Japanese pronunciation can be difficult for beginners, but these tips from Ann Arbor, MI teacher Elaina R. can help you understand some of the basic rules.
My mother is Japanese, my father is American, and both of them are bilingual. As such, I grew up bilingual and became aware of accents at an early age. I could hear who had trouble with what, and as I started studying languages and diction, I began to understand why.
Whether or not you speak Japanese, there are some quick adjustments you can make to get rid of that distinct American accent. Here’s how to learn Japanese pronunciation as an English speaker.
1. Consonants Love Vowels
In English, consonants can be followed either by vowels (go) or by consonants (or). In Japanese, consonants are followed by vowels. That’s just the way the alphabet is constructed (there is one exception, the letter ん (n), but bear with me). For example, here are a few Japanese hiragana letters:
Each of these letters consists of two components: a consonant and a vowel. The individual letters are easy enough, but when they string together to form long words, English speakers often run into trouble. For example, どういたしまして (you’re welcome) is pronounced “douitashimashite”. It’s not bad once you get used to it; just think of each consonant as the first part of a two-part unit.
2. No Diphthongs
In English, we close our mouths to end many open vowels (for example, we pronounce I as “aaee”). This is called a diphthong, and it never happens in Japanese. To illustrate, let’s go back to どういたしまして(you’re welcome). The last letter is pronounced “te,” but most Americans say “tey” instead.
To eliminate diphthongs, practice saying vowels in front of the mirror. Your mouth should not change shape at all as you end the vowel. If it does, you’re probably forming a diphthong.
3. The Japanese R
You may have noticed that Japanese people have a lot of trouble saying R and L in English, and often get the two letters mixed up. This is because these letters do not exist in Japanese. Instead, the Japanese R is much closer to our consonant D. You will find this consonant in the Japanese letters ら、り、る、れ、and ろ.
We form our R in English by putting our whole tongue near, but not touching, the roof of our mouth (say “grrrr;” you’ll see what I mean). The Japanese form their R by touching the tip of the tongue to part of the hard palate. To find this sweet spot, say “D” and feel where your tongue is; it should be touching the ridge right behind your two front teeth. This is where Japanese (and Italian and Spanish) R’s happen.
4. Double Consonants (まって)
I speak Italian too, and I see a lot of parallels between Italian and Japanese. They both have pure vowels (no diphthongs), frontal R’s, and double consonants. In the Italian word tutto (everything), for instance, there is a big pause in between the U and the T. In the word anni (years), the N is held for a long time.
In Japanese, this happens with specific letters, including ん and small letters. The best way to remember this is with the word まって, (matte), which actually means wait. Notice that the つ(tsu) appears smaller than usual; that’s your cue that it is pronounced differently.
To create the pause, put your tongue where you would put it to say the “t” sound, then leave it there for a second before actually saying the rest of the word. If you want to hear what this sounds like, type 待って (with kanji instead of hiragana) into Google Translate.
A good example of this with ん is konnichiwa （こんにちは）, the Japanese word for hello. Practice holding the N (not the I after it or the O before it) to create the proper consonant. Your mouth will be closed as you do this.
5. Smooth, Baby
Japanese is a largely unaccented, smooth and pleasant language. English has pretty strong accents, so English speakers often insert strong accents where there are none. I have a distinct memory of my father saying the Japanese word for monkey (猿 or saru) with a strong accent on the second syllable (“saRU!”). It sounded like a different language.
Konnichiwa （こんにちは）is a great example of this. It should not be pronounced with any strong accents, but when Americans say it, it usually sounds like “konIIIIchiwa.” Practice saying it with a smooth tone (and don’t forget the ん if you want to be really impressive).
がんばって (Don’t Give Up)
Learning Japanese pronunciation can feel daunting, but mastering these tips will do more than improve your Japanese. It will expand your horizons and help you speak other languages, should you ever feel the urge. Keep practicing, find a tutor or teacher, and listen as your accent fades away.
Elaina R. teaches singing in Ann Arbor, MI. She is acquainted with many languages and speaks English, Japanese, Italian, and German. As a singer, she pays particular attention to pronunciation. She earned a Bachelor of Music from the University of Southern California, and she is currently working on her Master of Music from the University of Michigan. Learn more about Elaina here!