Marilyn Monroe. Yes, Marilyn Monroe. Two words difficult for both Japanese speakers to say in English and for English speakers to say in Japanese. I can still remember the conversation with my Japanese host mom from over five years ago about Marilyn Monroe. I don’t remember exactly how it started, but she was asking me how to pronounce it, and we were both laughing at her attempts. Then she asked me to try and say it in Japanese, and we both laughed at my attempts. Compared to English, Japanese doesn’t have a lot of sounds. However, some of the ones it does have are very difficult for English speakers to pronounce. I certainly struggled myself. Though with a bit of practice (actually probably “quite” a bit) and a few techniques I believe anyone can do it.
This technique is key and I give it most of the credit for my success in improving my “accent”. When I was a kid I used to imitate just about everything I saw on TV. Eventually, I got pretty good at doing accents and voices. I pretty much do the same thing when I am practicing Japanese. I listen to Native speakers tones, inflictions, and accents and then try to copy exactly what they said, exactly the way they said it. For this technique to be effective, try and copy as soon and often as possible after you hear a new sentence. It is usually possible to use it in the same conversation your hear it. If not, then you should practice by yourself immediately after your conversation has finished.
Record and Listen
We tend to hear what we want when we are speaking. It is common that we don’t even hear the difference between our own accent and a native one. By recording your own voice and listening to it, you can hear what you really sound like. It is also handy to have the same audio in native Japanese for easy comparison.
Talk Like a Crazy Person
Have you ever seen someone walking down the street talking to him or herself and think that person is crazy? You want to become that person. Only you want the words you are speaking to be Japanese and you want to focus on moving your mouth to make the correct Japanese sounds. I used to do this as a college student walking in between classes. I would guess that more than a few people probably walked past me hearing “Ra Ri Ru Re Ro” and thought I might have lost it.
This was a technique I learned in a Japanese class at Waseda University. Open your mouth big and over emphasize each sound. This is a great way to teach your mouth and tongue to move the correct way. Just simply read though the Japanese alphabet again and again using this method. You may feel a bit silly, but after you do it for a while you will realize you were probably mumbling. I did.
Practice and Repetition
As a small child I had difficulty pronouncing Rs. Since my favorite show at the time was the “Smurfs”, I used to sit with my father repeating “Smurfs, Smurfs, Smurfs”. I don’t know how many hours we spent, but I eventually got it. Learning Japanese is no different. Your tongue and mouth have spent years learning to move in certain patterns and it will take time and practice to teach them new ways. The longer and more often you practice the better you will get!