One of my students told me a story from when he was in college:
He had a Japanese girlfriend who always pronounced the word “agree” the same as the word “ugly”. You can probably imagine the comical situations arising from her trying to say the simple sentence, “I agree”!
It always made him laugh, and he sometimes still repeats her pronunciation more than ten years later.
English pronunciation is very difficult for Japanese people. This is largely because the Japanese language only has about 112 distinct syllables, whereas most dialects of English have one hundred times that many – around 12,000 or so. For example, Japanese does not contain equivalents for the English ‘R’ or ‘V’ sounds, leading to some major modifications in the pronunciation of foreign words such as “convenience store” (shortened and pronounced as こんびに (konbini) in Japanese). This doesn’t just occur for English words entering Japanese, though; the French word “bonjour” becomes ボンジュール (bonjuuru) out of necessity, for instance.
This syllabic scarcity has an upside, though – it makes the pronunciation of Japanese words much easier. In fact, Japanese vowels always have exactly the same pronunciation no matter what other consonants or vowels they are combined with, which means that once you learn the correct pronunciation for a Japanese syllable (or kana) you can always say it the right way.
However, learners who eschew the study of the Japanese syllabic system (hiragana / katakana) tend to make more mistakes in their pronunciation since they typically rely on ローマジ (romaji), which is the general name for a group of similar writing schemes designed to express Japanese syllables using the Roman alphabet.
A student using ローマジ might be tempted to pronounce the word namae as “nah-may,” since the syllable “mae” is often pronounced that way in English. In Japanese, though, the word actually contains three syllables: な (nah), ま (mah), and え (eh), each of which must be pronounced separately (“nah-mah-eh”).
Although Japanese pronunciation is simpler than that of many other languages, it still poses some challenges for native speakers of English. Japanese possesses a mere fraction of the syllables found in English, but it does contain a group of sounds that are not found in the latter language. The pronunciation of the kana group ら、り、る、れ、ろ has been known to trip students up, especially when one of these syllables begins a word.
Try to pronounce the following words:
Were you able to say them smoothly and naturally? If you answered yes, that’s great! But don’t forget that the ultimate test will be saying them to a native speaker. I remember one of my students saying to me one time, 「わたしの へやは ひどいです。」 He was trying to say ひろい (“big”), but he pronounced the word like ひどい (“awful”)! I interpreted his sentence as “My room is awful.” and proceeded to ask him,
「ひどい？ きたないんですか？」 (“Awful? Is it dirty?”)
Due to its relatively small number of syllables, the Japanese language contains many words with similar pronunciations (but of course, very different meanings). Let’s look at a few common examples:
かわいい (ka-wa-ii) “cute” // こわい (ko-wa-i) “scary”
A student of mine asked her friend about me (he is also one of my students) and he said, 「きよみは こわい」 (kiyomi wa kowai ; Kiyomi is scary!). Needless to say, I was quite relieved when I realized that he meant かわいい (kawaii ; cute)!
きれい (ki-re-i) “beautiful” // きらい (ki-ra-i) “hate”
After attending an ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) exhibition, one of my students asked me why people acted bewildered when she said きらい (ki-ra-i ; hate)!
はしおき (ha-shi-o-ki) “chopstick rest” // おしおき (o-shi-o-ki) “punishment”
When I showed my chopstick rest to a student, he said, 「いい おしおきですね！」
Some other common examples are 「くも・くま」 (spider・bear), 「まっくら・まっくろ」 (pitch-dark・pure black), and 「みそ・みぞ」 (Japanese seasoning・ditch).
Husband or prison?
Another thing to watch out for is “long vowel” words such as 「しゅうじん・しゅじん」. The first (shuujin) means “prisoner,” while the second (shujin) means “husband.” Of course, no one is going to think that you have a prisoner when you introduce your husband as 「わたしの しゅうじんです」 – people mostly understand the meaning from the context of the situation – but it does sound strange to a native ear. And sometimes it does cause misunderstandings, especially with word pairs like the ones below:
おじさん・おじいさん (gentleman・elderly man)
おばさん・おばあさん (lady・elderly woman)
Even if you think that you are using the above terms of address correctly, if people appear uncomfortable you should go with the safer 「おにいさん」 (“young man”) or 「おねえさん」 (“young lady”), even they are much older than you!