an equal amount of your love. Don’t worry, you will still be understood. People might just think you’re a cyborg.

That might actually make you cooler in Japan. Just saying.

b) Try to put the sound right at the front of your mouth (sounds weird, I know) as most English is spoken in about the middle of the mouth.

I could go into a really detailed explanation with diagrams and such that show what I mean, but unless you’re already familiar with that sort of thing, it tends to be more confusing than helpful.

c) Japanese has some words that are tonal. What that means is that a word’s meaning will change when you say it with a different pitch patter. For example, はし can mean either “chopsticks” or “bridge” depending on if you use a low-to-high pitch path, or the reverse.

But you don’t really need to worry about it too much since the context of the conversation will let the other person know which word you really meant, even if you butchered the tonality.

Learning all the correct tones for the words that use them is really work that is reserved for the next (and final) part of the formula for a perfect Japanese accent.

#4 – And this is when the real work begins: Shadowing.

The Shadowing Technique is pretty simple and we’ve actually gone over it already: Listen to a native speak, repeat exactly what they said, exactly how they said it.

Let me repeat that: exactly HOW they said it!

There is a difference between thinking that you said it the same way, and actually saying it the same. The problem is that you don’t hear your own words with your ears. You hear it through your bones. That’s why most people hate the way their voice sounds in a recording. They think, “who the heck is that?”

If you can’t tell if you’re close to the native or not, the simple solution is to record yourself speaking and then compare the playback of you with the native recording.

But besides that, you’re going to take Japanese and your pronunciation to the next level by shadowing the hell out of everything you hear!

You would probably benefit by starting with something that is designed for shadowing, since the audio is clear and it starts with simple sentences before moving on to more difficult material as you progress through it.

After that, you can take on bigger challenges like people talking on YouTube or on Podcasts or whatever. You know, real life, day to day Japanese. The big leagues!

In other words, the gloves are off and it’s time to step into the ring against the natives – phonetically speaking that is!

That’s really all there is to it. If you never stop practicing, and you celebrate all small improvements, then it’s only a matter of time before you are a pitch perfect speaking gaijin.

Time to apply for spy status? You could probably pass yourself off as a half-Japanese person these days. But I digress…

Here are the steps, and the links in blue to the resources you can use:

  1. Learn the basic sounds of Japanese:
    .

    .
  2. Learn hiragana
  3. Learn how complete words and phrases sound in Japanese
  4. Learn how to use The Shadowing Technique, and then do it every day

By the way, do you want a magical place where natives speak any Japanese word that you want to hear?

Well, I can’t promise you any word, but how about a little over 150,000 words and phrases? Go to the link in #3 above (it’s Forvo.com) and type in the word you want to hear in the search bar. Be sure you type it in Japanese too.

Not sure how to get your computer or phone to use Japanese characters on the keyboard? Read this post. Don’t worry, it’s free and only takes a couple minutes to set up.

Anyone Can Do it

If English is your native language, then having perfect Japanese pronunciation is not as hard as you think. (And if Spanish is your native language, then it’s even easier!)

For English speakers, this whole process is really “Addition by Subtraction” or as Bruce Lee would say, “Daily Decrease.”

That means that you already know the sounds, you just have to make sure that all those extra sounds don’t creep in while speaking Japanese.

Luckily it’s not like learning Russian or German where you literally have to learn to produce new sounds that you’ve never used in English before.

Having a better pronunciation actually helps you learn the language faster since you are clearly able to hear what’s being said. When you get to that point, it actually doesn’t sound like natives are speaking at 100 miles (160 km) per second.

It sounds, umm… normal. Normal speed which is easy to comprehend.

Just don’t give up before you reach that point!

And if you want it, you can get help speaking Japanese.

Did I leave anything out? Do you have any tips to improve pronunciation?

Let me know by leaving a comment below!

4 Comments

  • Craig

    One of the reasons people have such bad pronunciation when speaking Japanese is that they don’t truly know what the language sounds like. It’s really simply a matter of hours spent listening to natives having everyday conversations with each other.

    A kid who starts speaking at age 3-4 has heard 10,000’s of hours of Japanese from their family, TV, strangers, and so on. And then when some gaijin is learning Japanese, they think that 10 minutes a day is enough?

    I’m sorry, but if you want to learn Japanese you’re going to have to commit to it. Try at least 1 hour a day if you want to make any kind of progress over the course of a year.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah I hear you on that one. I think that most people feel that they “just don’t have time” to learn a new language, and so to counter that a lot of companies are advertising a low amount of time spent learning the language so that they can get the maximum amount of people to sign up.

      “Only 30 Minutes To Learn The Pimsleur Way”

      “Speak a language in 10 minutes a day”

      Being a person who uses marketing myself (this blog), I don’t think that they are trying to be misleading. I would say that they are trying to get people started with something simple and easy to do. You know, “get your foot in the door” with learning a language and then take it up a level from there.

      Besides that though, I agree with you. You generally need several hundred hours to learn a language to the point where you can use it without too much trouble. But to attain a native-level fluency, you are going to need to put in thousands of hours.

  • Thupten

    This is a really interesting Post and yes it is a bit long, however it is true about the mouth movements when pronouncing Japanese compared to English. It is great that you have a video showing people how to do it, that is so important! I also found all the anime and video game information very interesting, how they dubbed the mouth movements etc.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, it’s not something you really think about a lot (mouth movements) but that’s basically what changes the sounds when you speak. I know a lot of polyglots will tend to study IPA which is pretty much a chart that represents all sounds in all languages. That way they can just refer back to the chart for each new language that they learn. But I didn’t think that it would be all that helpful for people who are only interested in learning Japanese.

      Interestingly enough, opera singers also know IPA since they are constantly singing in German, French, Italian, English, and so on.

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