It’s a shame that one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world is also one of the most difficult to learn. Speakers of the Germanic or Romance languages have a hard enough time learning English, but when your mother tongue is an East Asian language like Japanese, then significant obstacles abound!


During my time in Japan, I taught students of a wide range of academic levels. Some had been taking English lessons for only a few weeks, while others had studied English since Junior High or High School without ever using it in a practical setting. Then there were some who had traveled to or even lived in the U.S, with the chance to use English then.


I was, therefore, amazed to find that most of my students struggled with the same issues. These struggles were: adding extra syllables, improper use of articles, and mispronouncing numbers. So if you are Japanese and want to improve on your spoken English, then these tips might be areas in which you can improve on.



1) Extra syllables


The first thing that gives a person away of he or she being Japanese is katakana speak. This problem arises from the commonplace use of “Japanized” English words. Although you may already understand the meaning of English words like “table”, “door”, “touch”, and “image”, you may need to relearn these words because their English pronunciation differs significantly from your own.


I remember one student repeatedly saying, “Don’t tou-chi my no-to!” Although he was using English words, his sentence was virtually incomprehensible to an English native speaker because of the extra syllables. The key point here is syllable counts matter.


How can you train yourself to get this right? Try powerfully closing your mouth around the final consonant, as if you are trapping the following vowel inside your mouth. Practice this with the phrase “crisp potato chips”, and say it in front of a mirror so you can see the way your mouth moves. For reference, you can try studying native speakers on YouTube or television.



2) Articles: a, an, and the


The concept of definite versus indefinite articles is especially difficult to grasp for Japanese learners of English because the Japanese language does not have articles. While analogies can be made to the subject marker versus the topic marker (which in and of itself a difficult concept for students learning Japanese as a second language), this connection does little to eliminate confusion regarding English articles.


When deciding whether to use a or the in a sentence, ask yourself the following questions:


  • Is this object unique or one among many?
    • If it is one among many, you should use a.


  • Does the listener have any previous knowledge of the object in question?
    • If they do, you should use the. If not, then use a.


Here are some examples:


  • Have you seen the girl next door?
    • The sentence mentions a specific girl that the listener should be familiar with -- so the is correct.


  • I need a new jacket.
    • The speaker doesn’t need a specific jacket -- He just needs a jacket.


It will take time before you can consistently get this right, but don’t be discouraged. And, if you want to really impress your English-speaking friends, you can take it a step further. You probably already know that a changes to an before a word that starts with a vowel, but did you know that the changes too? Before a vowel, the uses a long e (as in thee). Before a consonant, pronounce it like a u (as in up). This subtle difference will make your English sound far more natural and understandable.



3) Be careful with your numbers


One of the most frustrating language obstacles I ran into in Japan was confusion over numbers.


I could never tell, for instance, whether my Japanese friends or students were saying the number 15 or 50. This was especially confusing when I was trying to schedule a time for something, and I often had to resort to speaking Japanese to clarify the correct time. It took some time before I learned the cause for this confusion.


First of all, most of my friends tended to put the emphasis on the wrong part of the word, saying fifty instead of fifty. In addition, they tended to pronounce the t slightly differently from the way I was used to hearing it. In other words, they pronounced 50 in almost the exact same way that they pronounced 15.


Fortunately, this is very easy to correct. First, be sure to use the correct emphasis. With 13, 14, and 15 etc., the emphasis comes on the second syllable (thirteen, fourteen, fifteen). With 30, 40, and 50 etc., the emphasis should come on the first syllable (Thirty, forty, fifty).


In addition, you should pronounce the t according to how you want your English to sound. To sound British, pronounce it as you would in any other word. If you want a more American sound, you should pronounce it as a d (thirdy, fordy, fifdy). This should make how you say numbers easier to understand for English speakers.


Above are just a few of the most frustrating aspects of learning English as a native Japanese speaker. Do not lose heart if any of these concepts seem hard to grasp at first. Continued practice will help you reach English fluency. 頑張ってね! (Good luck!)


Hero image by Lau keith (CC0 1.0)