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Pronunciation anxiety: Many Japanese people don’t want to speak English unless it’s perfect

46 Comments
By Evie Lund, RocketNews24

With the 26 letters of the alphabet, we can make pretty much any sound present in the majority of languages. But Japanese just doesn’t contain certain sounds present in English, like “th” or “v”, and their “r” is somewhere right between our “r” and “l”, making them sound almost exactly the same to Japanese ears.

Since most Japanese people grow up only speaking Japanese, it means that when they start learning English at school, they either have to learn entirely new sounds (difficult) or else try to render English in Japanese sounds (which isn’t accurate). As a result, many Japanese English learners feel a lot of anxiety over the accuracy of their pronunciation. But should that really be holding them back?

Japanese syllables generally consist of the vowels a, i, u, e, o, and consonant-vowel compounds such as ka, shi, tsu, etc. Therefore, rendering English into Japanese pronunciation results in extraneous sounds. Take, for example, the anime buzzword “waifu“, from the English word “wife”. In Japanese, this can only be rendered into three syllables: WA, I, and FU. The extra “u” sound at the end sounds odd to native English-speaking ears, but is perfectly natural in Japanese. In fact, our cut-off consonants probably sound pretty weird to them, like we’re only pronouncing half of the letter.

Rather than learning English the way a native-speaking child would, through memorising phonics, many Japanese students rely on pronunciation guides which provide that word in a Japanese pronunciation. Known as “Katakana English”, rendering English into Japanese script actually impedes learning, and is an almost impossible habit to break. Sometimes, however, it’s just too difficult for an ear untrained to English to discern a word without the “crutch” of a Japanese pronunciation. Just the other day, I was talking to a Japanese friend about RocketNews24, and I lazily pronounced it “Rocket News”. After a puzzled silence, I tried “Roketto Nyuusu” and was finally met with a smile of recognition.

As we’ve previously lamented, much of the English education in Japanese schools revolves around standardised test-taking and memorising written grammar over learning pronunciation. So it’s probably not much of a surprise that Japanese people who learn English as a second language tend to have a Japanese accent to some degree. But is this really a Japan-specific thing? Personally, I’ve known many people from a variety of countries who speak excellent English as their second language, yet still retain a distinctive accent. It doesn’t mean that their English is any less accurate.

So why is it that Japanese people are so paranoid about their accent?

Paradoxically, Japanese English learners can sometimes feel more comfortable speaking English with other English speakers rather than in front of their fellow Japanese. The other day I went to a nail salon in Tokyo, and was assigned a nail technician who had recently returned from a working holiday in the U.S. She was so nervous about the prospect of speaking English to me in front of her Japanese colleagues she was practically trembling, but once the novelty wore off and the others stopped paying attention, she relaxed. “I don’t mind speaking English with English-speaking people,” she explained, “But I can’t do it in front of other Japanese people.”

Recently, a TV interview in English with New York Yankees’ pitcher Masahiro Tanaka caught the attention of Japanese netizens because they didn’t feel his English was accurate enough. “He said ‘My name is';” complained one Japanese commenter, “nobody actually says that in English, it sounds old-fashioned!” Others, thankfully, were quick to respond with comments along the lines of “Who cares? It’s still English!” and another commenter stated: “Now I know why Japanese people are so scared to be seen speaking English in front of other Japanese people. It seems native English speakers are more understanding! What’s that about?”

It may be too late now for many Japanese English speakers to go back and undo years of standardised tests and “Katakana English” lessons, but it seems that the more immediate issue is overcoming that pronunciation anxiety and just relaxing into it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being a perfectionist, but it’s important not to sweat the small stuff. And as far as problems rank, having a bit of an accent when you speak really isn’t such a big deal after all, is it?

Sources: Togetter, Japan Times, Naver Matome

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- Things Japanese people believe about British vs. American English -- Why the Japanese Are Bad at Foreign Languages -- Hello Kitty isn’t a cat!? We called Sanrio to find out

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46 Comments
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"The other day I went to a nail salon in Tokyo, and was assigned a nail technician who had recently returned from a working holiday in the U.S"

Considering the US doesn't have a working holiday visa.... not sure how this could be correct.

13 ( +13 / -0 )

A perfect recipe for never being able to pronounce it correctly. Where is the samurai spirit this country was known for?

3 ( +3 / -0 )

lol how many native speakers speak with perfect pronunciation?

4 ( +6 / -2 )

I have been a student of the Japanese language for many years and I have the same fear of trying to speak Japanese but I think that a person whom is trying to learn another language to speak it as often as possible. Practice makes perfect and you can only learn by trying. I personally will not judge though I might chuckle a little which is what I expect when I speak Japanese. good luck !!

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Just chill winstaaan. Its ok to make mistakes yall. Relaxation is the key . Dont gambare too much!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

badmanApr. 10, 2015 - 09:05AM JS lol how many native speakers speak with perfect pronunciation?

Ditto on That! A Californian is lost in North Carolia.... I forgot the rest of the joke.... but, I am sure one can imagine.

Perfectionism is sometimes considered a liability.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I recently had a conversation about this with two young Japanese businessmen. They said a lot of the pressure comes from their English teachers (in Japanese schools) to speak English "perfectly." It caused them a lot of anxiety because they—of course—cannot speak perfect English. I'm of the belief that the goal should not be perfect English (or, in my case, Japanese), but communication. Can you get your message across? Then that's "good English."

Of course, there's always the exception... お腹がおっぱい anyone? :-)

2 ( +4 / -2 )

We do not care, Japan, how perfect, we just want to communicate. Lots of us just love your culture and want to get to know you...

6 ( +6 / -0 )

lots of people are like this with just about any skill, if its not perfect the first time they try to do it they assume that they will never be good at it and stop trying. i'm sorry but life doesn't work that way, if you want to get better at something the only thing you can do is practice! when i first started learning Japanese my pronunciation was hardly perfect! but i kept at it i was always looking for chances to speak in Japanese! and a few years later pretty much any one i have ever met living in japan says i sound like a native speaker and ask me how i got so good at Japanese! one word everybody, practice! try it!

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Doesn't seem to bother Americans... or Australians.

0 ( +5 / -5 )

As a child I lived in a small isolated mining town in the frontier wilderness of Canada. There was no television and only one radio station, but they had an excellent library, and I read most of the books. I learned words from the books and encyclopedia that I pronounced phonetically, the way they were spelled. Then when I came to live in a city and attend university I discovered that people kept correcting my pronunciation. To this day I avoid saying "lawyer" because people keep hearing me say "liar"! So problems aren't just in attempting to communicate in a second language, they also occur in one's primary language between people coming from different backgrounds. Fortunately there is much more involved in communication than pronunciation of spoken words. Gestures and attitude and intent are important too, as much information shared between us is non-verbal. If people want to communicate with each other they will find a way. We have much more in common bringing us together as human beings than the tendency of language and cultural differences to keep us separate. So keep trying. We shall overcome!

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Seems to me that many people here are quite content with screwing up the pronunciation.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

Seems to me that many people here are quite content with screwing up the pronunciation.

And that's just the foreigners speaking Japanese!

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Seems to me that many people here are quite content with screwing up the pronunciation. How so? I don't think anyone's "content" with it; it's just the realities of learning and speaking a non-native language.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

They could start by not teaching English words and adding extra "katakana sounds" at the end,like in the picture. It should be test not te-su-to, etc.

8 ( +10 / -2 )

Perhaps Japanese should quit English altogether and take up Spanish. Since they all cant speak without ending the last word with vowels. (Te-su-to, perfect example) The vowels in Spanish are nearly identical to Japanese.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Strangerland, I don't pay for nor take Japanese lessons and I don't screw up the pronunciation.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Strangerland, I don't pay for nor take Japanese lessons and I don't screw up the pronunciation.

Good for you? What does that have to do with anything?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Pronunciation anxiety: Many Japanese people don’t want to speak English unless it’s perfect

And therein lies the problem - you have to run before you crawl sometimes

2 ( +3 / -1 )

As English becomes more and more international, the difference between, say, a Cumbrian accent, a Texan accent, a Dutch accent or a Japanese accent is going to matter less and less.

Look up "English as a lingua Franca". It's the new way of thinking....

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Two non-Japanese customers were at Subway's yesterday. They did not speak Japanese at all. I observed them ordering. Very interesting. They were not native speakers of English themselves. They gave their orders in very clear, succinct English phrases. The Japanese sandwich makers (proper term??) spoke according to their Japanese manual asking in Japanese if they wanted all toppings, French fries, anything to drink, and even the amount to be paid was said in Japanese. After receiving the food, the two non-native English speaking non-Japanese said, "Thank you" cheerfully to which the reply was "domo arigatou gozaimashita". And so it goes. English was completely unnecessary for the workers. Zip. Nada.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

English is an international language.

Which pronunciation is perfect?

Here's a list:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dialects_of_the_English_language

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Then many people will never learn to speak even a little ... how will this turn out during the Olympics?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

"The other day I went to a nail salon in Tokyo, and was assigned a nail technician who had recently returned from a working holiday in the U.S" Considering the US doesn't have a working holiday visa.... not sure how this could be correct.

Who said she had a visa?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Just to let you know.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

As a person who has learned Japanese as an adult, I can sympathize, I prefer not speaking japanese myself until I pronounce words correctly.

One thing though is Japanese could speak many English words if they used phonetic spelling instead of literal when trying to use Katakana sounds for English. Easy example, is Me. If the Japanese used the phonetic sound mi ミ it would sound correct in english. Instead Japanese use the written spelling as a means of matching Katakana to English.

It would go a long way for helping Japanese people pronounce English. Romanji works well the other way because it is phonetic. The romanji matches the English sounds. Although reading romanji for me is difficult.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I was always concerned about having understandable pronunciation in Japanese, but I never cared to be exact. Now I speak understandable Japanese - with an accent. Works for me.

Romanji

Romaji (no 'n')

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Grammar wise English is just reverse of Japanese language... that's the real issue..., Japanese interpreter simply fails here.... other thing is why Japanese people need to learn English ? English is itself not a complete language and not even global language. American don't know Japanese hence Japanese must learn English ? Funny enough......

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

American don't know Japanese hence Japanese must learn English ?

What do Americans have to do with it?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Wait. What? Waifu is 3 syllables?! I thought it was only 2? "y-fu"

Learn something new every day!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

To me most important thing is that I can understand them. It could be because my native language is Finnish and it has been voted to be one of the most hardest language to learn. Also I cannot understand what makes"My name is" old-fashioned. I was taught that it's the most polite way to introduce myself and it's easiest for others to understand. Understand and be understood that's most important.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

わいふ (waifu) actually has 3 mora, and these mora are often compared to syllables, which are not quite the same thing.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

English is itself not a complete language and not even global language.

You're going to have to tell me what a complete language or a global one is, then.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

“He said ‘My name is’;” complained one Japanese commenter, “nobody actually says that in English, it sounds old-fashioned!”

Wait, really? Is this a thing? I'm seriously asking. I use it quite a bit. Hm.

Also, yes, the whole katakana-izing words (making them Japanese instead of English) doesn't really help the situation.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

@konekochan

Seriously, you say "My name is..."?

That's the very first expression I tell my students to avoid, along with "I am a boy/girl" and "This is a pen".

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I don't get all the negativity with "My name is.." I use this, but mostly contracted to "My name's ". I think this is perfectly natural introduction in many situations (or just "I'm ....").

I don't get the above point about "phonetic" vs. "literal" spellings of English words. The given example "Me" is transcribed into Japanese as /mi/. I don't think any Japanese person is pronouncing this as "May" (as in the month).

An yes, waifu is three mora, but some linguists consider it to be two syllables, ie, "wai + fu". In careful speech, you can definitely hear all 3 mora, but when speaking rapidly the two vowels can become "slightly" less distinct.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Yes well, having perfect pronunciation is not necessarily an advantage if the rest of your knowledge isn't there because then the listener will feel free to speak more and more quickly, using more and more difficult words, in more and more complex sentences. Poor pronunciation is a good way to signal that you need a little help. Getting your message across and understanding the answer is much more important, and whipping your pronunciation into good enough shape to do that isn't going to take forever.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Native speakers can't even pronounce properly.

Ask someone to say "Chocolate".

It should be 3 syllables, not 2.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

"It should be 3 syllables, not 2."

Not according to my dictionary.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Native speakers can't even pronounce properly.

Ask someone to say "Chocolate".

It should be 3 syllables, not 2.

It should be as many syllables as they use to say it. They are native speakers.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

@scipantheist

A half of SE Asian people speak Chinese. Why should they bother about English? Why Japanese should learn and speak "perfect" English ?

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

English is the most widespread language in the world - there's more than one way to speak it. That's what Japanese have to realize - it's OK to speak English in different ways, as long as it's still understandable English.

Also, learning a language is not like other subjects as math or science - where you're either right or wrong from the get-go. They have to realize that nobody is right-perfect from the get-go learning a language. It's OK not to be perfect from the start - heck it's OK to be wrong a lot of times at the start. That's a way to learn is keep trying despite the mistakes - ya can't perfect a language without constant trail and error.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

They could start by not teaching English words and adding extra "katakana sounds" at the end,like in the picture. It should be test not te-su-to, etc.

Indeed. What's the point of teaching incomprehensible pronunciation of English? Native English speakers don't know what ko-hi is when a poor Japanese visitor finally summons up the courage to try their English in a cafe. It's ridiculous.

When I had Japanese lessons I was taught to say the words properly, I wasn't taught an English approximation.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This is a great article. I think I know why Japanese are more confident to speak English with the native speaker than the Japanese. As a person whose English is not my native language, I always feel more confident to speak English with the native speaker as well, unless I am really good at it. The reason is because ( for me personally) some people might tease or make fun of me because they think they are better than me. Now, with the native speaker they “might” feel funny when I pronounce some words or trying to put sentence together, but then they will think like “ohh well, English is not her native language anyway…” I have been living in the English speaking country for nearly 7 years, sometimes people can’t hardly hear my accent. But, at some point (maybe when I talk in a hurry) my accent is starting to show. Speaking English like a native can really be hard or easy for some people. But one should not be worry about it. More practice with native speaker will be the best bet to help us.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

To the Author Evie Lund,

While I think yes what you have written is mostly accurate. It's not the actual reason. The actual reason is time. Japanese get only half the required time in their school education to learn English. To learn English and speak it statistically its proven that a person needs approx. 1500/hrs of study. Unfortunately, Japanese just don't have the support of their education system to give them the hours that are required. They are being falsely led to believe they can do it, and that it can be done in half the time than is needed.We haven't even begun to talk about how culture affects language and fact that while one group something "A" way the other does something "B" way in their language affecting the language used. Japanese on the other hand is one of four languages that require more than 2000hrs of study to speak and use. It is one of the hardest.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Hey little bear, Maybe they are being falsely led. You bring up an interesting point. I believe there may be some persistent students that may start to watch movies, read books in English, read the Japanese-English dictionary. Everyone has the potential to reach their goal, even if they are limited by financial barriers at school, social norms,etc. Fredrick Douglas a completely different person and in a different situation did not let adversity consume him and eventually got very far. So, basically with enough drive, passion, and persistence these Japanese students can get far in life. Time and money are the two concepts we must learn to handle, but they don't limit us. We are all limitless. I would love to hear more of your insights on the Japanese culture and it's people.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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