If Japanese is your first language, you may be using a Japanese “sound system” when you speak English. Japanese has fewer vowels with very regular lengths, but English vowels can be stretched or shortened anytime, depending on the need. English has some important vowel sounds not used in Japanese; they occur in stressed syllables, so they’re important to gain control over. Other very important differences between the two languages are listed below.
You may not have learned much about these “sound systems” if you studied English as a foreign language; most people learn English in school through textbooks, reading and writing. But speaking is physical, and any pronunciation and intonation practice must be done physically so the first language muscle habits can be physically changed.
Like many other Japanese adults, you may have been working on your accent for most of your life. You may get feedback that listeners find you difficult to follow, or that you speak too softly, or too staccato. These, and other problems, result from applying what you know and use successfully in Japanese, to English, where it doesn’t work. You are applying a set of Japanese “sound rules”; English has its own sound rules you should be following.
Some common interference points between Japanese and English:
- Vowel system differences (English has many more vowels than Japanese)
- Consonant system differences (e.g. r and l, h and f, v and b, voicing, clusters of consonants)
- Vowel reduction in English
- Word endings (vowel endings in Japanese vs. consonant endings in English) and what to do about them (liaisons)
- Pitch range and volume are used differently; English uses a much wider pitch range; pitch change is melodic and variable in English but systematic and regular in Japanese
- Stress-timed English creates a very different rhythm than syllable-timed Japanese
If you are unable to produce the sounds above, you probably can’t hear them either, which would mean you’re having trouble understanding native speakers.
Syllable stress, word stress and intonation are very important in English, and if your vowels and consonants aren’t as they should be, then syllable and word stress will be affected also. Small sounds (vowels and consonants) are the bricks and mortar of stress, rhythm and intonation. Without the ability to adjust and control these “building blocks of sound”, your accent will persist.
You may want to improve your public presentation skills. Proficient public speakers use very specific tonal cues so listeners will know how ideas are related. We can make sure you are ready for public speaking engagements and understand how to help your audience follow your message.
In our work together, we will diagnose your current pronunciation and intonation habits, define your goals, determine your skills and needs in targeted areas, and create a plan that guides your accent reduction practice and leads you to a better sound in English. You will leave with a “toolkit” full of strategies you can use to continue your practice. Contact me for more information about a customized private English pronunciation course: peggy@AmericanPronunciationCoach.com
A MESSAGE FOR TEACHERS
My new pronunciation guide for teachers of Japanese speakers is on Amazon now. It has two parts. Part 1 focuses intensely on teaching vowels and consonants well (after all, they’re the building blocks of a language’s sound). Part 2 is about everything else: syllable stress, word rhythm, melody and intonation. Just search my name, Peggy Tharpe, on Amazon and you’ll find all my guides. But if you want to get started right here, right now, here’s a taste of what you’ll get in the book: Intro and Chapter 1 of Japanese Guide, Part 1