Like neatness is the key to good handwriting, pronunciation is quite possibly the most important thing to get right when studying any language.
Fortunately, Japanese pronunciation is fairly simple. With a little concentration, hard work and practice, you’ll be speaking like a native in no time.
Here are six essential steps you can take to practice and perfect your Japanese pronunciation.
- 1. Practice, practice, practice
- 2. Ask native Japanese speakers for help
- 3. Pay close attention to difficult sounds
- 4. Practice conversation daily
- 5. Mimic/Shadow everything you see and hear
- 6. Forget your native language’s intonation!
1. Practice, practice, practice
It might sound obvious when I say “practice,” but the key is to make sure you’re practicing the right way.
When improving pronunciation, you have to say the words and phrases you’re learning out loud as much as possible. When you’re studying by yourself, it can be easy to just read, write and listen to CDs without ever actually saying anything out loud. While listening repetitively is good, it’s essential for you to say new phrases aloud, too.
- 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).
- A great idea is to record yourself speaking Japanese and, 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.
- 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.
- You can also keep a Japanese diary (great practice for writing and kanji stroke order practice, too) and 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.
2. 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!
3. 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 great 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 great features.
So, if you find this video helpful, we’d recommend that you give the full JapanesePod101 course a try—they even have a free trial for interested Japanese students. Don’t underestimate the power of an excellent Japanese podcast. Having this high-quality audio input all day long can do wonders for your comprehension skills and pronunciation.
4. 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.
For those of you feeling particularly dedicated to improving your pronunciation and overall Japanese, Verbling is a nice place to find a friendly, affordable Japanese tutor. You’ll be able to explore hundreds upon hundreds of Japanese teachers and find exactly the one who’s right for you.
When you search, you’ll get to search based on prices, availability and even the other languages they speak—so if your native language is Chinese or German, you can find a Japanese teacher to teach you in that language. And that means that your tutor will be able to really understand why you’re having trouble with certain pronunciations, since they know what your native language sounds like.
5. Mimic/Shadow everything you see and hear
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.
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!
6. Forget your native language’s intonation!
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 another reason learning hiragana and katakana as quickly as possible is so important—it’s easier to automatically use Japanese-only pronunciation.
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.
Here’s a summary of the above tips. Following these steps will get you closer to excellent pronunciation.
- Practice constantly by mimicking, shadowing and recording yourself for self-evaluation.
- Speak Japanese as much as possible with native speakers, asking for help to polish your pronunciation and intonation skills.
- Take care with difficult sounds and work hard at the vowel sounds, as they’re the foundation of the Japanese language.
- When speaking Japanese, use only what you’ve heard, mimicked and practiced. Forget your first language’s pronunciation!
- Study hiragana and katakana rather than romaji (and use kanji too, if you can manage it!).
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!