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Unbearable English Sounds for the Japanese “Transplant” to America

by Laura Callisen

Young Japanese children who move to an English-speaking country ultimately come to pronounce English words perfectly. Unfortunately, their older siblings and parents, who have arrived after childhood, have a much more difficult time, and many never really master certain pronunciations. While teens and adults who come from other countries will always have an absolutely discernible accent, with time they tend to master both common and unique English pronunciations for the most part. So what makes spoken English so difficult for the Japanese?

Phonetic Sounds Seem to be the “Culprit”

Linguists who have researched the difficulties that Japanese natives have, have spent a great deal of time comparing the two languages (English and Japanese) and seem now to agree that the difficulty lies within the basic phonetic differences between the two.

1. Vowel Sounds: The Japanese language has 5 vowel sounds that linguists call “pure.” Each vowel has a long and short sound, but there are no other sounds that are produced by putting two vowels together, because two vowels never appear side by side in their language. A vowel always follows a consonant unless it is at the beginning or end of a word. For example, the phrase, “Kore wa isudesu” (This is a chair) has all 5 vowels and they sit by themselves, after a consonant or at the beginning/end of the word

English, on the other hand, has the same 5 vowels, but they are not pure. They have long and short sounds, but they also have very distinctive sounds when they are placed right next to each other in a word. Consider, for example, the different “o” sounds in the words, “core,” “pot,” and “stool.” Now, consider all of the sounds we get when we combine vowels together in a word – courage, outrageous, weigh, piece and peace. When native Japanese see these words and try to pronounce them, they want to put consonants in between those vowels.

2. Consonant Sounds: Certain consonant sounds are really difficult for native Japanese, because they do not have such sounds in their language. Particular issues are with the letters “l,” and “r” because these sounds are so “foreign.” Thus the word “rice” may become “lice;” the word “love” may become “rove,” and so on. Confusing the “l” and the “r” are extremely common, and they are often transposed in speech. In the Japanese language “r” and “l” are variations of the same sound, actually, so trying to make them completely distinct in English is very difficult. Thus the word, “Engrish.”

3. Consonant Blends: These just give a Japanese native “fits.” There just are not the consonant blends in his/her language that we have in English. Here are some really tough words for a Japanese – fought, strength, arthritis, Christmas. S/he wants to either take out a consonant or put a vowel in between them. And so many of the same consonant blends are pronounced differently in English, Japanese, along with anyone else trying to learn to pronounce some words, that it really becomes a matter of just memorization. Thus, the words “character” and “Christmas” have the “k” sound, while “change” and “lunch” have the soft “ch” sound. So the word Christmas has the double problem of the “ch” sound and the “r” consonant following, which will often be pronounced as an “l.”

The Tongue and Mouth

Children with speech impediments often receive speech therapy in school. Part of this therapy is teaching a child where to place the tongue and the correct shape of the mouth when letters, diphthongs, and consonant blends are pronounced. Thus if a child is saying “compooter” instead of “computer,” the issue is the shape of the mouth for that long “u” sound. The incorrect pronunciation is the result of the mouth forming and “o” shape when, in fact, it should be shaped almost as a “tight” smile.

The same issues face Japanese as they learn to pronounce English words, that is, the placement of the tongue and the shape of the mouth. The “r” sound in their native language is actually a “flapping r,” with the tongue at the top of the mouth. In English the “r” sound is made with the tongue touching no part of the mouth. So, the Japanese individual who really wants to have perfect pronunciation would have to undergo speech therapy and re-train long-standing habits that have been “cemented” into the brain. That’s a “tall order” and one that seems unnecessary as long as people can understand what is being said.

Communication is all about making oneself understood. Anyone for whom English is a second language should be applauded for their efforts to learn a difficult language with far fewer “rules” than almost any other language on the planet. If a Japanese mis-pronounces his/her “r’s” and “l’s,” it really should be a non-issue.

About the writer

Laura Callisen is a passionate blogger writing for GrabMyEssay and dealing with cultural and educational issues. She works to make her experience and knoweledge easily accessible for people and motivating people for studying. Visit Laura's page or get in touch via twitter.

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