English pronunciation in Japan is generally at quite a low level. This is because Japanese students of English tend to rely on the katakana pronunciation of English words.

The katakana pronunciation can make it hard for certain words to be understood by a native English speaker but the reverse problem occurs too. Students also have trouble understanding words spoken in a natural, native English speaker's accent.

With a little persistence and clever teaching, especially at early stages, you can improve your student's pronunciation to help both their comprehension and understandability. Ask yourself: Where are the main weaknesses and how can you improve students' pronunciation?

Here's an activity students enjoy which challenges them to differentiate between similar English sounds

New Phonemes/ Sounds

  • th - as is think, ethics or forth
  • f - as in four, after or off
  • v - as in very, seven or have
  • sh - as in shade, fashion or ash

These are generally the most problematic, but there are also quite a few other places where Japanese students of English can get caught up.

The sounds or phonemes noted above do not exist in the Japanese language (with the exception of "sh" as in し/shi) so are that much harder for students to master the pronunciation and to even distinguish from similar sounds.

Confusing English Sounds for Japanese Ears

  • The closest sound to "th" in Japanese is the "s" sound. Especially if there is a Japanese teacher to show them the katakana pronunciation of a word, students will pronounce a word like "think" as "sink". Until students learn the difference, it will also be difficult for them to hear the sound and so differentiating words becomes troublesome.
  • The "f" sound, likewise, is hard to hear and pronounce. The closest Japanese counterpart is ふ/fu. This sound is made using only your lips whereas the English "f" is said using your bottom lip and upper front teeth, making it a harsher sound.
  • Because the "v" sound is made by vocalizing the "f" sound ("f" being solely wind forced through lip and teeth), it is very difficult for Japanese students to master as they have no experience with either "f" or "v" sounds in Japanese language.
  • In Japanese, the "s" based sounds are さ/sa, し/shi, す/su, せ/se, and そ/so. Because of this, "sh" and "s" become difficult. While sheet comes naturally, thanks to し/shi, seat becomes very difficult. "せ/se" fits with said but shed would be difficult. Further, these would be extremely difficult for students to differentiate between when listening. I actually teach with a junior high school English teacher who unintentionally but consistently carefully pronounces worksheets as seats and chairs as sheets.

Double Consonants

Another area of difficulty for Japanese speakers is when consonants double up. Because in Japanese, all consonant sounds are followed by a vowel sound, with the exception of ん/n it makes it hard for students to pronounce double consonants without slipping a vowel in there. This can have the doubly negative effect of causing misspellings when they come to sounding out words while writing.

Take for example "tr" in the word triple. When put into katakana sounds, this word becomes トリプル/toripuru and is often pronounced this way. Then, even after some study, students may still write it as "toriple" by mistake because they sound it out.

Most double consonants bring this challenge.

  • tr - as in train becoming torain
  • st - as in stop becoming sutop
  • ct - as in active becoming acutive
  • sm - as in small becoming sumall
  • br - as in brother becoming burother
  • gr - as in green becoming gureen
  • and many more...

Word Ending Consonants

Again, because all consonant sounds in Japanese, with the exception of ん/n, are followed with a vowel sound, any English word ending in a consonant can be challenging for Japanese students.

One way to worry less about this is to realize that when speaking English, the words tend to join together and many times aren't pronounced individually. Listen to yourself (if you are a native English speaker) to see how this happens.

Try say "All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered." and you'll see it comes out something like "all truth sa reasy to understan don cethey are discovered". It can be helpful to apply this to teaching pronunciation to get a smoother flow and avoiding "o" and "u" after each word.

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