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?
▼ Recently, English education in Japan is increasingly leaning towards emphasising spoken English.
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 US. 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?”
▼ Masahiro Tanaka. Skilled pitcher, budding bilingual.
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?