Some Tips For Reducing a Japanese Accent

10/24/2018

Reducing a Strong Japanese Accent

Intonation

Japanese speech sometimes gives the impression of sounding like a picket fence, with a lot less variation in pitch. It may be due partly to the fact that in English, there is a fixed word order, whereas in Japanese, any word can be moved to the beginning of a sentence, with an added particle (wa or ga). The "music" of English is much different, being a stress-based language (so much of the meaning is communicated through stress), and this can be one of the most challenging aspects of the language to master.

For clarity and intelligibility, using correct stress and intonation patterns of a language are as important, or more, than the actual speech sounds produced. Spend a good part of your practice time simply humming the "tunes" of statements, questions, and messages with nuanced meaning. You can use the same 30 minute sit-com to listen to (lines), re-wind, copy, re-play... You will be attending to the rises and falls in pitch, the "punched" words, and the duration of certain vowels/syllables. Just focus on the tune at first, humming, disregarding the particular speech sounds. You'll deal with those next.

Word Endings/Linking

Japanese speakers tend to over-pronounce the final consonants of words. This is in large effect due to the fact that in the katakana syllabary, there are 5 vowel sounds, and then consonant-vowel combinations. You need to link(liaison) the final consonant right into the beginning of the next word, or else it will sound like you are adding an extra syllable. For example, "What time is it?" may sound something like "Whato timu isu ito?" So, think of it like "Wha tai mizit?" One of the biggest challenges is getting away from thinking about connecting words, and focus simply on connecting sounds: "Wutaimizit?"

Speak it along with the tune of the line:

TAI

wu mi

zit?

Specific Consonant Sounds

Focus on difficult sounds that are most frequently occurring in English and that really color the sound of the language and affect clarity and intelligibility most. Here is just a start.

I would advise spending time on:

the /r/ sound

Since the Japanese r is a consonant, the tongue touches the palate at some point, unlike in English, where the tongue is typically curled and approximates the front of the roof of the mouth, but never touches it. You'll need to spend some time practicing the feeling and sound of this phoneme in all its various contexts. /r/ is never silent in American English. It is not dropped at the end of a word-"mother/mutha." "computer/computa." Also, make sure to pronounce the r sound in consonant clusters, like "dark" and"concert." Highlight those sound clusters in your reading/speaking practice, making sure to pronounce both sounds.

/p/, /b/, /f/, /v/

Because of the consonants in the sound system of Japanese, /f/ may sound like /h/ (Mt. Fuji>Mt. Hooji), /v/ may sound like /b/ (very>berry). There isn't an /f/, but there is a bilabial fricative [ɸ], which sounds like a combination of p and h. Forgive me for being a bit technical; /p/ is a voiceless bilabial plosive (the lips come together to completely stop the airflow, and there is a slight release of pressure built up behind the lips); /f/ is a voiceless dental fricative (the top teeth are placed on the bottom lip and air is blown forward). /p/ and /b/ are produced in the same articulatory position; /f/ and /v/ are produced the same way. The only difference is that the first sound is voiceless.

unvoiced voiced

stop        p         b

fricative  f           v

After you understand the placement and manner of articulation, practice with minimal pairs:

pack back        fat vat       vest best       fat hat

pin bin              fine vine    vote boat      funny honey

Say "pat, bat, fat, vat, hat."

Vowels

the [o] sound

The letter "o" can be confusing in English because it can have so many sounds: code, love, top, button... The sound [o] or [ou], is produced with rounded lips and is probably longer in duration than you are used to saying it. Also, in English, there is usually a glide produced: "houup," with a downward pitch. Make sure "cope" doesn't sound like "cop" or "cup."

Again, try using words with minimal pairs:

woke walk       shot shut

coat caught     lock luck

Another way to develop clear, strong vowels is to understand the American English spelling system and the Japanese katakana sounds. For example, if you're having difficulty with the word "hot," say "ha, hee, hoo, heh, hoh" in Japanese, then go back to the first one and convert it from "ha" to "hot" by adding the held t. Or, you could say "hot" in Japanese, atsui, then add an h for atsui, and then drop the -sui part, which will leave "hot."

Finally, you will want to get used to moving your mouth and opening your jaw a lot more in English. This can feel very strange at first, but you'll get used to it!

For more tips, or personalized help in reducing a strong accent, reach out here.