6 Japanese Tongue Twisters to Perfect Your Pronunciation
Learning Japanese tongue twisters is more than a fun challenge. It’s a surefire way to improve your pronunciation and increase your vocabulary.
At the very least, you’ll pick up a cool trick to impress Japanese friends.
(Just try them out on your language exchange partner to see what kind of reaction you’ll get!)
In this blog post, you’ll learn 6 famous Japanese tongue twisters, or 早口言葉 (はやくちことば), and four tips to help you master them.
- 1. バスガス爆発
- 2. 赤巻紙 、 黄巻紙 、 青巻紙
- 3. 生麦生米生卵
- 4. 李も桃も桃のうち
- 5. 隣りの客はよく柿食う客だ
- 6. 丹羽の庭には二羽鶏俄にワニを食べた
- How to Practice Japanese Tongue Twisters
English: Bus gas explosion
Start off by taking one word at a time:
バス (ばす) — bus
ガス (がす) — gas
爆発 (ばくはつ) — explosion
Repeat these until you can say them without looking at the text. Remember to keep those “a” sounds short, like the “a” in “that.”
Now comes the tricky bit. Remember that in Japanese, tongue twisters are known as fast-mouth words. So try to say them three times fast.
2. 赤巻紙 、 黄巻紙 、 青巻紙
English: Red scroll, yellow scroll, blue scroll
Imagine a clerk in old Japan, cataloging his scrolls. Except it’s like the vintage animation in old Scooby Doo episodes, with the same background on an eternal loop.
The same three scrolls keep flashing past as the clerk tries to sort them.
“あかまき がみきまきがみ あおまきがみ, あかまきがみきまきがみあおまきがみ…”
Watch out for all those k sounds.
Once you’ve learned to say this, it should be a breeze to say normal sentences in Japanese, like:
It was not warm
Hiragana: なま むぎなまごめなまたまご
English: Raw wheat, raw rice, raw eggs
This one is a Japanese favorite, and I’ve heard it the most while chatting with Japanese students.
One of the joys of traveling in Japan is exploring all the delicious regional cuisine.
Thus, the words in this tongue twister are all important kanji or 漢字 (かんじ) to learn since they commonly appear on Japanese menus.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan, you’ll want to recognize the 漢字 for the staple foods, such as:
麦 (むぎ) — wheat
米 (こめ) — rice, uncooked
卵 (たまご) — egg
For example, if you’re celiac, then you’ve got to remember how to ask,
Is there wheat in this?
English: Both plums and peaches are members of the peach family
When I first started learning Japanese, someone told me that they found 漢字 easier to read than かな or kana. I thought they were crazy.
In my opinion, learning hiragana and katakana was simple with the right strategies.
However, I soon came to agree. If anything demonstrates the difficulty of reading plain かな, it’s that string of eight consecutive もs in this tongue twister.
Reading the かな alone, it’s tricky to know what this sentence means, as there’s no way to tell from the text alone where one word ends and the next one begins.
Let’s break it up a bit:
李 (すもも) — plum/s
も — “also” particle
桃 (もも) — peach/es
も — “also” particle
桃 (もも) — peach
の うち — the group/ family of
English: The guest next door eats a lot of persimmons
One key point to note here is the reading of “くう” for “食.”
You might have seen this 漢字 read more often as the た of 食べる (たべる — to eat).
The “くう” reading of the “食” 漢字 is less polite than “たべる” and tends to be used more by males.
Another thing that makes this tongue twister troublesome is that you have to move your mouth quickly between the single “か” and its fluid compound cousin “きゃ.”
This is an essential thing to get right for proper spoken Japanese.
The difference between these かな can be important in places English speakers might not expect.
For example, in adapting English words to カタカナ, the Japanese sometimes opt for “きゃ” when we might think a plain “か” is closer to the English pronunciation.
A few examples of this are:
キャラクター (きゃらくたー) — character
キャッシュカード (きゃっしゅかーど) — cash card
キャンセル (きゃんせる) — cancel; cancellation
キャスト (きゃすと) — cast
English: In (Mr.) Niwa’s garden, two chickens suddenly ate a crocodile
One day, a crocodile was hanging out in Mr. Niwa’s garden when two chickens came and ate him out of nowhere.
Mr. Niwa was shocked by what he saw and had to document it.
…Or, someone took this original, shorter Japanese tongue twister and decided it was far too easy and boring:
There are two chickens in the garden
This original phrase is shown in the video above, as it’s a bit more common.
Let’s break this one down:
丹羽 (にわ) — family name, imagine there’s a さん affixed, so Mr. or Mrs. Niwa
の — ‘s (possessive)
庭 (にわ) — garden
には — preposition, in/at
二羽 (にわ) — counter for birds
鶏 (にわとり) — chickens
俄に (にわかに) — suddenly
ワニ (わに) — crocodile/alligator
を — this particle marks the direct object of a sentence
食べた (たべた) — ate
Like number five, this tongue twister is much easier to read in 漢字 than in plain かな.
How to Practice Japanese Tongue Twisters
Japanese tongue twisters are fun to learn and effective for improving pronunciation and understanding Japanese culture.
Here are a few tips to get the most out of each phrase.
- Practice your pronunciation with similar sounds. The point of tongue twisters is that they’re difficult to say because many sounds are the same, even in our native language. But by focusing on and practicing the difficult words, you’ll eventually learn to say them correctly and distinctly.
- Record yourself saying the Japanese tongue twisters. You can replay the audio using a simple voice recording app to see where you need to improve. Are you forgetting to articulate certain sounds? Are certain sounds giving you more difficulty than others? You’ll also be able to hear your accent and make adjustments where necessary.
- Use them with your Japanese language exchange partner. Ask your exchange partner which tongue twisters are their favorite, which ones they hear or use most often if they have a story about certain phrases and more. You can also ask them for feedback on your pronunciation of each tongue twister.
- Learn difficult and new words in context. Most of these tongue twisters contain words you probably haven’t used before, so they have loads of learning potential. You can learn to use them like a native by immersing yourself in Japanese content, like the curated videos on FluentU. The interactive subtitles let you click on words you don’t understand to instantly see a definition, example sentences and other videos where it’s used in context.
Japanese tongue twisters—difficult to say, but insanely fun nonetheless. It’s a bonus that they’re also powerful tools to supercharge your pronunciation and vocabulary skills.
Keep working through these phrases, upping your speed gradually until you can say them all smoothly 10 times fast.
(And if you liked playing with tongue twisters, I bet you’d love learning how to use Japanese onomatopoeia, too!)