Ali's blog

Troubleshooting Japanese Pronunciation

This is a quick list of some of the most common blocks to communication that I’m hearing when I overhear some of your conversations. Address these points and conversations will flow more, you’ll shave time off of your learning curve, and make your Japanese utterances easier to parse for natives:

  • Not clearly differentiating long and short vowel sounds. While you don’t have to pronounce these exactly like a native to be understood, if you don’t produce a clear difference in the length of pronunciation of short (あ、い、う、え、お )and long (ああ、えい、おう、おお、いい、うう), it can make it difficult for natives to parse your Japanese smoothly. The fix for this is to read a pronunciation guide again, learn how most vocab you know is written in hiragana, and be mindful of pronouncing long vowel sounds clearly during speech. Think 茎 vs. 空気.
  • Not hitting glottal stops hard enough. A glottal stop is when you trap air momentarily in your glottis, represented by a small tsu っ in written Japanese. Not pronouncing these clearly enough adds cognitive overhead for Japanese people trying to parse meaning out of what you’re saying. The fix for this is to be aware of words with a small tsu in them and pronounce the stop harder than you need to. Think クッキー vs 茎 vs 空気.
  • Unnatural, heavy intonation. Intonation (and specifically, pitch-accent) in Japanese is a subject into itself and I’m not qualified to teach it. But a common issue is people bringing their intonation/stress patterns from their English into Japanese instead of copying the intonation/stress patterns of Japanese natives. This again demands more work of Japanese people trying to parse your utterances. Before trying to copy Japanese utterances, I would suggest you instead simply try to eliminate intonation and stress patterns from your native language. Pronounce Japanese like a hiragana-spewing robot first, and only emote using expressions and sounds that you’ve heard natives use.
  • Attempting to speak too quickly. I suspect that this is out of a desire to sound more native and less like a fresh-off-the-boat gaijin. Especially coupled with any one of the issues outlined above, speaking too quickly doesn’t give Japanese natives enough of a chance to tease out meaning from your words. Simple fix for this is to slow down and pronounce everything out very clearly.
  • Talking more than listening. I personally would aim for max 40% you speaking vs 60% of the natives around you speaking. When you’re listening to Japanese people speak, think of it as shopping for native word choice to incorporate into your language ability. The more input you get, the more natural output you’ll be able to produce. The fix here is to ask a lot of questions and follow up questions, paraphrase things back to confirm your understanding, be conscious of your conversational airtime, and look up as many new words as you can in the dictionary during the conversation. Learning Japanese in conversation from native speakers is far easier (for me at least) than learning it out of a textbook.
  • Using non-natural or made-up Japanese constructions. I believe this is a result of trying to translate from English/other languages into Japanese. Or perhaps because you might have complex thoughts you want to express but don’t have the vocab or grammar yet to do so. The fix here is to speak in simple declarative sentences using grammar and vocab that you already know, and then potentially go back and try to figure out how to say the thing you wanted using the dictionary.

There are other things you can fix like devoicing or being conscious of register, but these are the main big ones I notice more or less every time I’m at the meetup and I’m walking around listening to people. I think fixing even one of these things will help establish a better baseline for further improvements.