- How To Speak Like A Native
- Mastery is Mastering the Basics
- Where Not To Learn Japanese From
- How To Get A Specific Accent
- How to Pronounce Japanese
- Speaking: You Don’t Have A Linguistic Problem, You Have A Humanity Problem — Why You Still Suck At Speaking and How to Fix it Fast
- Language Is Acting
- Luxurious Worries, Or: So Effing What If You Sound Like An Anime?!
- Success Story: Emotional Context Learning — Using Phrases Correctly Without Actively Learning Them Or Knowing What They Actually Mean
- You Are What You Eat, You Write What You Read, You Speak What You Hear
- Why You Should Keep Listening Even If You Don’t Understand
- If Anime Is Bad For Your Japanese, Then Nursery Rhymes Are Bad For Your English
- No Humans Necessary: Why You Don’t Need People to Learn a Language
Update [2008/9/22]: I’ve finally found the original source/basis for the advice I’m giving here — the very article I read. It was this paper from UC Berkeley quoted by a Tom Hodgers in this thread of the Wakan Project forum. The key points are right here:
We would not deny that “accent is an issue,” but we think imitating native speakers, whether in real life or on the tapes that go with your textbook, is more likely to produce natural-sounding results than attempting to fabricate the sound on your own from a notation or explanation given in writing. This is true for all matters involving pronunciation, which is exactly why our pronunciation guide has the disclaimer you mention …
It’s interesting to note that native Japanese speakers outside Tokyo speak otherwise standard Japanese (hyoojungo) with different “pitch accents” (this is what we are speaking of here, not dialect accents) and never have trouble being understood. For the student of Japanese, a flat, even intonation will always be understood, and for Americans (and some Europeans) who tend to give their words very marked pitch accents, this may be a good way to eliminate some un-Japanese sounding speech habits.
When two or three words sound exactly alike except for pitch accent, context is going to resolve the ambiguity virtually 100 percent of the time. In practical terms, accent is probably the least important aspect of Japanese pronunciation no matter what your level of language skill.
On the whole, we think most people are best off following Jack Seward’s advice … “the degree of variance in pitch is so small that the beginner is advised to voice all Japanese words … with a steady evenness of pitch … Sooner or later, depending on the sharpness of your ear, you will come to be able to distinguish among and mimic the existing minor variations in pitch.”[…]
People without hearing impairments can mimic the melody of language, but they can hardly interpret visual accent markers into the oral/aural domain without special training because visual and auditory stimuli are processed very differently in the human brain. In all likelihood, the author of the above-mentioned letter simply feels more comfortable visually with accent markers. But using such markers to speak Japanese creates pronunciations that are worse than a crude synthesizer.
OK, so you’re learning Japanese; you’re going for the fluency; you’re going for the native-level proficiency. And as part of that, you want to be pronouncing it right. You don’t want to have the “stupid foreigner accent”. You don’t want to be doing the Japanese equivalent of “eet’s a-me, a-Maaario!”.The answer is simple, folks. Let’s break it down.
1. Talk like a robot.
Yes, I am dead serious. If you want to speak good-sounding Japanese, then talk like a robot. “But Khatzumoto, on TV and in songs, they sound so animated”. Well, not you, my friend. Trust me on this one. You see, compared to English, Japanese is sound-sparse. Very sound sparse. If you intone in Japanese like you do in English it will sound AWFUL. “KerNEEchewa! NiHON toTEmo DAIsuki deSUUU”. No. Cut that crap out. Today. It grates on the ear. Every time you do it, a clown dies. This is part of the reason classes suck—classes are full of girls called Stacy who do that.
Talk like a robot. Flat, monotone, one-beat-per-kana. Give every kana the same length. Ev-er-y-ka-na-is-one-syl-la-ble. Also, two-kana situations where you have one kana smaller than the other—ちょ、しょ、りょ, etc.—these-count-as-one-syl-la-ble-too.
2. Keep it tight
So, when I told my brother from another mother this, I said something to the effect of: “keep your mouth tight, as you would with other body cavities were you in prison”. That kind of innuendo has no place on this website! But, Grasshopper, there is much truth in this correctional advice.
OK, I’m assuming you speak English. So, English has a lot more sounds than Japanese, right? Which means that, when speaking English, you move your mouth in all sorts of shapes and configurations. Stop that. Keep your mouth tight in Japanese. There are only 5 vowel sounds. Stick to them. Do not introduce sounds that don’t exist. That’s the biggest mistake English-speakers make—introducing sounds that have no place in Japanese. Narrow your range. Shorten your stride. A. I. U. E. O.
Remember, Japanese pronunciation is cake. It’s easy. For starters, you don’t have to make any sounds you’re not already making as an English speaker. You’re using a subset of the sounds in English. So keep it tight.
3. Record yourself, and play it back.
If you’re anything like me, then this will feel like the linguistic equivalent of going to the toilet and looking closely at the results—they tend to stink. It’s gross. I hate the sound of my own voice recorded. I keep thinking I sound so cool, unti I hear the evidence and am reminded that I sound like an idiot; this is true regardless of the language in question.
So, why the torture? Because it’s good for you, and because you’re voice isn’t all bad. Playing back your own voice will help you realize where your stuff is good and solid, and where it needs work.
You don’t need to go overboard on the recording. Once a week is more than enough. Record yourself reading something aloud, hear what needs work, and work on it.
4. Pick up intonation piece by piece
Now, there is intonation and emphasis in Japanese. But, like I said, it’s far less prominent than it is in English. So much so that talking like a robot does not sound weird. It sounds good. It sounds like good Japanese. I did it for a long time.
Of course, you’re not going to want to talk like a robot forever—not because it’s bad—but because you’re no doubt going to want to express emotions through the tones and cadences of your voice. This is where you’re Japanese Immersion environMent (JIM) comes in. Yes, I just made that up. The TV, movies, radio and podcasts you watch or listen to are you’re source. Watch, watch, watch. Listen, listen, listen. Over time, you will start to pick up little pieces.
You’ll notice that “desu” and “-masu” almost always get shortened such that they come out as “dess” and “mass”. Kind of like how “What the HECK” comes out as ” ‘the HECK?!”. There is this leftover ‘intention’ to say the whole word, and your mouth even more or less makes the right shape, it just doesn’t come out.
You’ll notice how people say “KANkei NAI darou!”. And so on. And so forth. One piece at a time, one expression at a time, you’ll pick it up. If you turn every available waking moment of your life into a JIM, it will come to you. Any moment of the day you do not have to speak or listen to a language other than Japanese, you should—must—speak or listen to Japanese. In the shower, while you sleep (if it doesn’t disturb you), when walking, eating breakfast, making love. Whatever.
5. Adopt a Parent
This is really an extension of the idea of picking up intonation piece by piece. Anyway—have you ever noticed that a lot of people share the speech patterns and mannerisms of their parents? This is no accident—a lot of people spend a lot of time with their parents. You probably don’t have a Japanese-speaking parent. But that doesn’t matter: you can adopt yourself one for free. And they don’t even have to know it.
Learning a language is a lot like acting. Scratch that, it is acting. In many ways, all you’re doing is an impression—an imitation—of other people. As you grow older within a given language, your awareness of this imitation decreases; the imitation has become so natural that you don’t notice it. Plus, you may even have added some unique, personal innovations of your own. Nevertheless, I can remember, even into my early teens, consciously imitating people in my native language.
The point is this—kick-start that imitation again. Pick someone and copy them. Make them your “parent”. If you’re a guy, you should pick a guy to copy; and girls should pick a girl. Watch, listen, imitate. Yes, this is sexism, but it is sexism with a purpose: there is quite a sizeable gender spectrum in Japanese. You can situate yourself somewhere in the middle, without being too macho or too girly, but there are expressions and emphases that are almost exclusively female, and ones that are almost exclusively male. Also, men mumble more than women; women intone more than men; all of which perhaps explains why a lot of people initially find women’s speech “easier to understand”.
Back on topic—you probably do impressions of people already, when you’re making fun of them. Just keep doing that, and strive to make your impression an accurate one.
You don’t have to “set aside time” for this. Since you’ve created a JIM (Japanese Immersion Environment), you can just do it while you’re relaxing watching TV, or listening to radio/podcasts, or whatever. It’s not something complicated; it’s just something you do.
Anyway, that’s how I did it and it worked well for me. Remember, as always, have FUN!