How to Pronounce Japanese

This entry is part of 13 in the series Secrets of Speaking

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.

Closing
Anyway, that’s how I did it and it worked well for me. Remember, as always, have FUN!

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  21 comments for “How to Pronounce Japanese

  1. June 1, 2007 at 13:22

    “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.”

    What about the Japanese ‘r’ sound? That’s like a mix between ‘l’, ‘r’ and ‘d’. Or is that what you mean by a ‘subset’? A mixing of English sounds…

    Either way, this gives me an excuse to mention a good way to learn the Japanese ‘r’:
    Say ‘eddie’. Now say it quickly a few times and let the two syllables blend a bit. This is now like saying えり. Note how your tongue kinda flicks the roof of your mouth.
    I took this and practiced saying えら,えり,える,えれ,えろ over and over to whatever music I was listening to in my car at the time on my way home. If I felt like I was loosing the correct sound I would stop and go back to ‘eddie’ to remind myself.
    Finally I removed the え to leave myself with ら,り,る,れ,ろ. This was a few weeks ago and now I’m finding not having to think so much about the sound everytime I say it 🙂

  2. khatzumoto
    June 1, 2007 at 13:54

    Oops! I forgot the l/r sound. But your method for producing it is perfect!

  3. June 1, 2007 at 19:07

    Well I’d love to take all the credit, but like you I borrowed it from somewhere else. Thing is, I don’t remember where. I’m sure it’s a book though…
    Of course, the repetition to musical beat is all my own. I always had to make sure to stop when I was at lights in case anyone heard me. Oh, it’s hard driving an open top car sometimes 😀

  4. Peter Parisi
    July 22, 2007 at 07:47

    Is it possible to use your Khatzumemo for other languages? Would I have to create a new log-on and password for each language?

    Thanks again for your wonderful site.

  5. khatzumoto
    July 22, 2007 at 07:51

    >Is it possible to use your Khatzumemo for other languages?
    Yes, it is. You can use it with any language you can enter into a computer.

    >Would I have to create a new log-on and password for each language?
    No, you don’t. However, as of the current version, everything would be mixed together in the same collection (I don’t think this is a bad thing, but I might add separation functionality if a lot of people want it).

  6. Luke
    October 29, 2007 at 17:40

    Heya Khatzumoto! (I apologise about the above post – that was me. Something was playing up, and my posts weren’t getting through.)

    I was wondering if you knew of any software/websites that show how to pronounce Japanese. I used the following site; www.uiowa.edu/~acadtech/phonetics/ to learn Spanish pronunciation really well and wondered if such a thing existed for the Japanese language. I’ve searched, but to no avail.

    There are quite a few sounds which are bugging me:
    The vowel “u” (unlike “u” in English/Spanish etc., it’s a close back compressed vowel)
    The sound “r” (Obviously ;-P I don’t think the “eddie” trick works with British English!)
    The sound “fu”
    The sound “hi” (its “h” is slightly different to the “h” of “ha”, “ho” and “he”)
    The glottal stop (shown by a small tsu at the end of a word)

    It’s driving me crazy! Any help would be really appreciated! Accent is of course the biggest giveaway!

    Still, I’d like to congratulate you on the great site! Keep up the good work and good luck with the Chinese! 🙂

    Thanks!

  7. khatzumoto
    October 29, 2007 at 17:57

    Hey Luke

    >The glottal stop (shown by a small tsu at the end of a word)
    As far as I know, that isn’t pronounced as such. It’s just used sort of as an exclamation mark, to indicate that the sound was abrupt (this is usually the case in shouting). Examples:
    安っ!is just pronounced “ヤス!!” , you might say it when something is cheap (low price). You just kind of shorten the end of the last vowel.

    >The vowel “u” (unlike “u” in English/Spanish etc., it’s a close back compressed vowel)>
    The key to this is that it’s more of a “ew” than an “oo”.

    Anyway, I don’t know of any websites that do this (if you find one let me know). But even if you never find one, you can still do perfectly well without it. You needn’t analyze it really, just listen carefully to people and focus on imitating them as closely as you can. You’ll figure it out; your brain and your body are designed for it.

  8. October 29, 2007 at 18:02

    Luke,

    >The sound “r” (Obviously ;-P I don’t think the “eddie” trick works with British English!)

    Well I’m British and it obviously worked for me. Although, I had been living in Japan for a year before I came across it so I guess I was pretty tuned in to the sound that I was trying to make and ‘Eddie’ helped me achieve that.

  9. Luke
    October 30, 2007 at 15:17

    Hey Matt,

    Whereabouts in Britain is your accent from? Did you try and put on an American accent or just speak with your British one? Thanks for letting me know that it works!

  10. October 30, 2007 at 20:16

    Hey Luke,

    My accent is pretty much just British, without any regional bias. I moved around a lot as a child in the UK and then went to boarding schools so never picked up a local accent as such. Most people guess London as it’s definately southern over northern, but that’s about it.

    Strangely I’ve never been able to put on accents. I can’t even do Scottish and my mum speaks with a scottish accent!!

    Like I said I guess it’s that I knew what I was listening for when saying ‘eddie’. Don’t forget to say it quickly. I’m not claiming that it’s a perfect for for えり but it gets you in the right place to just tune it with practice. Just really listen to yourself and think about what your mouth/tongue is doing…

    Honestly, within two weeks of reading about it in a book I was using it in my Japanese without even thinking about it.

  11. Linkf1
    November 9, 2008 at 03:33

    Hahahahaha.

    Thanks God my mother tongue is Spanish so the 5 vowels that Japanese has Spanish has them too.
    So in pronunciation is quite easier for a Spanish speaker pronounce the Japanese vowels.
    Anyway is quite difficult in sometimes.

    But dont worry I tried the “eddie” exercise and is pretty good.

  12. David
    November 29, 2008 at 16:02

    When you say to talk like a robot, do you mean to separate the syllables out and speak slowly? So, for example, 好き is pronounced almost like “ski,” but the syllables are す and き. Should you pronounced each of them slowly, and equally? I get tongue tied sometimes (only about 40 sentences in, now). I’m trying to pronounce them like the Text-to-Speech does it, and it works sometimes, but other times I struggle with it and sit there repeating it over and over until I get it right.

  13. Cygnus
    November 18, 2009 at 08:34

    www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsh3zV8y2Jg

    Khatzumoto’s methods don’t just apply to language-learners, it seems.

  14. Mimi
    May 11, 2010 at 13:33

    >If you’re a guy, you should pick a guy to copy; and girls should pick a girl.

    As a male to female transsexual who is still living as male, i was wondering which would be appropriate for me. Should I imitate a man since that’s what people still see me as, or should I imitate a woman, since that’s what I want to be. Should i do both so I can have all my bases covered?

  15. July 18, 2010 at 04:14

    what is り pronounced?

  16. August 22, 2011 at 12:13

    Khatz, what’s your problem with Stacy? Stacy’s are awesome; they give the very best blows! 😀
    But seriously though, great advice as always! 🙂

    • August 22, 2011 at 12:46

      >Stacy’s are awesome; they give the very best blows! 😀
       
      zomg >.<

  17. August 22, 2011 at 20:17

    This is my favorite blog post. The advice you gave is just awesome and I love the fact that you posted the article you got the ideas from.
    Really inspiring!

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