Pronouncing is a huge part of speaking Japanese. You can speak Japanese but if you can’t say it with a clear accent then native people are going to have trouble understanding you. They can still understand you most of the time but sometimes they might mis-understand what you’re trying to say. Even if you think you have a good Japanese accent there are still times when it’s not quite right and you sound foreign.
Here are some techniques you can do to improve Japanese pronunciation. You can take these are far as you want. You can just train yourself to be clear and understandable in Japanese. Or you can push yourself to sound like a native Japanese person. And it’s possible with practice.
I want to make clear a disclaimer first. I worked through all of Dogen’s phonetics videos on Patreon and I have to say his series is AMAZING. If you want to really hone your Japanese to sound native I strongly suggest investing in the videos.
I also referenced other resources which I link as I come across them.
Why You Should Practice (Standard) Japanese Pronunciation
One misconception that Dogen highlights is that many people (including native Japanese people) say that Japanese is “flat” and “doesn’t have an accent”. This simply isn’t true and has a distinct intonation system which Dogen explains is a pitch accent.
If your pitch accent is off in Japanese then native people will notice and it will sound strange.
It’s also important to note that there are different dialects across Japan each with their own intonations and pitch accent patterns. Native Japanese speakers grow up in their particular dialect learning particular grammar, words, mannerisms and intonations. So when foreigners try to mimic those dialects they might accidentally mix Tokyo, Kansai and Fukuoka together which sounds strange to a native.
It’s like a Japanese person trying to speak English with an American, British and Scottish accent all mixed together. As a native English speaker it sounds… odd.
If you want to learn a particular dialect of Japanese focus on that dialect and that dialect alone. Living in that particular area and surrounding yourself with natives who speak that dialect is key to mastering that dialect.
But you should really focus on standard Japanese pronunciation. You will have more materials available to you to practice with and it’s the type of pronunciation that everyone in Japan knows. It’s very clear and concise and polite, so great if you want to live and work in Japan.
Start Practicing ASAP
If you want to study pronunciation do it as soon as possible. – Later the worse because you make bad habits and bad habits are hard to break. It’s also harder to hear and use correct pronunciation when you’re older.
But if you’re like me and have been studying Japanese for a long time I think it’s still worth practicing pronunciation.
Techniques to Improve Japanese Pronunciation
1. Listen to and Shadow Native Japanese
I went over some good shadowing materials for all levels in Techniques to Improve Speaking Fluently but when shadowing for pronunciation there are some important things you want to focus on.
Pitch Accent Patterns
Dogen slowly goes over these in a LOT of detail in his videos which is why it’s worth investing in the whole series.
But basically there are certain patterns of pitch in Japanese words, phrases and sentences which you can hear and mimic if you train your ear to do so.
This chart shows you a breakdown of those patterns, but notice how there are only up-down, down-up OR down-up-down patterns? (NO up-down-up).
Listening is not limited to listening comprehension – search for pitch accent patterns in words and phrases. <- This will help the most.
Pick Something with Standard Japanese – Watch Over and Over and Over and Over…
Obviously because you want to study standard Japanese it’s important to pick a movie or JDrama with standard Japanese. Anime often has non-standard Japanese especially in sci-fi and fantasy. If you want to use anime to practice try to pick slice of life with standard Japanese. (Dogan recommends Orange Days or Tokyo Sonata.)
Watch the same episode/movie over and over and over again. There’s a difference between saying you’re studying by watching a whole anime series, and actually studying and focusing on one thing but watching over and over.
Watch it so many times that you know every single line. Memorize it so you can summon it as a reference to natural phonetic patterns.
Once you’ve seen it over and over go over the lines of the movie, record yourself and compare it to the original.
2. Record Yourself and LISTEN to Yourself
I hate doing this, no one likes it, but it’s really important to record yourself talking Japanese and to play it back. Listen to what you’re getting wrong then re-record yourself and try to improve.
It’s important to record and analyze yourself because what you hear in your head might not be what you’re actually saying.
Spend 20 minutes recording words and phrases through shadowing – 20 minutes analyzing these. Everyday if possible. (Dogan strongly suggest focusing on pronunciation only for at least a year.)
This practice is important to changing a conscious practice into an unconscious one (until it becomes natural to you).
You can practice by repeating words and sentences from the TV/movie you’re using to study, or from online resources:
Prosody Tutor Suzuki-kun – Shows you pitch accent patterns for particular words.
Forvo – Japanese pronunciation of words by native Japanese people.
Amenbo no Uta – a Japanese voice acting training song.
3. Hang Out With Japanese Natives
If you want to focus on perfecting your Japanese accent you should avoid interacting with non-native Japanese speakers as much as possible.
Engaging with Japanese people in Japanese is a great way to pick up on pitch accent patterns naturally and to practice them yourselves.
Other Useful Articles:
It seems pretty simple but actually takes a lot of work to train your ear and voice to perfect your Japanese pronunciation and accent. Regular study on a daily basis is always more effective than just 1 hour a week.
Improving your Japanese accent can also be difficult if you don’t have a good ear. But I still think anyone can improve with some focused practice and training.
And as I mentioned, Dogen’s phonetics videos on Patreon are amazing and go into this subject in MUCH more detail, including lessons on how to recognize pitch accent patterns depending on the word. You can watch the first 3 videos of his phonetics series for free on YouTube.
Did you try these techniques out? How did you find them? What materials are you using to improve your Japanese pronunciation? Please let me know below or on the Japanese Talk Online Facebook Page.