Want to improve your Japanese pronunciation?
Japanese tongue twisters are a godsend for vocabulary and pronunciation.
Not to mention, you’ll boost your overall Japanese fluency and confidence.
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. Everyone loves to test themselves with a good tongue twister!
Perhaps you’ve already committed lists of useful, common phrases to memory and have the basics of listening comprehension down pat. While everyone needs to build a good language foundation from square one, it’s time to shake things up!
Why keep using the same old learning materials, when there are still methods out there that you have yet to explore?
Why Japanese Tongue Twisters Work
In Japanese, tongue twisters are called 早口言葉 (はやくちことば): literally “fast mouth words.” Tongue twisters are great for getting a grip on speaking a new language. They especially target:
The whole point of tongue twisters is that they’re difficult to say, and they’re difficult to say because a lot of their sounds are the same. “She sells sea shells by the sea shore, the shells she sells are sea shells I’m sure” gets even native English speakers in a muddle because of the similar sounding words, she and sea, sells and shells, shore and sure. By stumbling over difficult words you will eventually learn to say the sounds correctly and distinctly.
It’s natural to be nervous about making mistakes when speaking a new language. No-one wants to sound like a fool. But nerves can sometimes get in the way of effective communication. The best way to learn to speak Japanese is to – you guessed it—speak Japanese!
Japanese children don’t learn their language just by sitting alone all day, reading Japanese manga books and practicing kanji strokes in isolation—though those are both great strategies for learning. Nope, those tykes jabber away fearlessly and ask a million questions a minute. You’ve got to be bold, like when you were a kid.
Learn tongue twisters and you will make mistakes. That’s the whole point. By forcing yourself to make mistakes, tongue twisters can break down your inhibitions. So if you’re getting it wrong, you’re doing it right. Tongue twisters are designed to make you sound silly, so rejoice in the silliness, lose the embarrassment and have fun speaking Japanese!
Shall we begin?
Can You Say These 6 Japanese Tongue Twisters?
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Tongue twisters are an exercise: you’ve got to get warmed up if you’re going to perform well later on. So let’s start off with some shorter sentences, and get those Japanese speaking muscles moving.
1. バスガス爆発 (バスガスばくはつ) – bus gas explosion
Start off by taking one word at a time, so バス (bus), ガス (gas), 爆発 (explosion), and 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, it’s not enough just to say the words – try to say them three times, and fast.
Mastered it? Now you’re ready to use the same techniques on the following 早口言葉:
2. 赤巻紙、黄巻紙、青巻紙 (あかまきがみきまきがみあおまきがみ) – 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… The thing to watch out for here is 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” or “暖かくなかった” (あたたかくなかった).
3. 生麦生米生卵 (なま むぎなまごめなまたまご) – raw wheat, raw rice, raw eggs
This one is a Japanese favorite, and it’s the one I have heard the most while chatting to Japanese students.
One of the joys of traveling in Japan is exploring all the delicious regional cuisine the nation has to offer. That being said, these are all pretty important 漢字 to learn since they’re a few of the words which most commonly appear in Japanese menus. It’s always useful to know when things are 生 (なま) raw. If you’re planning a trip to Japan, it’s good to recognize the 漢字 for the staple foods 麦 (むぎ – wheat), 米 (こめ – rice, uncooked) and 卵 (たまご – egg). If you’re coeliac, then you’ve got to remember how to ask, “麦が入っていますか (むぎがはいっていますか” or “is there wheat in this?”
Ready to step things up a notch?
4. 李も桃も桃のうち (すもももももももものうち) – both plums and peaches are members of the peach family
When I started out learning Japanese, someone once told me that they found 漢字 (kanji) easier to read than かな (kana). I thought that they were crazy. It can be quite easy to learn hiragana and katakana with the right strategies. There are 92 かな, whilst the average Japanese person knows and uses around 2,000 漢字. Seems like kana is the easy route.
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. There’s really no way to tell from the text alone where one word ends and the next is supposed to begin. Therefore, you can only easily read the かな sentence if you already know what’s written there! Suddenly 漢字 don’t seem quite so infuriating.
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
5. 隣りの客はよく柿食う客だ (となりのきゃくはよくかきくうきゃくだ) – the guest next-door eats a lot of persimmons
One key point to note here is the reading of “くう” for the “食” 漢字. 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 かな “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 instance, 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
6. 丹羽の庭には二羽鶏俄にワニを食べた (にわのにわにはにわにわとりにわかにわにをたべた) – in [Mr.] Niwa’s garden, two chickens suddenly ate a crocodile
So here’s what happened. One day, a crocodile was chilling in Mr. Niwa’s garden when, out of nowhere, two chickens came and ate him. Obviously this had to be documented and the writer – presumably Mr. Niwa – was as surprised by the resulting sentence as he was by the strange events he’d witnessed…
…Or, someone took the original, shorter Japanese tongue twister 庭には二羽鶏がいる (にわにはにわにわとりがいる – there are two chickens in the garden) and decided that it was far too easy. It needed to be cranked up into the next gear.
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 – ate
Like number five, this tongue twister is much easier to read in 漢字 than it is in plain かな.
Japanese has so many homonyms or near-homonyms that this sentence could have been taken even further. There certainly could have been some 庭木 (にわき – garden trees) involved. How about the crocodile; did the chickens really eat the entire thing? Or might it have been, commensurate with their own chicken-y size, just 二割 (にわり – two percent) of the crocodile? And what about Mr. Niwa? Might he have been a 庭師 (にわし – gardener)? So much is left unexplored.
While tongue twisters might leave you tripping over syllables and baffled by their literal meanings, there is no denying that they’re a fun, challenging way to practice your spoken Japanese! Keep working through these tongue twisters, upping your speed gradually until you can say them all smoothly ten times fast.
If you liked playing with tongue twisters, consider learning how to use Japanese onomatopoeia as well.
There’s no telling how far all this Japanese wordplay will take you!
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