Disclaimer: My spoken Japanese is not perfect.
Japanese pronunciation has been done dirty in the way it’s been taught to foreign speakers. Granted, if the first semester of any language course were spent only drilling the specific sounds and tonal patterns of a language not much progress would be made anywhere, although it would certainly get in the way of more critical topics such as foundational grammar and vocabulary. For this reason we can understand why teachers invent these gross oversimplifications in order to get students speaking as much as possible.
These are myths such as: “Japanese is tonally flat”, “All sounds in Japanese exist in English!” or “Japanese pronunciation is easy!”. While there’s nothing wrong learning speaking as soon as you can with these beginner guidelines in mind, they will start to handicap your communication once you start hitting the intermediate and advanced levels. Especially when you start making friends who are native speakers and you suddenly find yourself speaking more and more, you will probably at least once experience the awkward and embarrassing situation where your accent cannot be understood and you find yourself repeating the same sentence over and over.
Japanese people are infamous for being patient and kind to foreign speakers to the extent that they are unlikely to correct your broken Japanese even when you ask them to. This does not mean that they find your Japanese easy to listen to or even completely understand what you’re saying all the time. Do not depend on native speakers to fix your spoken Japanese. Whenever you can fit in the time you should try to record yourself with either free software like Audacity or the voice notes application on your phone.
Attempting to explain what certain sounds in a foreign language will sounds like through a blog post might be like attempting to describe the difference between similar shades of green to a person with color blindness. For this reason I recommend listening to the way Japanese is spoken and feeling out these nuances for yourself. It will take a lot of listening before you can start to get an ear of these sounds and patterns. You can jumpstart your studies in Japanese phonetics by checking out Dogen’s series on Youtube. Your new best friends will be the free online open source pronunciation dictionary Forvo as well as the free pronunciation program Suzuki-kun provided by the Online Japanese Accent Dictionary.
は (the particle):
It’s not “wa” it’s a bit more like “u-a”. As an exercise you can try to make sound out a “う” sound, then a “あ” sound, and gradually try to combine them into a single syllable. Let’s check out a native’s pronunciation:
お名前は？(おなまえは? Onamae ha? Your name is…?)
(私は＿と申します わたしは＿＿ともうします I am called ___ (humble))
Listen closely to these recordings and realize that this sound is really quite different than the English “Wa”. Keep in mind that the は sound as it’s featured in words such as 激しい (はげしい, intense) and (羽 はね, feather) are a different sound altogether, similar but not necessarily identical to the English “ha”.
The little “つ/ツ” :
Unless you’ve been very careful with your spoken Japanese up until now, you’ve likely been getting kind of sloppy with your annunciation of words that have a little つ. When words include a little つ, the following consonant will have a bit more emphasis on it. When your ear is not attuned to the sounds of Japanese, the difference between せっかく (which is a word) and せかく (which is not a word) may at first seem arbitrary, but make all the difference to a native speaker trying to figure out your accent.
Let’s listen to some native speakers pronounce 夏 (なつ, summer) and ナッツ (nuts, which has the little ツ):
夏 (なつ, summer）：
Can you tell who is saying which? The man is saying “nuts”, but the woman is saying “summer”. As you become more and more comfortable speaking Japanese, remembering to differentiate your stressed consonants and unstressed consonants becomes all the more critical. The more often you forget to and ignore these rules the more likely bad habits will form and the more difficult you will be to understand. Likewise very similar pronunciation mistake can be found in
お and おう, or Long and Short Vowel Sounds:
This mistake is very similar to forgetting the little つ in that the mistake arises from the distinction being both difficult for the foreign speaker to hear and easy to leave out of their own spoken Japanese. But it’s the minute differences between these sounds that can make what you’re trying to say a completely different word. In these situations it becomes up to the listener to try and sleuth out what you’re trying to say. Not a great situation for either party.
Check out these differences between 予約 (よやく, yoyaku, reservation) ようやく (youyaku, finally/at last). The only phonetic difference between them is their short and long vowel sound, respectively. (actually, they also belong to different pitch accent groupings, but that is something better left untouched until after you become comfortable differentiating the vowels)
予約 (よやく, yoyaku, reservation)
ようやく (youyaku, finally/at last)
すぐに戻ります (すぐにもどります ”I’ll be right back”):
In our first example you can hear the devoicing of “desu” becoming “des”. With the second we can hear “modorimasu” (to return) devoice to “modorimas”. As you practice this devoicing in your self recordings you will soon find that this practice of vowel devoicing helps your sentence flow much better and is a bit less work for your mouth. This tends to be one of the easiest habits of spoken Japanese to pick up on, as it’s subtractive rather than additive.
It may be frustrating to learn that rules of Japanese you may have been taught were incorrect. It may be embarrassing to record yourself and compare yourself to a native speaker and realize how thick your accent is. Japanese phonetics is a deep and humbling topic that even native speakers struggle to explain because it’s rarely ever thought about consciously. Can you explain proper and improper stress patterns in English? Maybe not, but you can definitely hear it when you speak to new ESL students. Luckily, we live in a time where the few people who are experts in this field are publishing their research online where we can easily get our hands on it. I don’t think anyone is expecting us to be completely flawless speakers, but if we stay conscious in our speaking and occasionally pick up a new speech pattern that can level up our communication with others, things can only get better!