If you’ve been learning Japanese, you probably already know that Japanese pronunciation is easier than most other languages. There are only five vowels and 16 consonant sounds in the hiragana (Japanese phonetic) chart.
Many learners, however, spend a lot of time memorizing grammar rules, vocabulary and kanji, but neglecting pronunciation.
If you’ve had good lessons as a beginner, you should be able to speak with good pronunciation, as most qualified teachers will correct your pronunciation from the start. If you continue speaking with “clumsy” pronunciation, though, it can become a habit and will be more difficult to correct later.
Here are some reasons why I focus on pronunciation for learners:
Native speakers might misjudge your proficiency level
When I speak to foreigners in Japanese, I usually choose grammar and vocabulary based on their proficiency level, after analyzing the range of vocabulary and grammar they’re comfortable with. But, I often feel there’s a gap between their proficiency in the language and their pronunciation. Japanese friends or colleagues who are not teachers might think you have difficulty understanding Japanese and may underestimate your level because of your pronunciation.
You might lose opportunities to improve
Native speakers might try to use simple words and grammar even when you know more than they suppose. It would be a shame to lose such opportunities. If you are a diligent learner, you should aim to improve your pronunciation whenever you have the chance so native speakers will use words and grammar that are more in line with your true skills.
It makes you a more effective speaker
If you are using Japanese for your job or are applying for a job that requires you to speak Japanese, there will be competition for sure. If you’re at the same level as the speakers around you, good pronunciation will give you that extra edge. In short, pronunciation is an important tool to communicate for both learners and professionals.
Instead of writing about the finer points of pronunciation (since it isn’t much fun to read phonetic symbols without sound), I’m going to give you some useful suggestions on how to improve your pronunciation.
1. Record your voice and compare it.
Although it may seem strange at first, record yourself as you read (your mobile phone probably has a recording function) and compare it with the announcer’s pronunciation. You may hear some differences that will clue you in on what you have to work on. I recommended using NHK News Web Easy which I introduced in another article, Don't Burn Out! 3 Tips for Keeping your Love of Japanese Alive. It provides news articles with voiceovers, as announcers read the text slowly and clearly:
NHK News Web Easy
2. Ask friends or teachers for advice
It’s a good idea to ask willing Japanese friends or teachers about your pronunciation. If you find some sounds difficult, ask these native speakers to pronounce the sounds, and then repeat what they say. They should be able to spot the differences and correct you.
3. Use the Internet to your advantage
I like to search for more effective ways to correct learners' pronunciation, and have found some very useful pages. I can’t say that all the explanations and definitions are consistent throughout these sites, but they provide good basic opportunities to observe and improve Japanese pronunciation:
Japanese Pronunciation Problems by Greg Scott
Japanese Language Guide: Japanese Pronunciation
I know you’ve been working hard to improve, so why not use pronunciation as a basis for reaching the next level? If you would like more practice and constructive advice, please book my lessons! I’d be very glad to help you to improve your Japanese.
Edited by Ilene Springer
Image by John Larsson (CC BY 2.0)