You spend years of hard work, sweat, and tears to have good sounding Japanese. The one thing you don’t want to be told is that your Japanese is unnatural. While you my want to give yourself some friendly leeway at your earlier levels, there comes a time when you won’t accept sounding like a foreigner any more. You want to talk the talk the way Japanese talk the talk.
I often talk with foreigners who speak Japanese. Despite some of their high levels, I often hear the same simple speaking mistakes. Yeah, these are minor mistakes, which I guess you could kind of ignore. But you don’t want to join the ranks of people who have been speaking the language for decades, and still sound wrong. These small errors require a bit of fixing once they are ingrained in your Japanese, but they are fixable.
Fixing these issues are what will make the transition of Japanese people telling you:
“Your Japanese is good.”
“You sound Japanese.”
1. Small Tsu っ
You learn this in the very beginning when you are touching hiragana for the first time in the early weeks of your Japanese journey. You continue with っ forever. It’s that one little character that causes you to a pause a bit (Japanese grammar joke!)
Now it feels like something so small (Japanese grammar joke part 2!) and insignificant. When people talk fast, you may even think it is hardly noticeable. And if you don’t include it, it’s not that big a deal.
But it is a major big deal. Japanese do not leave out the っ. If you are Japanese or a pro, you feel the っ wherever you go. And even though you get accustomed to talking fast, the っ is not dropped.
2. The extended vowel う or ー
This follows the same exact principle as the small っ. Just because you are talking faster, doesn’t mean you can leave them out. They need to be there. And speaking of talking faster . . .
3. Talking too fast
Getting better doesn’t equal talking faster. Japanese is a slow language. It sounds fast in the start. The better you get, the slower it sounds. Keep your Japanese slow. I’m especially talking to you fellow speedster Americans out there.
4. Pronounce loan words properly
Japan is filled with loan words. You must use them if you want to sound Japanese. There is no way around this. Pure Japanese doesn’t exist anymore. Japanese is an ever-evolving language. Evolve with it, or be left behind.
But more importantly, you must say loan words the Japanese way, with Japanese pronunciation. Please don’t say ビデオ like video. It’s a B sound here.
Japanese loan words appear easy to Western foreigners due to a bit of your cheating English brain. The reality is they are a huge obstacle because your brain is tied to the English pronunciation. Unlike new Japanese words, where you have no background, you already know how they originally sounded.
2 of the beginning words most people learn, yet most foreigners always say wrong are: カリフォルニア and マクドナルド. Say them out loud. Watch a video of someone saying them. Result?
5. 相槌 (The conversation flow words)
相槌 (あいづち) are the sounds and responses given to make a conversation flow, and to show you are listening as well as your reaction. In English, these are words like ohh, uh-huh, yea?, I see.
Foreigners seem to be terrible at this. There are two levels to this.
You probably know these and use them. But the timing is critical, and a place where most learners take a lot of time to get used to.
- はい、ええ、うん, ああ (yes)
- そうですね (that’s how it is, I think)
- そうですか (is that so?)
It took me an incredibly long time to get the hang of はい – timing (which is also like the first word you learn in the language). I’m sure there could be a book written on はい, like the はいの和 (The harmony of hai). If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you haven’t had enough Japanese conversations yet.
These are the core of the Japanese language. If you listen to real conversations, they dominate them.
And any subject that covers these response sounds requires a viewing of these slightly old, but humorous videos covering the subject. A must see if you haven’t already.
How to speak fluent Japanese without saying a word Part 1 and 2
6. 擬声語 (ぎせいご) – 擬態語 (ぎたいご) – 擬音語(ぎおんご) or Onomatopoeia/Japanese sound symbolism
These are the words that represent the sounds of living things, non-living things, feelings, emotions, situations, everything. Sometimes it feels like in Japan, every thing and action in this world has a sound-word to go with it. Again, this is a topic that a graduate student could fully write up a nice 100 page dissertation on. So the above is just a generalization.
Natural sounding Japanese is filled to the brim with these words. And as foreigners, we kind of feel like we don’t really need them, considering we can express these words in different, normal ways.
Want a book that has a bunch? Try this. 6500 natural words for you.
Let’s Get Natural!
Fix these issues. Really. This isn’t one of those maybe I’ll learn later if I have time. This is something that you should consciously keep in the back of your mind. Luckily immersion does a nice trick for you. The more you listen to natural Japanese, the more you have a tendency to mimic it.
I want you to sound great. I want every person that walks away from this site to be mistaken for having been raised in Japan.
Are you guilty of any of the above? Any other common mistakes you notice that most foreigners seem to make that keeps their Japanese sounding foreign?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.