Tips for losing Japanese accent when speaking American English
When speaking English as a Japanese speaker, there are several factors we need to consider.
1) First, you need to train your ears to be able to distinguish different sounds that may sound the same to native Japanese speakers. This is actually harder to do than speaking in my opinion. I learned that if you can’t hear it, you can’t speak it either.
2) The next challenge is to be able to pronounce them. For this, you have to understand the speech anatomy and learn how the sounds are produced in your month. And even after you understand them, you may have to practice many many times before you become able to correctly pronounce them.
In order to learn both how to listen and speak English, it is important to understand the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabets) which are used in most English phonetic references. My English instructor recommended me to use this website provided by the University of Iowa. They show the animated diagrams of speech anatomy and sample sounds you can listen to for each IPA.
The table below shows the English sounds and how I interpret them as a Japanese speaker. They are in the order that makes sense in Japanese. I remember my ESL instructors always said, “Do not write English in Japanese!”, but I am ignoring them here. J It was easier for me to see the Japanese characters when learning the sounds. Agree or not, it is just one method I use anyway.
As an example, you can see in the table that there are multiple English sounds that may translate to the same Japanese character. Take a look at the first four sounds. There are 4 distinct English vowels sounds that may sound to the same sound, Japanese ア. First challenge is to be able to distinguish the differences between them. You can listen to the sounds many times on the above website to help you learn the differences.
|/ɑ/||ア||Normal Japanese ア sound.|
|/ə/||ア||Reduced ア sound that is produced in the back in the mouth or in the throat, which is represented as hiragana あ in my example.|
|/æ/||ア||A-diagraph sound that is a combination of ‘a’ and ‘e’ sounds, that is represented as ぇぁin my example.|
|/ɚ/||アー||Hard R sound that is produced in the back in the mouth, represented as R in my example.|
|/i/||イ||Normal Japanese イ sound.|
|/ɪ/||イ||Reduced イ sound that is produced in the back of the mouth or in the throat, which is represented as hiragana い in my example.|
|/u/||ウ||Normal Japanese ウ sound.|
|/ʊ/||ウ||Reduced ウ sound that is produced in the back of the mouth or in the throat, which is represented as hiragana う in my example.|
|/e/||エ||Normal Japanese エ sound.|
|/ɛ/||エ||Reduced エ sound that is produced in the back of the mouth or in the throat, which is represented as hiragana え in my example.|
|/o/||オ||Normal Japanese オ sound.|
|/ɔ/||オ, ア||Open-O sound that is produced with a small balloon space in the back of the mouth, that is represented as ぉぁin my example.|
|/k/||カ行||Similar to Japanese カ行.|
|/g/||ガ行||Similar to Japanese ガ行.|
|/s/||サ行||Similar to Japanese サ行 except for “si” sounds more like スィ than シ.|
|/θ/||サ行||The unvoiced TH sound that is produced by sticking the tip of tongue out of the mouth and sandwiching it by top and bottom teeth, making the hissing sound, which is represented as TH in my example.|
|/z/||ザ行||Similar to Japanese ザ行 except for “zi” sounds more ズィlike than ジ.|
|/ð/||ザ行||The voiced TH sound that is produced by sticking the tip of tongue out of the mouth and sandwiching it by top and bottom teeth, making the vibration sound, which is represented as TH that may be followed by ザ行 character in my example.|
|/ʃ/||シ||Hard SH sound that is produced by rounding the lips and place the tip of tongue close to the back of the teeth making the hissing sound, which is represented as SH in my example. It is a stronger and longer sound than Japanese シ. This sound is similar to the sound you make when you try to make someone quiet (シーッ！)|
|/ʒ/||ジ||Hard ZH sound that is produced by rounding the lips and place the tip of tongue close to the back of the teeth making the vibration sound, which is represented as ZH in my example table. It has a strong vibration sound and is longer than Japanese ジ .|
|/t/||タ行||Similar to Japanese タ行.|
|/d/||ダ行||Similar to Japanese ダ行 but softer sound.|
|/n/||ナ行, ン||Similar to Japanese ナ行. When there is no vowel associated with it, it becomes Japanese ン sound, which is produced by placing the tip of tongue attaching to the top of the mouth.|
|/ŋ/||ング||NG sound as in “ing” that is produced by placing the back of tongue attaching to the top of the mouth. The difference from /n/ is the positions of the tongue and the top surface of mouth when they attach. The tip of tongue should be downward for /ŋ/ where it is upward for /n/. The G sound after N should not be pronounced as strong as Japanese グ, and it is rather almost non-existent. To distinguish the sounds, the hiragana んぐ is used to represent /ŋ/ and the katakana ン is used to represent /n/ in my example.|
|/h/||ハ行||Similar to Japanese ハ行 except that フ is different and it is more like the sound you would produce when you put out a candle. The Japanese フ is more like “fu” than “hu”. To distinguish this difference, “hu” is represented as hiragana ふ. The /h/ sound is generally produced in the back in the mouth, similar to the sound you may make when you try to get the phlegm out of your throat. J|
|/m/||マ行||Similar to Japanese マ行.|
|/j/||ヤ行||Similar to Japanese ヤ行.|
|/r/||ラ行||Similar to Japanese ラ行 but different. The R sound is pronounced in the back of the month without the tongue touching anywhere in the mouth. Note that there is no exact same ラ行 sound in English. The Japanese ラ行 is more like between R and L.|
|/l/||ラ行||Similar to Japanese ラ行 but with the L sound that is produced by placing the tip of tongue behind the top teeth, which is represented as L in my example.|
|/w/||ワ行||Similar to Japanese ワ行 but with stronger W sound.|
|/b/||バ行||Similar to Japanese バ行.|
|/p/||パ行||Similar to Japanese パ行.|
|/tʃ/||チャ行||Similar to Japanese チャ行.|
|/dʒ/||ジャ行||Similar to Japanese ジャ行.|
|/f/||ファ行||Similar to Japanese ファ行. The F sound that is produced by placing the bottom lip under the top teeth.|
|/v/||ヴ||The V sound is produced by placing the bottom lip under the top teeth and making the vibration sound. The character ヴ was unofficially added to Japanese alphabet to represent the V sound.|
English Intonation and Duration
The next step is to learn how to speak English in the correct rhythm.
There are two parts to the English rhythm:
1) up-and-down (high-low) intonation and
2) short-or-long time duration,
and they actually come hand in hand.
Syllables in words are usually stressed and unstressed alternately. When it is stressed, it is at the high position of up-and-down rhythm, and when it is unstressed, it is at the low position of the rhythm. Each word has one major stress point and may have one or more minor stress points. When a syllable is stressed, it is also stretched in time duration, resulting a longer sound, and when a syllable is unstressed, it becomes a short sound.
For example, the word ”English” has two syllables (1)Eng (2)lish. In this word, the first syllable is stressed and the second syllable is unstressed, so the syllable (1) would have high and long sound and the second syllable has low and short sound.
English dictionary usually shows which syllables are stressed using the accent symbol.
When we, Japanese, learn English in our schools, we may learn about the intonation, but we don’t really learn the importance of it. Well, it turns out that not speaking English with a correct rhythm is a big factor in having Japanese accent!
Pseudo Phonetic Japanese Representation
The general rules I used to represent the phonetic sound in Japanese in my examples are the following:
1) Katakana represents the sounds that are closer to typical Japanese sounds
2) Hiragana represents the sounds produced in the back in the mouth or in the throat, which doesn’t typically exist in the Japanese language
For more explanation of specific sounds, please see the descriptions in the above table. The following table shows the general representation.
|/v/||ヴァ||ヴぁ||ヴィ||ヴ ぃ||ヴ||ヴぅ||ヴェ||ヴ ぇ||ヴォ|
The following shows some katakana word examples that Japanese may mispronounce easily in English. The Japanese extension character (ー) is used to show the longer timing of the sounds and the underscore is used to indicate the high-pitched syllable. Also the parentheses are used to indicate that it is pronounced weakly or as almost non-existent.
Dropped Syllable Words
In some words, a syllable is dropped from the process of speaking them more naturally. The following table shows some examples.
|English||Japanese||Dropped Syllable||Phonetic Japanese|
Special American English Traits
1. Words spelled with letter ‘o’ is often pronounced as /ɑ/
2. Words spelled with letter ‘t’ is often pronounced as /d/