In this episode, you’ll learn 10 of the most common pronunciation challenges Japanese speakers face when speaking English. You’ll also learn how to pronounce the sounds, and how to practice your American accent effectively.
Mispronunciations happen when a sound in the target language, in this case, English, doesn’t exist in the speaker’s native tongue (Japanese). When this happens, speakers tend to pronounce a different (but somewhat similar) sound that does exist in their language.
Scroll down to read about each challenge and download the FREE English Pronunciation guide for Japanese speakers.
Welcome to the InFluency Podcast. I’m Hadar. And this is episode number 289. And today we’re gonna talk about pronunciation challenges for Japanese speakers.
Hey everyone. Thank you so much for tuning in for another episode of the InFluency Podcast. And as you heard, today we’re gonna map out the differences between English and Japanese. I’m first going to start with those who are not Japanese speakers, know that this is still valuable for you cuz I’m going to talk about certain sounds and phonological processes and elements in English that might be relevant to you as well, so it’s a good opportunity to practice your pronunciation and awareness. And if you are a Japanese speaker then today you will find this helpful video that will allow you to understand better why you face some of the challenges when speaking English.
And not only that, I also have a pronunciation guide that you can download for free. Today I’m gonna talk about 5 challenges, but I actually have 10 challenges listed in the pronunciation guide. And it has an audio practice that goes along with it, you can just play it and practice with it. It’s completely free. Even if you’re not a Japanese speaker and you want another pronunciation drill to practice with, this is a good opportunity for you to practice something new. So, the link to download the free pronunciation guide is in the description.
And for now, let’s go ahead and listen to the main challenges, pronunciation challenges, for Japanese speakers when speaking in English.
Hey everyone, it’s Hadar. Thank you so much for joining me. This video is a part of a series of videos where I break down common pronunciation challenges for certain speakers. Each video is accompanied by pronunciation guide for those speakers with 10 challenges and drills and exercises to practice these challenges and improve clarity. So if you are a Spanish speaker, Portuguese speaker, Russian speaker, Arabic speaker, Korean speaker, and I think we have more, then make sure you check out the description below the video or my website to see if you have this guide and video as well.
So what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna look at the phonology and phonetics of English and Japanese and to see where there is a clash, and wherever there is a clash, usually there is a challenge – a sound that doesn’t exist in Japanese or something that happens in Japanese and doesn’t happen in English. So it’s going to be really, really interesting because every challenge that we’re gonna talk about, we’re also going to talk about why that happens, so you have a better understanding and you’ll be able to predict it, and also of course, how to practice it.
Now, as I said, we actually have a workbook – an American pronunciation guide for Japanese speakers. It is absolutely free. So if you are a Japanese speaker or you are a teacher working with Japanese speakers, you are going to want to have that workbook, it is very detailed. And by the way, even though we’re gonna talk about five challenges in the video, in the workbook you are going to find 10 challenges with the exercises and explanations. So make sure to download the workbook.
Now, let’s move on to challenge number one. The first challenge is ‘Confusing or not being able to tell the difference between the R and the L’. And here is why. In Japanese there is only the R sound, the R phoneme. The R phoneme that is pronounced as ‘ur’ in American English, in English in general, has three different pronunciations. They’re called allophones. An allophone is a way of pronouncing a certain sound. And sometimes there are several different ways to pronounce the same sound that is represented in the brain.
So for example, in American English, we have the T sound, the phoneme. The sound the way it’s represented in the brain is a T, but it could be an aspirated T, like at the beginning of words, like ‘time’. Could be a held T – ‘at’. Could be a flap T – ‘better’. Right? So it’s the same phoneme, same category, but different pronunciations, different allophones.
Same thing with a Japanese R. The phoneme is /ɾ/, but it has three different allophones, which are /ɾ/, ‘r’ – just like the American pronunciation, and L. So what is perceived in English as an L is actually perceived in Japanese as an R, and this is why the confusion. Because on one hand, because they perceive it as the same sound, it feels to them the same, right, it just changes according to the position in the word.
Because of that, it’s hard for them to notice that there is a difference when they hear English. It’s not a physical problem, they can pronounce an L, they can pronounce an R. But it’s to be able to pronounce the right sound on command, that’s what’s challenging. But also to recognize if it’s an L or an R – that is a challenge as well, right? R-L could be perceived the same.
So, the first thing is to be able to hear the differences. The R sound in American English could be stretched out and it has this hollow quality – ‘ur’. Versus the L, where you definitely hear the contact between the tongue and the L.
Let’s practice a few words with the R. Now here the tongue pulls back, there is no tap, it doesn’t touch the upper palate, and the lips round. Red. Around. Result. Crazy. When pronouncing the L, the tip of the tongue has to touch the upper palate, and has to touch it for… for a little bit. It doesn’t just slightly touches it cuz then it’s gonna be the /ɾ/ sound. No, the L has to touch it continually, touch the upper palette. Listen. Alaska. Please. Close. Okay? That is the main difference.
So, when you practice the two, make sure that for the R, the tongue doesn’t touch the upper palate. For the L, the tongue does touch the upper palate. And then you also wanna practice minimal pairs. For example: rain – lane, rice – lice, prank – plank. Can you hear the difference? Good. Can you make the difference? All right. Now, there are more examples and more words to practice and an audio to follow, so make sure you download the workbook.
The next thing is ‘Adding a vowel at the end of words’. In Japanese, words generally end with a vowel, not with a consonant, unless it’s a nasal consonant. Unless in Japanese the word ends with ‘m’, ‘n’ or ‘ng’. Otherwise, you will not find words that end with a consonant, like ‘b’ or ‘k’ or ‘ch’.
As a result because of this constraint, whenever Japanese speakers will try to pronounce a word that ends with a consonant, there is going to be a conflict. And some might try to solve this conflict by just adding a vowel, which is what is very common in Japanese. So instead of saying ‘cab’ they might say ‘kabu’. Instead of saying ‘bag’, they might say ‘bagu’, right, adding a vowel, usually an ‘u’ sound. So this is something that you definitely wanna be mindful of. And understanding the constraint can be really helpful cuz it’s not a problem for you to pronounce the end sound, it’s just that it goes against your natural speech patterns.
Now, a way to practice it is just to practice lists of words that end with a consonant and not with a vowel. For example: leaf, hope, bag, sheet, dress, absorb. Now, here’s something interesting – when a word ends with an R, for example, ‘care’, Japanese speakers might just drop the R – ‘cae’, and not add a vowel right after. So that is what happens with the R. And when they drop the R, if you drop the R, it’s not a big deal, it’s like British pronunciation. But if you want to work on your American pronunciation, then focus on bringing the tongue up for the R at the end – care, here, store.
The next one is ‘Mispronouncing the STIR sound’. The STIR sound is an R vowel – ‘ur’. We find it in words like ‘term’, ‘first’, ‘learn’, ‘hurt’, ‘girl’ and ‘burger’. Basically, you wanna think of it as if the R takes over the vowel before, and you just transition from one consonant to another while rounding your lips and stretching out the sound. The STIR always appears in a stressed syllable.
Now, the STIR doesn’t exist in Japanese, and usually Japanese speakers would substitute the sound with just one open ‘aa’ sound. So instead of ‘girl’, they might say something like ‘gaal’. Instead of ‘term’ – ‘taam’, instead of ‘first’ – ‘faast’. Can you hear the difference? So instead of rounding the lips, lifting the tongue up for the ‘ur’, which is basically like the pronunciation of the R sound, the tongue drops, the jaw opens, lips are relaxed, and the ‘aa’ as in ‘honest’, ‘father’ and ‘stop’ is pronounced.
So, we are just going to learn how to pronounce the STIR sound, I’m going to link to a relevant video as well. And here’s the tricky part. The STIR sound appears in various spelling patterns. Usually, IR, EAR, UR, OR, ER, just not AR, actually. All possibilities except for AR. And in all of these cases, the STIR sound sounds the same. Okay? So you bring the tongue up, sides of the tongue touch the sides of the teeth, just like pronouncing an R – ‘ur’, round your lips. Urban. Burger. Learn. Her. Hurt. Okay? Good. And not ‘aa’.
The next one is the U sound that is mispronounced. In Japanese there is no U, the U is unrounded. So think of just pronouncing the U sound without rounding the lips. Now, I know, I know, I can work on my Japanese U sound, but for now, I just wanted to show you an example of what it sounds like when you unround your lips.
But here’s the thing. Because it does sound a little bit like the U sound, every time there is supposed to be an U sound in English, Japanese speakers might actually take it to the unrounded U. And then a word like ‘food’ might sound like ‘fud’, and ‘you’ like ‘yu’. You wanna make sure that you really round your lips for those U sounds. Tense ‘uw’ as in ‘food’, ‘you’, ‘two’. Round the lips, the tongue’s doing the same thing. ‘Rumor’. ‘Shampoo’. Alright, good. More words in the workbook.
The last challenge I’m gonna talk about today is consonant clusters. In Japanese there are no clusters. Clusters is when there is a sequence of consonants within the same syllable, either at the end of a word or at the beginning of a word. But it’s one after another without vowels in between. That does not happen in Japanese. Maybe at the beginning, if the second consonant is the ‘y’ sound, but that’s it. And this is why when they come across words in English with clusters, and there are many of them, it could be very difficult cuz it kind of like goes against the natural tendencies of Japanese speakers.
So, one of the things that people might wanna do to solve that challenge is to either break those consonants, so that means adding vowels in between. For example, instead of the word ‘cabs’, we might hear ‘cab’ without the consonant, so that consonant might be dropped. Or in the word ‘play’, we might hear something like ‘puh-lay’, adding a vowel in between. So these are the things that we can expect.
Now here’s how you can practice it. First of all, you want to practice soft clusters. What are soft clusters for Japanese speakers? Clusters that have a nasal sound. Because in Japanese, like I told you, it’s okay to have a nasal sound at the end of words. So, for example, ‘mine’ is not posing any challenge cuz it ends with an N. So, if we wanna say the word ‘mind’, it might be an easier transition into the world of clusters because ‘mine’ is already okay, so it’s just adding the D. And you wanna make sure that you pronounce each sound separately and then you connect the words together. ‘Mind’. ‘Homes’. ‘Bangs’. All right.
And then we also wanna practice maybe harder clusters at the end, like ‘text’, right? And you want to understand what your mouth does for each sound – K-S-T, and then to connect it together – KST, right? Just don’t add vowels in between. Text. List. Milk. And then at the end, you might wanna try some clusters at the beginning, like ‘cry’, ‘play’, ‘street’.
All right, these are the five challenges. There are five more waiting for you in the workbook, so just click the link below and download the workbook. And that’s it. I hope you found this helpful. If you’re a Japanese speaker, let me know in the comments what is the biggest challenge out of the five that I have listed for you. And what do you do to practice it?
Thank you so much for watching this. If you have friends or family members or students or colleagues that you’d like to share this with, please do. I would be so grateful. Now, if you’re not following me on social media, I’m also on Instagram at @hadar.accentsway, and TikTok, where I publish daily content. It’s a lot of fun. . So, come on over there.
Have a beautiful, beautiful rest of the day, and I’ll see you next week in the next video. Bye.
Challenge #1: Confusing R & L
In Japanese, the R sound and the L sound are perceived as the same sound. Therefore, when Japanese speakers come across an English word with an R or L sound, they might substitute one with the other. For example, a word like ‘light’ might be pronounced as ‘right’.
- Download our FREE workbook to practice these challenges with our lists of words and audio recordings.
Challenge #2: Adding a vowel at the end of syllables
In Japanese syllables usually end with a vowel. So when Japanese speakers come across syllables that end with a consonant, they might add a vowel right after in order to keep the syllable structure that is allowed in Japanese. For example, a word like ‘cab’ might be pronounced ka-bu.
Challenge #3: Breaking clusters
Since Japanese doesn’t allow most consonants at the end of a syllable, consonant clusters are not possible as well. Therefore, when Japanese speakers come across words that end with a consonant cluster, they might drop a consonant or add a vowel after each consonant they keep. For example, a word like ‘help’ might be pronounced he-ru-pu (see Challenge #3 for the R-L confusion).
Japanese does not allow clusters at the beginning of syllables as well. When speakers come across a word like ‘true’, they might break the cluster and pronounce it as tu-ru.
The only consonants allowed at the end of a syllable in Japanese are nasal consonants. Therefore, when Japanese speakers come across a final cluster that begins with a nasal sound, they might keep that sound and drop the other consonants in the cluster. For example, a word like ‘bend’ might be pronounced as Ben.
Challenge #4: Pronouncing TH as S/Z
As in many other languages, the TH sounds do not exist in Japanese. Therefore, when Japanese speakers come across words with a voiceless or a voiced TH, they might change them into S or Z, respectively. For example, a word like ‘think’ might be pronounced as ‘sink’, and a word like ‘then’ might be pronounced as ‘zen’.
Challenge #5: Changing S/Z/T/D into SH/ZH/CH/DJ before a high EE sound
In Japanese, when S/Z/T/D come before a high EE sound /i/, they are pronounced a bit further back in the mouth, which makes them sound like SH/ZH/CH/DJ, respectively. As a result, Japanese speakers might apply this change in English as well. For example, a word like ‘seat’ might sound like ‘sheet’; ‘tears’ like ‘cheers’; and even ‘dim’ might sound like ‘gym’.
- Download our FREE workbook to practice these challenges with our lists of words and audio recordings.
Challenge #6: Replacing V/F with B or P
The English V and F sounds do not exist in Japanese so speakers might replace them with the B or P sounds. For example, a word like ‘fan’ might sound like ‘pan’, and ‘van’ like ‘ban’.
Challenge #7: Mispronouncing diphthongs
There are no diphthongs in Japanese. When Japanese speakers come across a word with a diphthong in English, they tend to pronounce only the first part of the diphthong, so a word like ‘bait’ would sound like ‘bet’. In some cases, they might split the diphthong into two different syllables. For example, a word like ‘cow’ might sound like ka-u.
Challenge #8: Pronouncing the STIR vowel as a long A
The STIR sound does not exist in Japanese. Therefore, when Japanese speakers come across English words with this vowel, they tend to pronounce it as a long, neutral A sound. As a result, a word like ‘burn’ might sound like the word ‘barn’.
Challenge #9: Mispronouncing the A as in CAT
The CAT vowel does not exist in Japanese. Therefore, when Japanese speakers come across an English word with this vowel, they might change it into similar vowels that do exist in Japanese. For example, a word like ‘hat’ might sound like ‘hut’ or ‘hot’, and a word like ‘bad’ might sound like ‘bed’ or ‘bud’.
Challenge #10: Unrounding the /u/
The high back rounded vowel /u/ as in ‘pool’ does not exist in Japanese. When Japanese speakers come across words with this vowel sound, they tend to use an unrounded version of this vowel – /ɯ/.
Download our FREE workbook to practice these challenges with our lists of words and audio recordings.
More resources mentioned in the video:
See pronunciation guides for other languages:
- Pronunciation challenges for SPANISH speakers
- Pronunciation challenges for BRAZILIAN PORTUGUESE speakers
- Pronunciation challenges for RUSSIAN speakers
- Pronunciation challenges for ARABIC speakers
- Pronunciation challenges for KOREAN speakers
- Pronunciation challenges for HINDI-URDU speakers
- Pronunciation challenges for CHINESE speakers