How to Improve Your Japanese Pronunciation with 9 Strategies

When you’re studying Japanese by yourself, it can be easy to just read, write and listen without ever actually saying anything out loud.

Then when it finally comes time to have conversations with native speakers, your mind goes blank and your tongue isn’t making the right sounds.

Fortunately, Japanese pronunciation is fairly simple and straightforward. 

I’ve found that the key is just to say the words and phrases you’re learning out loud as much as possible.

Here are my favorite strategies that I used to improve my Japanese pronunciation!

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1. Repeat everything you hear

Repeat everything you hear, paying special attention to the ups and downs or the “music” of the language (intonation), and also the tricky sounds (pronunciation).

When you watch Japanese TV programs or movies, there will be many phrases and words that you’ll hear and think, “I want to learn that phrase.”

Pause the movie and mimic what you hear, paying close attention to intonation as well as pronunciation. Remember to turn on the subtitles so you can echo back the same thing as the characters. Subtitles are available on most streaming sites and other video platforms, including the video-based program FluentU which adds interactive subtitles to its Japanese media clips.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

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Then go an extra step beyond that.

How are the actors’ facial expressions when they speak? Do they bow, smile or frown when they say certain things?

Speaking like a native doesn’t stop at pronunciation and intonation. To speak perfect Japanese, you have to mimic everything the natives do. It’s exactly how you learned your first language as a child—copying everything around you so that you sounded and looked identical. The same rules apply to your Japanese studies!

This is also known as shadowing. You can learn more about it here:

2. Record yourself speaking Japanese

When you’re speaking out loud, it can be difficult to detect your own pronunciation errors. By recording yourself and listening back, you can easily spot where you’re struggling.

If possible, compare it with a native speaker’s voice. You might want to find a recording of a native speaker reading out an audiobook, follow it by reading that part of the book and then try reading the text out loud just as they do.

3. Keep a Japanese diary

Write down your thoughts and then record yourself reading it out loud. If you write about events and things going on in your life, it will be more interesting for a native speaker to listen to, too. You could even up the challenge by keeping a Japanese video diary or even a blog.

4. Ask native Japanese speakers for help

If you’re having a normal conversation with a Japanese person, they won’t usually correct your pronunciation unless your error changes the word completely. For example, someone might step in and say something if you want to say おいしい (delicious) but accidentally end up saying 牛/うし (cow) instead!

If you’ve ever spoken to someone in English and the other person’s native language isn’t English, they’ll probably have some kind of accent. Do you correct them constantly? Of course not!

Japanese people are the same; they usually won’t correct your poor pronunciation, and will just care about understanding you. However, in my experience, if you actually ask for help on specific words and phrases, they’re only too happy to help you out. Simply ask your Japanese friends whether your pronunciation is all right, and ask for their help to practice.

If you don’t have any Japanese friends you can ask, you can find a penfriend on Japan-guide.com or participate in a local or online language exchange program. Studying a language becomes much more fun when you have someone to practice with!

5. Pay close attention to difficult sounds

Fortunately, there aren’t that many difficult sounds in Japanese, but there are a few you have to be careful of.

One is the R sound (in” ら, り, る, れ and ろ). It’s somewhere between an L and an R sound (which is why the Japanese often struggle to differentiate between the English L and R sounds). Check out this great video on how to correctly pronounce the Japanese R sound.

You must also master the vowels, as every letter in Japanese except one (N) contains a vowel. The five vowels are:

  • あ A (as in father)
  • い I (as in eat)
  • う U (as in you)
  • え E (as in elephant)
  • お O (as in oar)

This YouTube video by JapanesePod101 provides more information on the vowels, including sound clips from a native speaker and how to shape your mouth when uttering the sounds.

And that’s just a little sample of what this podcast series offers learners, as they give both audio and video lessons along with tons of interactive study tools. If you like this approach, you can give the full JapanesePod101 course a try—they even have a free trial for interested Japanese students. They’re very focused on learning with podcasts, and I spend a lot of time driving around and commuting on public transit, so having this resource for Japanese audio input is pretty helpful.

For more information on mastering Japanese sounds:

6. Practice conversation daily

As well as practicing words and phrases when studying alone or in class, the best way to get fluent in Japanese is to speak it!

Speak Japanese as much as you possibly can, preferably with native speakers. Listen to them, the way their voice goes up and down when they speak, how they pronounce the difficult sounds mentioned earlier and repeat them as best you can.

Don’t feel foolish—they’ll be impressed with how close to a native you sound!

If you don’t happen to have a Japanese-speaking friend around to help you out, then you can make one on a language exchange site, as noted earlier. But you might also want to supplement your more casual Japanese conversations with a little professional help—this will ensure that you’re catching all the quirks in your pronunciation and getting the feedback you need to seriously improve.

7. Learn hiragana and katakana as quickly as possible

A dead giveaway that you’re foreign—for everyone learning a new language, not just those studying Japanese—is your native tongue’s accent creeping into your speech. We all do it, because that’s how we’ve always spoken.

The best thing to do when you learn a new Japanese word or phrase is to only use your Japanese knowledge, and forget everything about how you might pronounce it in your first language.

This is the main reason I’d recommend learning hiragana and katakana as quickly as possible—it’s easier to automatically use Japanese-only pronunciation.

https://www.fluentu.com/blog/japanese/how-to-learn-to-read-write-japanese-hiragana-katakana-fast/

If you study using romaji, it can be easy to make pronunciation mistakes because your brain still wants to read it in your first language.

When you were a small child, you learned pronunciation by mimicking others, copying from your parents or siblings and copying those around you. Use the same approach with any new language you’re studying. Think of your mind as a blank slate, and the only thing you’re remembering is the Japanese way of speaking. Make your first language and Japanese completely separate in every way.

That goes for translating, too—don’t do it! Associate phrases and sounds with their true Japanese meanings, not their English equivalents.

9. Practice tongue twisters in Japanese

We’re all familiar with tongue twisters in our native language after stumbling over them in childhood.

Well, Japanese has plenty of its own unique tongue twisters to offer! 

You’ve got to try to say them fast, which is great for speaking Japanese at a more natural pace in conversation. You’ll train your mouth muscles to enunciate each syllable, making those sounds clearer and more natural. It’s like a workout for your tongue, improving your accuracy and fluency with each repetition. Here’s a fun collection of Japanese tongue twisters to get you started: 

 

Following these simple steps can help you reach native-like pronunciation so that people will think you’re an excellent Japanese speaker, even if you’re not yet!

Best of luck to you!

がんばってください!

And One More Thing...

If you love learning Japanese with authentic materials, then I should also tell you more about FluentU.

FluentU naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You'll learn real Japanese as it's spoken in real life.

FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos as you'll see below:

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FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.

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All definitions have multiple examples, and they're written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.

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And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.

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The best part? FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You'll have a 100% personalized experience.

Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)

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