Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Japanese English Language Differences & Pronunciation Problems

Don't make me say "I love you."
There are so many things to learn when studying a foreign language.

Although I have lived in Osaka, Japan and worked as an English tutor here for more than 5 years, I have not seriously tried to study the language for about the last 2 years.

I could give you some pretty reasonable excuses for why I haven't been serious about making time for studying the Japanese language, such as English being our primary language at home, becoming a father and spending as much time with our child as possible, and the fact that most of my time spent outside our home is used in helping Japanese students work on their English language skills (something I myself often need refreshing on after living in a non-English speaking country for so long).


That's not to say it's impossible to learn it, if one regularly devotes their time and efforts to it, and I admire those who have. I can get around and am pretty good at comprehension. My ability to manage speaking fluently in Japanese however... not so good. Also, Osaka has it's own dialect and it's own colorful vocabulary and manners of speaking. Quite distinct from the Japanese spoken in Tokyo or Kyushu or Tohoku etc...

So, there are three alphabets in Japanese to start with, not including Romaji (Roman characters which you are reading right now; yes, those are used too), and one of those "alphabets" is actually an ocean of beautifully complex ideograms called "Kanji," or Chinese characters, of which there are thousands.

Hiragana: ひらがな

Katakana: カタカナ

Kanji: 漢字

Here is a small example of the complexity of kanji:

Osaka = 大阪 The prefecture in which I live. The first kanji in Osaka (It kind of looks like a little man with arms and legs spread out) is pronounced "O" here (though it can sometimes be pronounced "Dai", depending on the character next to it. The second character is pronounced "SAKA" here (though it can sometimes be pronounced "HAN," again, depending on the kanji character it falls next to). So, we have OSAKA, the name of a large metropolis in Japan (NOT pronounced "Daihan" or "Daisaka", nor "Ohan"!).

Hankyu = 阪急 The name of a big company in the Osaka region that operates train lines and department stores.

Notice that the kanji character for "SAKA" in OSAKA is now pronounced "HAN" when used as the first character in "HANKYU", because of the placement of the character to the next one.

Are you still following me?

阪急の "Han" = 大阪の "Saka" ???

So, may I please be forgiven if I look at a book written in kanji and say "Yeah, never reading THAT!"? The crazy part is that all three alphabets are used simultaneously in Japanese books, literature, media, signs, newspapers etc...

Here is an example taken from a Japanese news site about an orchestra playing Star Wars music:

"公開された動画で、ライトセーバーをノリノリで振るトヴェイ氏。その色がシスの暗黒卿が用いるとされる「赤色」だったのが少々、気になるところだが、最新作『STAR WARS:THE FORCE AWAKENS(原題)』の特報映像が11月29日、初公開されるなど、ファンにとってはうれしいニュースに名演奏が華を添えてくれている。"

You notice the blend of 4 alphabets used simultaneously?

Hiragana is not so bad. I promise to attempt baby steps in my Japanese skills by reading children's picture books using hiragana.

I have major issues with Katakana however.

That is mainly because it is used for writing foreign names and words that have been adapted into the Japanese language. But the kana phonics end up mispronouncing these words so that foreigners cannot recognize them; e.g., McDonald's becomes "Macdonarudo". Global becomes "guroburu".  Market becomes "maketto". Catharsis becomes "katarushisu".


However, the language difficulties also apply for Japanese English students.

English is so simple with our 26 Roman letters (52 counting uppercase and lowercase), yet so complex with our methods of pronunciation and our intricately ruled grammar that leaves plenty of exceptions to the grammar rules!

Look at the ways we pronounce "low" and "how",
"daughter" and "laughter",
"tomb", "bomb" and "comb," as just a few examples.

But perhaps the biggest stumbling point for Japanese English students is the pronunciation. Native English speakers take for granted the acrobatics with which their tongues are perpetually engaged in. Especially our fluidity with the "R" and "L" sounds. In Japanese these two sounds are kind of made into one sound; whereas English distinctly divides their pronunciation.


region     legion
ram     lamb
ramp     lamp
grass     glass
arrive     alive
rip     lip
frame     flame
regal     legal
raw     law     low
crown     clown

and try this phrase:
"I really like rice."

and this:
"The green grass grows."

If your tongue and jaws hurt then you are practicing correctly!
Because you are using mouth muscles not used when speaking Japanese!

And then there is the B vs. V problem. Japanese language does not have a "V" sound and so it compensates by using "B" instead. Vampire becomes "Bam-pie-ya", and "I love you" can transform into "I rub you."

Let's distinguish our pronunciation between:

variable     valuable     volley ball
available   &  valuable

Counting the syllables will also greatly improve your pronunciation!!!

variable x4
valuable x4 
volley ball x3
available x4

NOTE: Some people pronounce valuable with 3 syllables. (Sorry! Always exceptions to every rule!).

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