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Three Typical Pronunciation Problems for Japanese ESL Students

Three Typical Pronunciation Problems for Japanese ESL Students | ITTT | TEFL Blog

According to a study by scholars and experts in the field of linguistics, more specifically in the article of Riney & Anderson-Hsieh from International Christian University, the native language (L1) is a good predictor of pronunciation accuracy in English as researched by Suter in 1976. In the same article, it was mentioned that a subsequent study by Purcell and Suter in 1980, found that non-native speakers who are most likely to pronounce English (L2) poorly, fit the profile in Japanese ESL students.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Cherryl T. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

In my two years of teaching ESL online, I’ve come across different pronunciation problems common amongst Japanese. The most obvious and noticeable are the following:

1. /L/ and /R/ sound

This sound tops the most commonly mispronounced among the Japanese. For beginner students, they often use the alveolar approximant /r/ instead of the lateral alveolar approximant /l/. As I found out while googling, the English “r” sound is practically non-existent in Japanese (Stevens, 2017). The Japanese version of the ‘rrr' type of sound, the ra ri ru re ro row in the phonetic hiragana alphabet, is somewhere between R and L. (Maki, 2007). I’ve even listened to the Youtube phonology of the Japanese ‘rrr’ sound and discovered it can morph something from R, to L and D. (Tofugu, 2009)

In my job as an ESL teacher, the usual procedure when correcting incorrect pronunciation is to make the student notice the word, then emphasize the /r/ sound properly and clearly by instructing the student to put the tongue at the top back of the mouth and then pull it back to make the correct sound. After this, generally, all students can produce the correct sound already.

For intermediate students, the initial /r/ sound is not a problem but intervocalic /r/ sounds can immediately slip to a very obvious /l/ sound. Even advanced students with Japanese as L1, sometimes spontaneously revert to the liquid /r/ sound, especially in free conversations or discussions.

japanese person

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2. /ng/ sound

Just like the /r-l/ sound, the /ng/ sound is most noticeable in beginner students. Instead of pronouncing singer [ sing-er ] with a fluid /ng/ sound, they pronounce this as [ sing-GUH ], adding a plosive /g/ sound in the last syllable. As I found out during one lesson, the Japanese word bango (English: number) is pronounced [bang-go ]. It’s again another pitfall in learning English coming from the native sound itself.

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3. /th/ Fricatives

Consonant cluster /th/ doesn’t exist in Japanese so ESL students substitute a “sa” sound from their native language that is the closest to the English “th” sound. Example: thrill is pronounced [su-ri-ru ]. This is especially the case for Japanese loan words from English to express concepts for which they have no equivalents. They are pronounced using Japanese pronunciation rules and Japanese syllables which makes them harder to differentiate from the English words. (Abe, 2019)

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These are just some of the problematic sounds which pose some degree of difficulty for the Japanese especially for adult beginners learning English as L2. Further on, I’m going to wind up my commentary with less of a conclusion that learner level correlates with pronunciation proximity to the sound of the native tongue so ESL courses must be designed to close in the gaps between L1 and L2.

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