As an English teacher, I often encounter the problems that result from pronunciation being significantly neglected in language learning and teaching. Although students perceive it as a very important part of the language learning process, teachers seem to dedicate little or no time to teaching it in their classrooms. As a result, students are left clueless as to how to improve their pronunciation skills.
The first step towards solving this problem is for students to identify the problem areas in English pronunciation. Therefore, this article aims to tackle pronunciation problems, specifically the sounds that are difficult for students whose native language is Japanese. Essentially, certain English sounds do not exist in the Japanese language or, if they do exist, they are pronounced in a very different manner. Thus, such sounds require additional practice for perfecting them. Let’s take a look at some of the most difficult.
Sound group #1: /r/ and /l/
The consonant sounds /r/ and /l/ are two of the most problematic sounds for Japanese students, being that these two sounds do not exist in Japanese. Furthermore, Japanese speakers often find it difficult to distinguish between /r/ and /l/ in English. They often pronounce these two English phonemes interchangeably, such as in words like “room,” where the sound /r/ occurs at the beginning. As a result, “red” can sound like “led,” and “lap” like “rap,” as Japanese students pronounce the single consonant with a sound that is somewhere between the English /r/ and /l/.
How to properly pronounce the /r/ and /l/ consonant sounds
In order to pronounce the /r/ sound, you need to raise the tip of your tongue towards the roof of your mouth, making sure not to touch it. Curl the edge of your tongue and touch your back teeth. Release air to make this sound.
In order to make the /l/ sound, raise the tip of your tongue, touch the roof of your mouth and release air while you voice it.
Sound group #2: /ʧ/ and /ʤ/
These two consonant sounds (/ʧ/ as in “church” and /ʤ/ as in “jam”) similarly cause problems for Japanese students being that they also do not exist in Japanese. Students find it especially difficult to pronounce the /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ sounds when they occur at the end of a word, such as in “catch” and “page”.
How to properly pronounce /ʧ/ and /ʤ/
In order tomake the /ʧ/ sound, press the tip of your tongue behind your upper front teeth while the sides of your tongue press on the upper side teeth. Then quickly move your tongue behind the lower front teeth and into a relaxed position. You need to first close the airflow in your mouth and then release it through a narrow gap. The air you release will make a hissing sound.
In order to make the /ʤ/ sound, you must also press the tip of your tongue behind your upper front teeth and then quickly move it behind the lower front teeth, pushing your lips forward. The release of air will result in a hissing sound as well. When pronouncing this sound, you should feel your vocal cords vibrate.
Sound group #3 /f/, /v/, /θ/, /ð/, /ʃ/ and /ʒ/
This sound group generally does not exist in Japanese, although there are some Japanese sounds that may serve as counterparts. However, such sounds may not always be appropriate for the given context of a certain English sound, and thus may result in mispronunciation.
For example, the English consonant sounds /θ/ and /ð/ (in words such as “think” and “that”) are often pronounced like /t/ and /d/, or even /s/ and /z/ by Japanese speakers.
Furthermore, the English phoneme /v/ is nonexistent in the Japanese speech system, thus making it difficult for Japanese speakers to pronounce it. It is often confused with the English sound /b/. Thus, the word “van” may be pronounced like “ban.”
On the other hand, the English sound /f/ (as in “fan”) does exist in Japanese. However, Japanese speakers often mispronounce it by saying /h/ when speaking. Moreover, while the consonant sound /ʃ/ (as in “shoe”) exists in Japanese, the way it is pronounced is not the same as in English.
How to properly pronounce /f/ and /v/
You mouth should be nearly closed when making the /f/ and /v/ sounds. Your lower lip should be lightly pressed against the bottom back side of your upper front teeth. For the /v/ sound in particular, it should also lightly touch the edges of the upper front teeth. Then, you should release air. While pronouncing the /v/ sound, you should feel a slight vibration in your throat.
How to properly pronounce /θ/ and /ð/
Open your mouth slightly and put the tip of your tongue between the edges of your upper and lower front teeth. For the /ð/ sound, the tip of your tongue should rest against the back front teeth. Then, release air to make these sounds. While pronouncing the sound /ð/, you should feel your vocal cords vibrate.
How to properly pronounce /ʃ/ and /ʒ/
In order to pronounce /ʃ/ and /ʒ/, open your mouth and curl your lower lip down. Raise your tongue towards the back edges of your upper front teeth and touch the roof of your mouth. Release air to make these two sounds. While pronouncing the sound /ʒ/, you should feel your vocal cords vibrate.
Sound group #4: /i:/, /ɪ/, /uː/ and /ʊ/
In the Japanese speech system, there are only five vowels, whereas there are considerably more vowels in English. Furthermore, the English language often distinguishes between vowel sounds based on the duration. Namely, English distinguishes between short and long vowels, while Japanese does not. Therefore, Japanese speakers usually fail to make such distinctions, which again leads to mispronunciation. This is apparent in words such as “ship” and “sheep,” where failing to make a distinction between the short vowel in “ship” and the long vowel in “sheep” can lead to pronunciation of the wrong word.
How to properly pronounce /ɪ/
In order to make /ɪ/ sound, open your mouth slightly and raise your tongue to the roof of your mouth without touching it, making sure that the tip of your tongue stays down. Release air to make this vowel sound.
How to properly pronounce /i:/
When pronouncing the /i:/ vowel sound, your lips should be much more spread open than when pronouncing the short vowel /ɪ/. Raise your tongue toward the roof of your mouth and place the tip behind your lower front teeth. Finally, to make this vowel sound, release air and hold it slightly longer than with the vowel sound /ɪ/.
How to properly pronounce /ʊ/
During the production of the /ʊ/ sound, your lips should be rounded and pushed outward. Pull your tongue towards the back, raise it to the roof of your mouth without touching it and release air to make this sound.
How to properly pronounce /uː/
When pronouncing the /uː/ sound, you should also round your lips and push them outward. Pull your tongue towards the back, raise it slightly and release air holding this vowel sound longer than /ʊ/.
During the pronunciation of all these vowel sounds, you should feel vibration in your vocal cords.
The key to mastering any problematic aspect of language learning can be summed up in the following expression: “practice makes perfect.” It is very important to identify the problematic area or areas, such as the sounds discussed in this article. To help you to overcome the these issues, there are a number of online resources to help you.
For improving your pronunciation skills, you can make use of videos teaching you proper pronunciation, such as Rachel’s English, Speaking Your Best or The Sounds of English, many of which use minimal pairs to teach the English sounds.
There are also a number of pronunciation apps that can help you in your learning process, such as Howjsay and Saundz (which have a curriculum specifically designed for Japanese speakers) or Pronunciation Power App.
Choose the resource that suits you best and practice with it until you are satisfied with the results. It may take some time, but you will certainly benefit from perfecting your pronunciation skills.
- Phonological Differences between Japanese and English
- Pronunciation Difficulties of Japanese Speakers of English
- The Phonemes of Japanese and English
Hero Image by mike krzeszak (CC BY 2.0)