Pronouncing Japanese When You Talk In English

As Japanese culture, food, and people continue to influence the world at a rapid pace, a strange issue for people who learn Japanese arises. When you have a conversation in English, with another English native speaker who has no knowledge about the Japanese language, what do you do when a Japanese word comes in?

Pronouncing Japanese When You Talk In English

Do like we do.

Many Japanese words make their way into the typical native English speaker’s vocabulary.

But they come in sounding quite different from the original.

To an American visiting Japan, they want to drink Sah-kee (really Sah-keh), sing keh-ree-oh-key (really kah-rah-oh-keh), view a live keh-rah-tee (really kah-rah-teh) demonstration, and take a trip to Toe-key-oh (really Toe-kyo).

So what do you do?

Pronounce the words the way they are supposed to? Or pronounce the word the way it is mistaken?

Situation 1 – Common mispronounced words

For common words that have found their place as a permanent resident of English, I think most people tend to stick with the standard mistaken pronunciation version. Otherwise it may come off as pretentious.

Situation 2 – Uncommon Mispronounced Words

The next group of words relate to the foreigners that like Japanese food and culture but don’t know the language. These are the words people start to pick up at Japanese restaurants, TV, and movies.

Since many English native speakers may not know the word, it starts to become questionable whether there really is a need to use improper pronunciation.

Situation 3 – Words which are new to almost any foreigner hearing them

This is when you introduce a Japanese expression or concept that doesn’t have a Western translation, and almost only those who know the language have heard of it.

Here it seems most accepted to use the real pronunciation.

Situation 4 – Names of Japanese people

This is a tricky one. Besides a few obvious major ones, it is hard to know what names are commonly mispronounced and what aren’t.

Also a name doesn’t really feel like a foreign word to most native English speakers despite the language it originates from.

And then what happens when you directly talk to a foreign born Japanese person or someone just fluent in English and the conversation is in English?

How big an issue is this really?

Bigger than you think, especially as your Japanese ability grows.

It’s an interesting struggle, because even if you don’t intend to pronounce the word correctly, when you hear the word 1000 times correctly, and only 50 times incorrectly, you naturally associate the correct way, and you have to willfully remember to say it wrong.

How do you approach the above four situations?

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Pronouncing Japanese When You Talk In English — 17 Comments

  1. Related to (4), I’ve occasionally found myself having to think which order to use with Japanese names. For names that are widely known in the US I put the family name last (Akira Kurosawa, for example), and fortunately Miyazaki is just “Miyazaki” to pretty much everyone. Increasingly though for all other cases that just feels wrong, though it also feels wrong to risk confusing the person I’m talking with or writing to. How do you handle this?

    • I usually put the family name last. It does feel really weird though.

      But many people really can’t even tell the difference between a Japanese first and last name.

  2. It is a dilemma. I hear people pronounce Sakura (there are a lot of Sushi places with this name) with the emphasis on the second syllable, but I’ve gotten used to saying it properly. When I do, however, I’m afraid I sound pretentious trying to pronounce it the Japanese way. You bring up a good point.

    • I think a lot of it depends on who you are talking to on what you decide to do with the pronunciation.

  3. For number 4, I have a lot of experience with being in a Japanese-American church. I babysat for three girls, two of which are named Karin and Sara (by accident). The names are pronounced differently slightly in Japanese and English, and we just switch pronunciation depending on what language is being spoken.

    This reminds me of the show Helix. It took me a while to find out the Japanese guy’s name is Hatake, because they pronounced it Hataki. Occasionally, a character would actually pronounce it Hatake. I think it’s pretty realistic to real life though, to have the foreigners pronounce it incorrectly.

    • I loved that show! I had the same trouble as you though when watching Helix. At first I found it annoying that people kept saying Hataki, and thought surely he would correct the actors of how to say it. But I suppose it’s just natural that people unfamiliar with the language will pronounce it wrong, so there’s no point.

    • Yeah, that sounds like that would work well. I suppose it’s like having two different names (especially when the pronunciation really is different).

  4. Pronunciation is an endless problem for me because I have a lot of friends who are interested in Japan, but who don’t want to learn the language. This is what I have settled on: For situation (1), I consider those to be English words that just happen to be borrowed from Japanese, so I use the English pronunciation. In all other cases I use the Japanese pronunciation. There are exceptions of course.

    In conversation I make no attempt to justify or explain using Japanese pronunciation. I just say the words how it feels right for me, and if that confuses my friends (invariably it does), then too bad. They have come to accept that I am a difficult and confusing person to talk to. My personal philosophy is to never “dumb it down” for other people. For me it stems from a sense of academic integrity. People who know me understand this; if others see it as pretentiousness, then too bad for them.

    • Maybe your friends interested in Japan will start to mimic your correct pronunciation.

      But I agree, this is a personal choice, and different people will approach the above problems in the way that suits them best.

  5. Living in Kansas (4) never really comes up. I always use the correct pronunciation, even for (1). If anyone ever questions it, I just tell them how it is. I like to think of it as an opportunity to spread knowledge.. or something like that.

    • That’s definitely a positive outlook. It’s always nice to spread Japanese knowledge to the rest of the world.

  6. Many japanese words have found their way into other languages`dictionaries as loan words. Sometimes with slightly alternated pronounciation and/or meaning.

    Take for example “Sake”. This word has been a part of the english language for over 300 years. Its proper english pronounciation is “sah-kee”, and its meaning is “a Japanese fermented, mildly alcoholic beverage made from rice.” As we can see, this word has both a different pronounciation AND meaning from it japanese counterpart.

    To pronounce sake as “Sah-keh” in an English conversation, would be the same as insisting on using the English version of words like “Hamburger”, “elevator” or any other loan word, in a Japanese conversation.

    So: If the word exists in the language of conversation, i would always use that. To insist on being gramatically incorrect (by using 2 languages in one sentence), would ,to me, either seem pretentious, or uneducated.


    • Good point about the common words actually being found in the dictionary as part of the English language.

  7. あの専門学校の時の教師の名前はヒライだった。同級生いつも「イライ」って言った、「依頼」みたいだから脳内で笑った

  8. I’ve gone back and forth on this issue since coming to Japan when I speak to my parents. My dad makes an honest effort to pronounce things as close to the Japanese would ever since he came to visit me while my mom tends to stick with the Americanized versions. Both tend to stick out in conversation to me, so I don’t spend as much time worrying about it as I used to.
    The one thing I’m still picky about, though, are names. I think taking the time to try and pronounce someone’s name correctly (or as best as possible given the language limitations) shows a lot of respect for the other person. Even when I speak to my Japanese friends who speak English, I try to pronounce their names the way their parents would say it (example, pronouncing Yuuri with a japanese り rather than an English ‘ri’).
    When I introduce myself in Japanese, I usually say my name in the English pronunciation (Zach) and then follow up with the Japanese pronunciation (ザック). Given the phonetic differences in the two languages, I wouldn’t expect a Japanese person to be able to perfectly pronounce a difficult English name (like Lily vs りり), but for a language like English which contains most of the Japanese phonemes already I feel like it’s better to make the effort.
    My two cents.

    • Thanks for adding your viewpoint.

      I also prefer to use the correct pronunciation for a person’s name, but sometimes it can get tricky. Like when they introduce their name with the English pronunciation, and then you decide to just change it to the pronunciation you know is correct.

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