Tactics

Sound Like a Native – A HOW TO on Japanese Excellence

How would you like to impress every Japanese person you meet?

Well, it all starts with the first time you meet them.

So how can you make a good first impression AND pleasantly surprise every Japanese person you meet within the very first minute of talking with them?

Maybe there’s a cute Japanese girl or guy that you would like to go out on a date with? Or perhaps you are meeting your significant other’s parents for the first time and they don’t speak a lick of English? What’s a simple, yet powerful way to make them like you right away?

The answer to all of the above is: you’re going to want to sound like a native!

And I’m going to give you a how to on Japanese excellence so that you can do all of the above, and not have to be fluent just yet. You only need to do a few simple things that are actually quite simple.

Let’s get started!

1) – Pronunciation

Japanese pronunciation is probably the easiest aspect of the entire language. Japanese only has 11 consonants and 5 vowels in it, and they are all combined to create a total of 48 different sounds.

For the most part, the vowels and consonants are pronounced exactly the same way as in English, but there are a few differences. I wrote about them earlier on the “For Beginners” tab that you can find at the top of the page. So in this particular post, let’s just take a look at the aspects that are unusual for English speakers.

-The Japanese “R” is not like the English one. Its sound is about half way between the English “R” and “L” sound. That’s why a Japanese person with a heavy accent usually pronounces their “L’s” as if they were “R’s” when they speak in English.

All you have to do is take the tip of your tongue, lightly touch right above the top of your front two teeth and then pronounce the particular Japanese word that uses an “R”. This should cause you to “flap” your tongue similar to the way you do when you say the English word “water.”

And if you want to sound like a Yakuza member (Japanese mafia) then feel free to roll your “R’s” and give them some power! But, I’d advise against that for right now ^_^

-The つ TSU sound is pretty easy once your mouth gets used to it. The best way to learn it was explained to me like this: Take the two words “eight suits” and combine that last “T” in eight, with the first “SU” in suits.

Eight suits!
Eightsuits!
TSU!

-The final ん “N” sound is one that a lot of people miss when they’re learning Japanese. When you say a word that starts with なにぬねの (na ni nu ne no), it works just like the English “N.” But when you say a word that ends with “N” like 日本 (nihon), that final “N” has a more nasal sound to it than the other “N” we just talked about.

Normally when you make an “N” sound you will touch the roof of your mouth with your tongue. But the nasal “N” sound does not do this. Think of the English word “sing” for example. The way you make that final “NG” sound in sing, is the way you do a final “N” in Japanese like in 日本 (nihon).

These are some of the pronunciations skills that will go a long ways towards you sounding just like a native. But there are a few more things that deal with the structure of words instead of the individual sounds in it. Things like: the equal stress on all syllables, the silent vowels, and the stop sounds. You can read more about them here if you’d like.

One word of warning though! When you’re accent is spot on and you sound like a native, people will naturally assume that you are fluent and they might start speaking to you very quickly! And they just might think you are half-Japanese, even if you don’t look Asian! If you need them to slow down, just say すみません、ゆっくり話してください (sumimasen, yukkuri hanashite kudasai) “sorry, please speak slowly” and be sure to say it with a smile 🙂

2) – Idioms, Proverbs, and Expressions

Knowing and using idioms and proverbs is the second most powerful way to sound just like a native (accent is #1 of course!). My foreign friends have told me that the idioms we use in English are one of the hardest aspects for them to learn about the language. But you probably don’t even think twice about them!

For example, if someone asked you how often you travel overseas and you told them “once in a blue moon,” then they would know that what you mean is that you do it “very rarely“. But if someone was in the process of learning English and they heard that phrase, they would probably be totally lost! >.<

SIDE NOTE: That particular idiom comes from the fact that it is very rare to have more than one full moon per month. When it does happen, the second full moon is called a “blue moon.” Pretty neat, huh?

Flipping it over now to the Japanese side of things, I wanted to give you ten useful phrases or expressions that you can use when talking to people. This will really give them a feeling that you understand the Japanese language and culture at a higher level. I’ll give you the phrase, the literal translation, and then the meaning of it. The most important aspect is just knowing what context to use it in. Check it out!

  • 頭がいい (atama ga ii)
    Lit. “good head”
    He/she is intelligent

 

  • 猿も木から落ちる (saru mo ki kara ochiru)
    Even monkeys fall from trees
    Nobody’s perfect

 

  • 一石二鳥 (isseki ni chō)
    One stone, two birds
    Kill two birds with one stone

 

  • カエルの子はカエル (kaeru no ko wa kaeru)
    The frog’s child is a frog
    Like father, like son

 

  • 腕がいい (ude ga ii)
    Lit. “good arm”
    To be good at something

 

  • 顔が広い (kao ga hiroi)
    Lit. “broad face”
    To be well known

 

  • 自業自得 (jigō jitoku)
    One does, one earns
    You reap what you sow

 

  • 順風満帆 (junpū manpan)
    Favorable wind, full sail
    Smooth sailing

 

  • 郷に入っては郷に従え (gō ni itte wa gō ni shitagae)
    When you enter a village, obey the village
    When in Rome, do as the Romans do

 

  • 弱肉強食 (jaku niku kyō shoku)
    Weak meat is food for the strong
    Survival of the fittest

 

(Is it weird that I explained an expression by using another expression?)

Of course this list is in no ways extensive. There’s a crap load more Japanese idioms, expressions, and proverbs, etc. etc. etc.

It’s pretty cool to see which ones are the same for different languages like the “two birds with one stone” expression, and it’s also nice to learn the ones that are a lot different (I love the monkey one!). Rather than try and learn all of these new expressions and get overwhelmed, just pick one to incorporate into your vocabulary for now and you can add more later on once you feel ready.

3) – The WAY you talk

Another way that you can give off the impression of being a native is not necessarily by what you say, but by how you say it. For example, in English we tend to be pretty direct when we talk about what we want:

I want to eat pizza.

But in the Japanese culture, humility and politeness are very important so they tend to be more indirect when they express their own wants or desires.

  • ピザを食べたいんですが...
    piza o tabetai n desu ga
    I would like to eat pizza, but… (it’s okay if you’d rather eat something else)

Or if someone were to ask you a question and you absolutely knew what the correct answer was, the American thing to do would be to state the answer with that tone of voice that says “I’m 100% confident in my answer”.

Q: What’s the actor’s name again?
A: It’s Chris Pratt.

But even when a Japanese person knows the answer 100%, they would be more inclined to provide an answer along the lines of:

Q: What’s the actor’s name again?
.
A: まあ…クリスプラットだと思います。
maa… kurisu puratto da to omo imasu
A: Well… I think It’s Chris Pratt.

To downplay one’s own abilities is a very Japanese thing to do. So by emulating that attitude of humbling oneself and being very polite, you will give off a real Japanese vibe to the people you’re having a conversation with.


This also comes into play with the level of politeness that you choose for the words you say. Take for example the question “where are you from?”

Casual: どこから来たの? / doko kara kita no?

Polite: どこから来ましたか? / doko kara kimashita ka?

Formal: どちらからいらっしゃいいましたか? / Dochira kara irasshai imashita ka?

As you can see above, the general rule is that the more polite and formal you are, the longer the words and phrases become. Now obviously you wouldn’t be super formal with your buddies, but if you were meeting your Japanese girlfriend’s/boyfriends’ parents for the first time, it would probably be a good idea to start off this way and then to lower it to just the polite form once you got to know them better.

There are actually lots of other little changes you can make to be more polite.

You can add the polite お “o” to a lot of nouns:

飲み物 –>お飲み物  / nomimono –> o nomimono / drinks
友達 –>お友達 / tomodachi –> o tomodachi / friend

You can (and should) add the honorific さん “san” to people’s last names and their family members.

田中 –> 田中さん / tanaka –> tanaka san / Mr. Tanaka
子供 –> 子供さん / kodomo –> kodomo san / child

You can use the more formal and polite versions of words:

知っています –> ご存知です/ shitte imasu –> gozonji desu / to know
来る、行く、いる –> いらっしゃいいます / kuru, iku, iru –> irasshai imasu / to come, to go, to be

And yes, いらっしゃいいます (irasshai imasu) can mean “to come, to go, or to be” depending on the context. What a word!

The cool thing is that as a non-Japanese person, you’re not really expected to know and abide by all the different politeness rules that a normal Japanese person would be expected to. So when you actually DO use the more formal versions of words when it’s appropriate, you leave a very positive and lasting impression on the other person!

They’ll be like, “wow, this person really knows their Japanese!”

Here’s how to do it:

To learn correct pronunciation – First, you can go over the rules that I’ve listed in this post and also on the For Beginners Page. Then after that, what you will want to do is talk a little bit in Japanese, then talk a little bit more in Japanese, and finally talk A LOT in Japanese!

Seriously, you have to train your mouth on how to correctly pronounce the different sounds of the Japanese language. And the only real way to do that, is to just do it! Once you’ve built up that muscle memory, you’ll be golden!

Of course you also need to be able to hear the correct Japanese sounds, since you can’t repeat them if you don’t know what they are. I recommend that you listen to native Japanese people talking and then use The Shadowing Technique to perfect your accent.

That’s a fancy name for a technique, but all you have to do is:

  1. Listen to Japanese people speaking (be 100% focused too)
  2. Repeat the words they say, exactly the way you hear it

You might think, “but that’s what I do now.” But the difference is that with The Shadowing Technique you don’t wait for them to finish speaking. As soon as they start talking, you start repeating after them. Again, it’s very important that you do not wait for them to finish, you just follow along as best as you are able to.

Have you ever had someone annoy you by repeating what you said, exactly how you said it, while you were still saying it?

Guess what? They were shadowing you!

It’s a little tricky at first since you are probably (hopefully?) not used to doing this to other people, but after a little while you will be pretty good at listening to AND repeating what people say simultaneously.

There is a very good book/CD combo that I personally use for this exact type of training. You can find more information on it by clicking here  – if that interests you at all.

Otherwise, any good radio station or podcast in Japanese will work just fine.

To learn idioms, proverbs and expressions – You can start with the ten expressions that I listed up above and then click here to read my other post on phrases for any more that you might find useful for your conversations. This one’s short and sweet!

To learn how to talk like a Japanese person – This is probably the hardest part of the equation. You will need to become very observant to the exact words that Japanese people use to talk to one another, especially when they are talking to a superior.

Looking up formal and polite speech is a good idea and should help out a lot as well, but you are really going to have to take on the persona and mindset of a Japanese person to become truly effective at it. Try to always remember to humble yourself and to downplay your own abilities/knowledge/skills, and to be polite to everyone you encounter. And remember to be extra polite to anyone who is considered to be in a higher position than you are – i.e. future mother/father in laws!

Unfortunately it’s not just what you say, it also what you do that you gotta watch. Read up on cultural taboos so that you don’t make any of them. It’s kind of like playing a game of tennis: focus on making no mistakes and you will win 9/10 times. Here’s a short list of things NOT TO DO:

1. Don’t wear shoes in the house.
2. Don’t stab your food with chop sticks.
3. Don’t refill your own drink.
4. Don’t forget to bring a gift every time you visit.
5. Don’t forget to shower BEFORE using the bath.

Of course there’s more, but these five are some of the biggies for foreigners.

A final thought

One last thing I wanted to say is that, while it is a good idea to sound as close to a native as you can, don’t worry about achieving perfection. I don’t know about you, but for me personally, I actually really like it when I’m talking to someone else in English and they have a bit of an accent.

I think it makes them sound pretty cool, and it gives them some uniqueness. After all, how many of your friends have an British accent? Or an Australian one? Or even a Japanese accent when they speak English?

What is most important is that native Japanese people can understand what you’re saying when you talk with them in Japanese. Sounding exactly like a native is absolutely impressive, but if you’ve got a little bit of an American accent or whatever to your Japanese, they just might think it’s kinda cool.

That’s all for now, see you next time!


What do YOU think? Are you impressed when someone has a perfect accent? Have you ever tried The Shadowing Technique before?

Leave me a comment and let me know!


 

2 Comments

  • Garth Wright

    This is an extremely helpful article for someone looking to get into Japanese culture like myself! Truthfully, I am a huge fan of Japanese culture and I’ve wanted to learn how to speak Japanese for about four years now. I am going to revisist this from time to time to see if I can pick it up. Thanks and keep it up!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Garth, you are very welcome! I love sharing what I know about it and getting others into it as well! Hope to hear from you again soon! (^_^)b

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