Pronunciation hints for Japanese

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Pronunciation hints 

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Pronunciation Hints
The way of the shadow 

The following tips have been key to improving my Japanese pronunciation. They'll help your pronunciation out no end.


Here shadow is a verb not a noun. "Shadowing" is repeating exactly what someone says directly after they have said it with the same intonation. This means that you end up talking while they’re still talking which is certainly no mean feat, but it pays off dividends big time.

For instance, you might record the NHK news then try shadowing a one minute segment. I used to shadow the grammar examples of some Japanese Proficiency Test tapes while getting dressed.  Not only will you learn how to pronounce Japanese sounds more naturally, you’ll also pick up more natural intonation and you’ll get faster at speaking.  

Don’t stress if you find that they speak too fast at the beginning for you to follow.  Just repeat what you can pick up.  By the way, shadowing is one of the main techniques simultaneous interpreters use in their training.

Audiovisual Shadowing 

Rather than just auditory materials, I recommend shadowing the sections in videos or DVDs where you get a close-up of the person talking. The reasons are: (1) you can rewind something if you missed it the first time; and (2) the person's face (particularly the area around their mouth) will give you clues on how to pronounce the word.

You don't necessarily have to be conscious of these clues - in fact, it's more than likely that you won't. But there's evidence to suggest that looking at a person's face (particularly the lower half of a person's mouth) aids in the pronunciation and recall of foreign sounds. Japanese DVDs also have the added bonus of Japanese subtitles.

Study Japanese linguistics

Okay, okay, this isn’t as easy as it sounds, but keep it as an option one day. What you want to focus on in particular is the branch of linguistics called phonetics which is concerned with defining the sounds used in language (by such things as the international phonetic alphabet). Phoneticians have some very neat ways of dividing up spoken sounds via the manner and place of articulation. Phonetics will give you some theory about how sounds in Japanese differ to those in English (or whatever other language you speak) and hopefully give you some insight to what you need to do to sound more native-like.

Read manga

Often the sounds in the English language are not very accurately represented by the letters we use to write them. For example, the words "cough", "rough", "through" and "though" all have the “ough” in common, but the actual pronunciation of these four letters differs in each case. 

In contrast, Japanese is quite cool in that the sounds making up actual speech can be fairly accurately represented by hiragana and katakana.

Manga is packed with conversational Japanese and will give you hints about how Japanese is actually spoken. For instance, you may be stumped when you encounter the phrase “わかんない” (wakannai - I don't know/no idea) until you realise that it’s actually a fairly common way of pronouncing “わからない” (wakaranai).

Record yourself reading out something in Japanese then listen to yourself critically

You may think that only Japanese people can give you feedback on your Japanese.


In fact, little old you knows quite a bit about what sounds Japanese, even if you don’t know how to put it into words (like a phonetician can). Make use of your innate brilliance by given yourself feedback on how you sound recorded in Japanese.

Think about whether you speak too quickly or too slowly, whether you give undue emphasis to particles (an old bad habit of mine), whether your intonation sounds natural, whether you speak too softly or loudly, whether you stumble over words or mumble; the list goes on.

I can assure you that a careful listening to your own Japanese speech will afford you insights into your Japanese pronunciation and give you the motivation to improve it more than any Japanese teacher's comments could.