The 5 Most Common Pronunciation Problems for Japanese ESL Students

 In Accents and Pronunciation, Grammar

The linguistic roots of Japanese are debated to this day, some scholars say Altaic, others think it’s related to Turkish.  Wherever the truth may lie, it’s a long way from America.

English isn’t an easy language to master—Japanese ESL students can have an especially difficult time with pronunciation problems due to the differences between English and their native language.

japanese pronunciation problemsPronunciation Problems for Native Japanese Speakers

There are 5 pronunciation problems that I feel are the most significant challenges for Japanese ESL students.  They are: adding vowel sounds at the end of words; “r” and “l” sounds; consonant clusters; differentiating minimal pairs; and YUP, the “th” sound.

Adding Vowel Sounds to The End of Words

This pronunciation error comes about because many English language words have been assimilated as Japanese Katakana words.  Each character in Japanese Katakana includes a vowel sound at the end of a syllable.  When spoken in Japanese these pronunciations are correct.  When translated directly into English you get mispronunciations like, kiss-u instead of kiss, or mat-o instead of mat.

“R” and “L” Sounds

The English “r” sound doesn’t exist in Japanese.  Many times, students will swap in an “l” sound, which is ironic because when an “l” sound occurs in an English word they often pronounce it as: “ru”, “ro”, “ra”, “re”, or “ri”.

The pronunciation differences between the Japanese “r” and “l” sounds depend on how long the tongue is in contact with the roof of the mouth.  Subtle, right?  Not so with the English “r” and “l” sounds.

Japanese ESL students should try to think of “r”s and “l”s in English words as completely novel letter characters.

Consonant Clusters

Japanese student’s pronunciations of English words with consonant clusters often result in the insertion of vowel sounds.

Christmas becomes Ki-ri-ma-su

Consonant clusters don’t exist in Japanese.  English, by contrast has 47 in the initial position of a word, and 169 consonant clusters in the final position of a word (I couldn’t even find a reliable count for middle syllables).  The sheer number of consonant clusters should demonstrate how important mastering their pronunciation is to achieving English language fluency.

This is a job for You Tube.  There are pronunciation videos for every challenging English sound, detailed descriptions of the vocal mechanics, and audible lessons.

Differentiating Minimal Pairs

I’ve really tried to avoid any linguistic terminology while writing this article, but the term “minimal pairs” will have to be an exception.  Minimal pairs are words that differ in only one sound, with that sound being in the same position.





Minimal pairs are especially problematic for Japanese ESL students.  The discrete differences between words that vary by a single sound can be hard for students to reproduce, especially when the sounds aren’t distinct in their native language.

“Th” Sounds

The English “th” sounds are the cliché nemeses of many ESL students.  Japanese ESL students have a “sa” sound in their native language that is the closest to the English “th” sound, and so they substitute it as often as possible.

that becomes sat

thing becomes sing

third becomes sard

Invest the time to perfect the voiced and voiceless English “th” sounds—they are the best way to think about the pronunciation.

Japanese ESL students’ pronunciation problems are, by and large, due to poor listening skills and a desire to adhere to Japanese pronunciations.  Few ESL students arrive in the US with more English under their belts than Japanese students.  The key for these super achievers correcting their problematic pronunciation is a determination to learn the novel sounds of the English language.



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