Teaching English Pronunciation to Students from Japan
In my experience teaching elementary and junior high school level English in Japan, several different pronunciation problems appear frequently. The Japanese phonemic inventory is smaller than English’s phonemic inventory, and the sounds present in each language differ from each other quite dramatically. Because of this, it can be difficult for native Japanese speakers to learn and master English pronunciation, but there are a few teaching techniques that can help students overcome this difficulty.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Vladlena H. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Several consonants are difficult for native Japanese speakers to produce. It is well-known that Japanese speakers have a difficult time pronouncing the approximant /l/ and the English rhotic sound /ɹ/ because the Japanese do not have these phonemes in their inventory. Instead, it uses tap or a flap /ɾ/ for what is commonly romanized as ‘r’.
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Non-Existent Sounds in the Native Language
Japanese also does not have the voiced labiodental fricative /v/ sound. It does not have any labiodental sounds at all. So, it is hard for native Japanese speakers to hear or produce the difference between /v/ and the voiced bilabial plosive /b/, which is present in the Japanese phonemic inventory. They also have difficulty with the voiceless labiodental fricative /f/, because Japanese does not have any labiodental fricatives, but instead a bilabial fricative /ɸ/. The students sometimes substitute /f/ with the glottal fricative /h/, a sound they are familiar with, because they know that /f/ is different from /ɸ/ but have difficulty producing the labiodental sound.
English is one of the few languages that has dental fricatives /θ/ and /ð/. Japanese does not have them, and because of this, learners tend to substitute these difficult sounds with the more familiar alveolar fricative /s/ instead.
Japanese has five monophthongal vowel sounds: /a/, /i/, /ɯ/, /e/, and /o/; whereas English has at least fourteen vowel sounds depending on the speaker’s accent and dialect. Because of this, Japanese speakers have a difficult time distinguishing between some of the more similar-sounding English vowels. For example, it is difficult for students to produce and hear the difference between the vowel /i/ in ‘eat’ /it/ and the vowel /ɪ/ in ‘it’ /ɪt/.
3 Methods to Work on Problems
1. Visual Representation
To help students overcome these difficulties, one of the best teaching methods is to use visual representations of the mouth and tongue when describing how to produce foreign English sounds. For example, if a child has never produced the English /ɹ/ before, it is difficult for a teacher to show them how to move their mouth because the students cannot see the shape of the teacher’s tongue. Having a visual diagram of the mouth makes the explanation clearer.
2. IPA Phonetics
Instead of teaching just the traditional phonics, it would be best to introduce the basics of phonetics in a class by having teachers include some symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet. Of course, students would not have to learn the whole system, but knowing the symbols for certain problematic sounds would help signify to the students that they are different so that they are not tempted to replace them with other, more familiar sounds.
3. Pronunciation Lessons
It is also important to set aside a specific time in class to focus solely on pronunciation. It is important not to assume that the students will automatically become used to English pronunciation rules simply by learning vocabulary or repeating sentences. For example, tongue twisters are a good exercise to get students more comfortable with English sounds.
It is also important that the teacher pays attention to exactly what the students say when they are repeating words, and to make sure that the students are mimicking the teacher’s English pronunciation instead of falling back on their Japanese pronunciation. Instead of having the entire class repeat something all at the same time, a good technique is to have each student say the target word or phrase one by one so that the teacher can hear their pronunciation more accurately and help them with any difficulties.
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Pronunciation can be one of the most frustrating parts of learning English, especially for native Japanese speakers. English has several consonants and vowels that the Japanese do not have, which makes pronouncing many English words challenging. Teachers must be patient with the students and create a safe space in the classroom for them to practice their pronunciation. The only way for the students to get better is to continue trying to produce unfamiliar sounds, and the teacher’s job is to encourage that and, ideally, to make it enjoyable as well.
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