Tips for Japanese Speakers Part I

Having previously spent almost a decade living in Japan, I can affirm that Japanese speakers often encounter distinct challenges with English pronunciation.

A prevalent issue among Japanese learners is the struggle to differentiate between the sounds /l/ and /r/. In Japanese, a sound that falls between these two English sounds is utilized, as evident in words like “ramen.” Furthermore, Japanese speakers frequently face challenges in distinguishing the sounds /w/ and /v/, leading to the pronunciation of imported words like “veteran” as “beteran.” The difficulty with the /w/ sound stems from the challenge of rounding the lips, a characteristic of native English pronunciation.

However, these challenges are just the tip of the iceberg. Anyone who has spent significant time in Japan as a native English speaker is likely familiar with these issues. Yet, recognizing these differences is one thing; effectively addressing them is another.

Pronunciation extends beyond the placement of the tongue; it involves understanding how to produce sounds with the correct aspiration. Japanese speakers tend to transition rapidly from one syllable to the next, creating a constant start-stop mechanism that controls airflow from the back of the mouth. In contrast, English sounds are typically aspirated, emphasizing the role of the lungs. When speaking English, one can feel the diaphragm being pushed down and released as we speak.

For Japanese people aspiring to enhance their English pronunciation, it’s crucial to begin by understanding the fundamental mechanics of speech. I encourage my students to focus on the following key areas:


  • Study the basic building blocks of speech. Use the International Phonetic Alphabet to help you recognise the sounds.
  • Spend more time listening to the language rather than trying to speak the language. This is a problem that causes many Japanese people to sound Japanese when they speak English. They have spent too much time on their output rather than listening to the sounds spoken by native speakers.
  • Watch how native English speakers aspirate sounds compared to the manner in which Japanese people aspirate the sounds of Japanese. Do you notice how when Japanese people speak Japanese they tend to move less? Ask yourself why.

Simply repeating words or expressions with the hope of improvement may lead to disappointment.

Comprehending the intricacies of English sounds and speech mechanisms at a fundamental level establishes a robust foundation for mastering English pronunciation. It’s a journey that commences with awareness and progresses through dedicated practice and guidance.

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