Why do Japanese people have difficulties in pronouncing English?



When I watch Anime, I notice that Japanese English pronunciation is really bad, they twist all the sounds, and they can't pronounce sounds like "L". I think English is the easiest language when it comes to pronunciation, and I don’t think it has something related to their native language, as for me, I learned Arabic,French and English, and I have no problems with the pronunciation, even though my mother language (Tamazight) has nothing related to these languages.

Ichigo Kurosaki

Posted 2017-05-02T10:47:25.207

Reputation: 270


It's because the Japanese syllable structure is very much different from that of English. In fact, morae#Japanese) are more important than syllables in Japanese. Also, see this question on Linguistics SE: What is a mora?

Yellow Sky 2017-05-02T11:10:04.907

@YellowSky As I said my mother language is Tamazight which is not a European language, and after I learned Arabic I can pronounce sounds like /ð/, /ðˤ/ and /dˤ/, which are not in the Amazigh alphabets, and I also when I learned french, I can pronounce sounds like, /p/, /v/ and /y/ which are not in the Tamazight alphabet either, so having a sound in your native language or not, it’s not the reason why people can’t pronounce other sounds.Ichigo Kurosaki 2017-05-02T11:25:11.867

11People like Europeans or Africans who live in multicultural and multilingual societies get used to the idea that there are many languages and they differ, but Japan is perhaps the most monocultural and monolingual country in the world, one can live the whole life in Japan and never meet a single person who doesn't speak Japanese. As for L, the Japanese think they can pronounce it, because the Japanese has the phoneme /ɺ ~ ɾ/ which is like both L and R. It's always easier to learn a new foreign sound than to change the pronunciation of the sound your native language already has.Yellow Sky 2017-05-02T11:43:01.433

81When you say "I think English is the easiest language when it comes to pronunciation", let me respectfully but vehemently disagree. English is full of consonant clusters and has more diphthongs than words. Its pronunciation is not "easy" in any objective terms, and, if anything, it is Japanese pronunciation that can be claimed to be objectively easy, as the language is very strictly limited to a CV structure with just a couple of exceptions.LjL 2017-05-02T14:16:57.920

27I wonder if this questioner thinks that English speakers don't have trouble with pronunciation in other languages?Beanluc 2017-05-02T17:17:20.653

2As @LjL said above, English is hardly the easiest language to pronounce. The phonetic inventory of Japanese is almost a subset of English; the major exceptions are the moraic nasal /ɴ/ and the flap /ɺ ~ ɾ/. (I'm ignoring vowel and consonant length here and supersegmental features like the pitch accent.) English also contains large consonant clusters (e.g, stɹɛŋθs), unusual phones and phonemes (the various realizations of /ɹ/, /θ/, /ʍ/ if distinguished from /w/, etc.), a huge inventory of vowels, and so on.anomaly 2017-05-02T18:39:31.520

If you want to know why Japanese speakers find it difficult to distinguish between /l/ and /r/, compare the Polish /ɕ/ and /ʂ/ sounds.anomaly 2017-05-02T18:44:41.710


This could be turned into a good question but right now all I can think of is the Dunning-Kruger effect.

errantlinguist 2017-05-02T22:04:09.037


@FADWAFDIWA English is difficult to pronounce. It has a large collection of consonants and vowels. Empirically, some hardest consonants are [ð][θ][ʒ][ə]; some hardest vowels are [ʊ][ɪ][æ][ʌ]. On a tangent, the connection between English spelling and pronunciation is equally horrible. English is hard, make no mistake about it.

Nayuki 2017-05-03T03:18:52.447

5"English is the easiest language when it comes to pronunciation" - You serious?!pushpen.paul 2017-05-03T05:52:11.107

3English is far from easy, even for native speakers (in the same country; let's ignore the weird UK/US/Aus/NZ/SA/Can/etc variations, plus strong dialects in each). All the erratic sounds, and then there's no easy way to tell which pronunciation any individual letter should have (think a in apple vs ape, or why the first two letters of knife are both silent). If you want easy, try a phonetic language like Finnish, where there's (generally) only one way to pronounce each letter and combination, only relatively few exceptions, and words generally written how they are pronounced. It's nice.flith 2017-05-03T06:23:14.240

To be fair, it might be just as difficult as common English speakers speaking in Japanese. I've seldom hearing them pronounce it correctly on first try, like Naruto becomes na-roo-tou, or Pokèmon becomes po-kee-mon.Andrew T. 2017-05-03T11:30:12.737

1The real question is why do adults have problems pronouncing other languages. Any kid picks up the 'weird' sounds so easily (when immersed, not necessarily in a special language class in school). But past puberty, accents are really hard to pick up (near impossible without lots of training). Why is that? Your ears don't get 'old'.Mitch 2017-05-03T14:55:23.103

4@flith: How is the second letter of knife silent?chirlu 2017-05-03T15:04:16.877

Yeah, I meant first and last. This five-minute edit window for comments is awkward. nifflith 2017-05-03T15:05:28.463

1@Mitch: no, but your brain does.flith 2017-05-03T15:06:58.953

@flith Oh? The brain seems to get as old just as quickly as the brain. Are you aware of any papers that try to show a connection between brain chemistry and accent production over age changes?Mitch 2017-05-03T16:38:33.013

@Mitch: Well, it is common for children to have difficulty pronouncing some sounds of their native language even at ages like four or five years. Child language acquisition is not immediate, and children have a lot more time and motivation for learning a language. If I remember correctly the "critical period" hypothesis does seem to apply most to acquiring phonology, but I don't think it's an absolutely established fact even in that context.sumelic 2017-05-03T17:03:49.860

@flith By 'brain' I meant 'brain'. Argh ... 'brain'.That thing that goes with your head. Argh!Mitch 2017-05-03T18:38:35.830

@LjL when I said English is an easy language when it comes to pronunciation, I compared it to Arabic, because learning Arabic pronunciation is more complex than learning the English or the French.Ichigo Kurosaki 2017-05-04T09:40:51.127

@FADWAFDIWA I'm curious if most Tamazight speakers find English easy to pronounce, or if you are talented.axsvl77 2017-05-04T16:54:42.513

3@FADWAFDIWA: Being easier to pronounce than Arabic doesn't mean much. Beyond having more than the usual number of vowels and phonemes, another problem is that English pronunciation is at best loosely tied to the actual collection of letters in a word. How else do you explain the differences between "good", "food", and "blood", or "slough" and "plough"?John Bode 2017-05-04T20:12:50.673

2When you know something, you tend to vastly underestimate the effort required to learn it in the first place. Most of the English non-native speakers I've talked with (myself being a non-native speaker) have plenty of their own "variations" on proper pronunciation, and they consider themselves "great English speakers". There's nothing impossible about learning new sounds - it just takes an effort most people just don't take, and they usually don't consider it important (after all, it sounds right to them). This is especially true when there's plenty of similar sounds in your phocabulary.Luaan 2017-05-04T20:22:21.117

4Mod notice: Please keep the comments to a minimum, too many comments trigger automatic flags. If you need to discuss further, you may want to bring this to chat (which is a great idea considering we have an unused chat room).Alenanno 2017-05-05T06:51:50.890

I'm not sure they usually speak English in animes at all. Are you sure what you're hearing is not Katakana transcriptions of foreign words, which is a totally different thing? Plus I'm not sure how good your English pronunciation is, or how much help/resources you received since you were a child on the road of learning English. As an example rich kids in Hong Kong speak perfect English while poor kids' English is really bad.JI Xiang 2018-01-11T22:49:43.743



Several reasons:

English pronunciation isn't easy

Don't think that, just because you find it easy, most people in the world will; English pronunciation is actually quite complex by any measure. The language has something around 10 vowels (not counting diphthongs) and 44 phonemes; well above the average, and more than double Japanese's 5 vowels and 17 phonemes. What's more, English syllables are unusually complex, and may have long sequences of consonants (as in "lengths") and consonant-only syllables (as in "bottle"). Even people in Spain or Italy will unconsciously add vowels between the consonants in order to simplify English syllables—and Japanese syllables are even simpler.

People generally have trouble with foreign sounds

You say you find it easy to pronounce sounds not in your native language, and I don't doubt you. However, you're being unfair to the Japanese by singling them out; just listen to second-language speakers anywhere in the world, and you'll find that people generally have trouble distinguishing sounds not in their languages. For example, the Chinese speakers I known find it difficult to distinguish sounds like b/d or e/ɛ when learning my native Portuguese. English gringos have trouble with the nasal "ã", or even with saying a simple /o/ without turning it into a diphthong [oʊ]. I have trouble with English t/th; anyone from a non-tonal language has trouble with Chinese tones, and so on and so forth.

Of course, people can learn these sounds (if properly instructed); but it's a well-known fact that many don't, even after years living in another country. This is interesting, because babies always learn all the sounds people speak around them (well, except for a few cases of "speech dysfunction", like lisps; but these are unusual). Adult foreign learners have a lot more difficulty.

English is incorporated into the Japanese sound system

Did you know that around 58% of English words came from Latin and French? But they pronounce them very different than actual Latin or French. The word "Latin" itself, for example, is like [ˈlæ.ʔn̩] rather than /ˈla.tin/. Et cetera is /ˌɛtˈsɛtɹə/ instead of /ɛt ˈkeːtera/, and so on.

My point is, when you incorporate lots of words from a foreign language into your own, you adapt the pronunciation to fit yours. It would be a bother to keep changing from English sounds to Latin sounds all the time.

Japanese has something like 30% "foreign" (gairaigo) words (not counting Chinese), most of which are English. Just like English speakers adapt words like "Et cetera", "Paris" or "Mexico" to fit their own sound system when speaking English, Japanese adapt English words (and others) to fit their own sound system when speaking Japanese. So "hamburger" becomes hambāgā, "cut" becomes katto, etc.

Unfortunately, this means Japanese people have an easy-available but inexact "version" of English already in their minds, and this makes it harder to learn actual English pronunciation. When English people learn Latin, they have to begin by unlearning the way they pronounce Latin words and Latin letters, and get used to actual Latin sounds. Japanese people, too, have to learn to set aside their native gairaigo pronunciation.

If the Japanese person needs to actually speak English, for example to live in England, they will learn it; but if they're just living in Japan and talking to other Japanese people, they'll just use the Japanized English words, for the same reason that English speakers use an Anglicized pronunciation of Latin words when talking to each other.

English classes in Japan usually suck

Japan has mandatory but atrocious English education, which is worse than no education. Richard Schmidt has pointed long ago that foreign learners won't acquire non-native sounds unless you draw conscious attention to them first. However, the typical English course in Japan doesn't try to teach the basics of articulatory phonetics or how to enunciate the sounds; they just keep doing grammar drills and such. I'm living in Germany, and I got a Japanese student to pronounce German-only sounds like "ö" and "ü" in one afternoon by explicitly explaining tongue and lip positions to her. I'm sure that, if a Japanese person is actually taught English phonology, they'll be able to pronounce English without major issues. I've met plenty of Japanese individuals with better English pronunciation than mine (admittedly, they usually have lived overseas, and therefore had incentive to learn actual English pronunciation, as opposed to their native Japanized English).


Posted 2017-05-02T10:47:25.207

Reputation: 2 581


"The language has something around 10 vowels (not counting diphthongs)" ← just nitpicking, but I think diphthongs should legitimately be counted, as they aren't just pairs of vowels that happen to meet and merge, but are intrinsically baked into the English vowel system, most of them deriving from roughly "pure" vowels through the GWS. Relevantly, languages such as Japanese turn a few diphthongs back into vowels when borrowing. Seeing https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:IPA_for_English demonstrates what a speaker of a language with 5 vowels will face.

LjL 2017-05-02T14:17:38.287

1I think I've intuitively not counted English diphthongs because for me, as a foreign learner, they just feel like a couple quick vowels pasted together (perhaps we're primed by the writing system, sinc [aɪ̯] is spelled "i" in English but "ai" in Portuguese?). Japanese has a few diphthongs too (both intra-moraic, like kyo, and inter-moraic/syllabic, as in aoi); so if we count English diphthongs we have to count the Japanese ones too.boiko 2017-05-02T15:16:45.883

2"Inter-syllabic diphthong" is an oxymoron: that's a hiatus, often described as the opposite of a diphthong. That aside, my point was that most English diphthongs are historically unlike Portuguese or Japanese ones. Take in fact aoi and pretend the /oi/ does count as a diphthong: -i is a common suffix tacked onto ao, so the "diphthong" can be split and the two sounds analyzed as part of distinct morphemes. The English [aɪ̯] sound of <i> is not like that: it comes from [i:] of old, and is even sometimes still pronounced that way in uncommon dialects. It is in many ways "one sound".LjL 2017-05-02T15:26:18.907

@LjL: My impression is that Japanese vowels are not necessarily pronounced in hiatus. Phonetically, at least, they may be diphthongs in some cases; the idea that Japanese has no diphthongs is a statement about phonology, that there are no contrastive diphthongs (just as every analysis agrees that Japanese has phonetic long vowels, but some phonemic analyses treat as non-phonemic realizations of sequences of identifical short vowels or of a vowel + a length phoneme). English has arguably has some diphthongs that are morphologically splittable, such as /oi/ in "lawyer" for many people.sumelic 2017-05-02T16:12:27.740

1@LjL I meant "inter-moraic, that is, syllabic". Japanese "oi" in "aoi" is most definitely a single syllable (thus a diphthong), as is Portuguese "ai"; just look into any research on Japanese phonetics or psychoacoustics, or just open a sample in Praat. That it is morphologically segmentable doesn't mean anything; the "oi" in "nephew" isn't, and it's phonetically identical. Whether a diphthong was historically a monophthong or not doesn't matter for synchronic phonetics, neither does morphology; if you can see the formants shifting to another vowel within a single syllable, it's a diphthong.boiko 2017-05-02T18:45:44.430

2(late correction: there is a pitch distinction in oí "nephew" vs. aói "blue". a better comparison would be the interjection i. the point about syllables stands. see e.g. Kubozono 2015, Diphthongs and vowel coalescence*.)boiko 2017-05-02T18:58:01.117

1@leoboiko I just disagree with that "not meaning anything". Of course it doesn't, if you're looking purely at phonology, but this was about perception, and I maintain that English speakers see most (didn't say all, sumelic, so yes, you can find counterexamples) English diphthongs as indivisible vowels (evidence: apparent inability of many English speakers to pronounce pure vowels without making them diphthongs!) while that's clearly not the case for the Japanese examples. Part of this difference in view is probably due to writing as previously suggested, but, all of it? I highly doubt that.LjL 2017-05-03T22:58:32.710

@leoboiko from answers I understood that the problem for having troubles pronouncing sounds in other language, is when the society you live in is not multicultural and multilingual. In morocco our native language is Tamazight and a lot of people speak Arabic and I learned it at school, in the same time we study French from the age 5 so you listen to 3 different languages who are not in the same language family everyday as a child, which will give you the ability to pronounce a lot of sounds, and I didn't knew that Japan in not multicultural and multilingual.Ichigo Kurosaki 2017-05-04T09:54:39.037

Good answer. You could also mention the constraints of the Japanese writing systems, which mean that "hamburger" is not just pronounced "hambaagaa" but effectively spelt that way as well. (Of course a Japanese person learning English will use latin letters, but loan words are usually written in katakana.)Nathaniel 2017-05-04T15:43:29.203

In my experience, the gairaigo are the most baffling artifact of Japanese, not least because as an English speaker everyone assumes I recognize these words instantly because, of course, they come from my language. So while I'm sounding out the katakana trying to make sense of a gairaigo ambush, if there are any observers they are thinking I'm semi-literate and at best indulging me. Also they seem to get boatloads of new gairaigo every month, fresh off the docks.Robusto 2017-05-05T01:29:43.053

@leoboiko Pre-emptively, before a debate starts, I'd advise against taking the above comment seriously or engaging, the user in question has a general pattern of non-constructive and argumentative behavior.Jason C 2017-05-06T15:55:04.023

Pretty good answer but do you have any source regarding "Japanese has something like 30% "foreign" (gairaigo) words (not counting Chinese)"? I feel this figure is pretty high.Blaszard 2017-08-12T02:52:56.920

@Blaszard NINJAL's type count of printed materials in 『現代雑誌200万字言語調査語彙表』(1994) reached 33.8%. My count of today's release of the Edict dictionary (that includes words and idioms) amounts to 24.96%; of Kenkyūsha's, 25.3%. Perhaps "25%" would be more conservative (but e.g. Web should be even higher). Notice these figures are type and not token counts (cf. English where the majority of words are Latinate, per type count). I'm abroad and don't have access to my copy, but I'm pretty sure 『「日本語学」特集テーマ別ファイル 語彙3:語種論/和語』 (or some other volume in the series) should have detailed stats per genre, etc.boiko 2017-08-12T05:00:34.357


Here's an answer from developmental psychology:

When a baby is born they can natively pronounce phonemes of every language, but as they develop, their brains are constantly calculating and keeping track of which phonemes are more often said. This causes the baby to lose their ability to natively pronounce or even differentiate other phonemes except the ones spoken in the languages of their environment. This does mean that biracial babies will be able to pronounce more phonemes natively.

After what is known as the "critical period", it is very, very difficult to retrain the brain to learn to pronounce/differentiate new phonemes.

Quote from Neuroscience, 2nd Edition, specifically answering about the pronounciation of the l/r:

Very young human infants can perceive and discriminate between differences in all human speech sounds, and are not innately biased towards the phonemes characteristic of any particular language. However, this universal appreciation does not persist. For example, adult Japanese speakers cannot reliably distinguish between the /r/ and /l/ sounds in English, presumably because this phonemic distinction is not present in Japanese. Nonetheless, 4-month-old Japanese infants can make this discrimination as reliably as 4-month-olds raised in English-speaking households (as indicated by increased suckling frequency or head turning in the presence of a novel stimulus). By 6 months of age, however, infants show preferences for phonemes in their native language over those in foreign languages, and by the end of their first year no longer respond to phonetic elements peculiar to non-native languages. The ability to perceive these phonemic contrasts evidently persists for several more years, as evidenced by the fact that children can learn to speak a second language without accent and with fluent grammar until about age 7 or 8. After this age, however, performance gradually declines no matter what the extent of practice or exposure.

-The Development of Language: A Critical Period in Humans

As other answers note, Japanese and English doesn't necessary have much phoneme overlap

From a very famous and informative TED talk about this topic, that explains that it's very difficult for the brain of a native Japanese to differentiate between an "l" and an "r":

What you see here is performance on that head-turn task for babies tested in Tokyo and the United States, here in Seattle, as they listened to "ra" and "la" — sounds important to English, but not to Japanese. So at six to eight months, the babies are totally equivalent. Two months later, something incredible occurs. The babies in the United States are getting a lot better, babies in Japan are getting a lot worse, but both of those groups of babies are preparing for exactly the language that they are going to learn.

-Patricia Kuhl, The linguistic genius of babies

The TED talk even shows demonstration videos on this effect, check it out.


Posted 2017-05-02T10:47:25.207

Reputation: 139

1A really good answer.ABcDexter 2017-05-04T08:54:58.450

5"Japanese and English doesn't necessary have much phoneme overlap" quite the opposite. Almost all Japanese phonemes exist (or have close analogues) in English. It doesn't apply vice versa - Japanese has very few phonemes, as languages go. I think that's what you really meant.Luaan 2017-05-04T20:28:43.337

9"biracial babies" is entirely incorrect here--the distinction is children raised in multiple-language environments. There's no reason to expect a multiracial child of monolingual parents growing up in the environment of that language to recognize anything unique; and a single-race child would be able to pick up plenty from a polyglot environment (say, children of Japanese immigrants to the US).Tiercelet 2017-05-04T20:53:58.953

@Luaan it's true that looking at individual phones in Japanese there is usually a close correspondence with an English consonant or vowel. At the same time, although I wouldn't as far as saying that the Japanese "phonemes" are actually the morae (but I've seen it argued), the morae do play an important role, and, at the very least, the vowel strongly influences the preceding consonants in most cases, and vice versa: I suspect a native Japanese will think of the /s/ in sa/shi/tsu as almost the same "sound", for instance, but a native English speaker sees them as very distinct.LjL 2017-05-05T21:03:45.480

@LjL Isn't that just an artefact of the transcription? In Czech, the transcription would be something like "sašicu", which is a lot simpler than the English transcription (s, š and c are all distinct phonemes). There's plenty of phonemes in English, but the grapheme-phoneme mapping is a bit complicated. Of course, in some cases, the emphasis might be misplaced - e.g. when a transcription makes a distinction between r and l. From experience, regardless of language, the last person you want to ask about pronunciation is a native speaker - they usually don't understand, they go by the gut.Luaan 2017-05-05T22:10:26.897

@Luuan <s> may look similar to <š>, but <c> really kinda doesn't. If they're different phonemes, I'd just treat them different phonemes, but in Japanese they are barely seen as such: only some speakers started considering them as distinct after the large influx of foreign words, and transcriptions informally used by native Japanese tend to be just sa/si/tu. These are just the examples I found most obvious, but the sounds also change in the /k/ series (in ways that mostly match English, though), the /t/ series ("tsu" being part of that), the /h/ series, the /n/ series, and correspnoding voiced.LjL 2017-05-05T23:02:47.903


Part of a theory of foreign pronunciation proceeds straightforwardly from David Stampe's theory Natural Phonology. Every natural language is phonetically difficult for a child, because many sounds tend to be changed into easier ones. A child's task is to learn not to let this happen for the languages he must learn to pronounce. See Stampe's article in CLS 5, The acquisition of phonetic representation. The phonological system of a language consists in the set of those those simplifications of sounds, the "processes", which needn't unlearned by children in order for them pronounce their language correctly.

There is a considerable difference between what must be learned by children learning Japanese and children learning English. For instance, children have a tendency to drop word-final obstruents (p/b/t/d/k/g/f/v/s/z/...), and they have to get over that to pronounce English correctly, but to learn Japanese, they needn't bother, because Japanese doesn't have word-final obstruents. This is why Japanese trying to pronounce English drop such obstruents at first. It is simply something they didn't have to learn when learning Japanese as children.

I don't know whether it is available online, but Julie Lovins' dissertation Loanwords and the phonological structure of Japanese is an excellent account along these lines of what we can infer about the structure of Japanese from borrowings of English words into Japanese. See Julie Beth Lovins.

In summary, English words are easy to pronounce for English speakers, because they've learned how to do that, but difficult for Japanese speakers who haven't yet learned how. Pretty obvious, really (though the details are complicated).

Greg Lee

Posted 2017-05-02T10:47:25.207

Reputation: 8 064


There are numerous cultural reasons, here are the primary linguistic reasons imo.

  1. As was mentioned briefly, Japanese has a very different phonological system than English, virtually all "syllables" are CV or V. Examining this chart of the Japanese mora is very educational of how the system functions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_phonology#Phonotactics

Realizing this, one can begin to see how absolutely different a sound system would be where multiple consonants are mashed together into the same syllable, as English does. This, according to several of my friends who speak Japanese, makes Japanese speakers inclined to place vowels in between consonants, which obviously alters the word.

  1. The simple lack of similar consonants, and vowels, between Japanese & English. This chart, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_phonology#Consonants , gives all the Japanese consonants and you can see a number of English sounds are missing.

As for the difficulty in pronouncing "l" specifically, you may notice on the chart that there is a weird l-shaped letter and a weird r-shaped letter that are in the same box separated by a squiggly line. This indicates that the sound is a spectrum between the two l & r sounds. This is likely the main difficulty in pronouncing l's in English for Japanese speakers, the sound is split into two! (also note that a similar situation exists in Korean)

Apparently, according to a friend who speaks Japanese, the most difficult phrase for Japanese speakers to say is the name of the movie, Dances with Wolves. I believe this is because the consonant clusters as well as numerous consonants that do exist in Japanese! (such as L)

A. Ward

Posted 2017-05-02T10:47:25.207

Reputation: 31

1In the last sentence, did you mean, "that do not exist"?bytebuster 2017-05-04T05:50:22.647

@A.Ward That explains the trouble I had understanding a Japanese tourist who asked me for directions in Liverpool. After several attempts, I realized he was looking for the statue of Eleanor Rigby.David Garner 2017-05-04T08:54:32.253

Your Dances with Wolves has more things going on with it than just the consonant clusters to give them trouble. Any attempt to force that into a repeating CV structure of equal weights is doomed to fail because English is stress-timed not syllable- or mora-timed. The unstressed syllables are shorter in duration, lower in tone, and with centralized and rather indistinct vowels a bit too short and distinct to count as "real" vowels in a same-timed CV pattern. The consonant clusters themselves are assimilated and reduced at the onset: many say [ˈdænsɨzwɪθˈwʊɫvz] as [ˈdæ̃səswəˈθwʊfs].tchrist 2017-05-06T14:50:28.760


While I'm not a linguist I am married to a Mandarin Chinese speaker who learned English in adulthood and I have noticed some very definite patterns in her learning. Specifically, learning new ways of saying something is easy for her (no surprise as she is also fluent in several local dialects of Chinese.) Learning new fundamental language concepts is far harder.

Chinese is spoken by the syllable, not the letter. English speakers learn to enunciate the sounds of each letter and thus have little trouble when faced with a non-word or an unknown word. Consider, for example, "bot". While it does have a meaning out of biology most people did not know it before the coming of the computer revolution--yet a native English speaker would have no difficulty with how to pronounce it.

Chinese, however, does not have this flexibility. As they have only learned to say a specific set of syllables. Their standard written language does not even permit the expressing of alien pronunciation, although it can be done with Pinyin. When foreign things get incorporated into Chinese it is within the context of those syllables--often changing it to the point that it is no longer recognizable (and this cuts both ways--she will often not recognize the proper pronunciation.)

Learning syllables that she did not learn as a child is a much harder thing for her. She once actually told me that Chinese does not have an "r" sound--yet it most certainly does. She did not equate "er" with "r".

While I do not know Japanese it is a descendant of Chinese and most likely suffers from the same limitation.

(And while not actually relevant to the question there is a related issue with concepts. When we have two words that map to one word in Chinese she has a much harder time learning the right English. To this day she still occasionally slips up and opens a light or turns on a door.)

Loren Pechtel

Posted 2017-05-02T10:47:25.207

Reputation: 119

13Although Sino-Japanese vocabulary accounts for a considerable portion of the Japanese vernacular, saying "it is a descendant of Chinese" is simply absurd, especially in a phonological context.dkaeae 2017-05-02T22:46:08.667

8Japanese has many loadwords from Chinese but it's definitely not a descendant of any Chinese languages. So are Korean and VietnameseLưu Vĩnh Phúc 2017-05-03T02:40:29.543

@LưuVĩnhPhúc - did you mean "loanwords"?Bob Jarvis 2017-05-03T02:50:34.757

@BobJarvis yes. Unfortunately it's too late to fixLưu Vĩnh Phúc 2017-05-03T02:53:09.293

@LưuVĩnhPhúc - I was thinking maybe "loadwords" was a term I wasn't familiar with. :-)Bob Jarvis 2017-05-03T02:55:21.813

@LưuVĩnhPhúc Comments are editableMiles Rout 2017-05-03T21:45:49.810

1Japanese is not a descendant of Chinese. I also doubt that Chinese people have difficulty pronouncing arbitrary syllables as long as they respect Chinese phonotactics (which goes for any language), whether or not they are part of existing Chinese words: they learn to write Pinyin before Hanzi, and for that matter, I even doubt any valid Mandarin syllable lacks a corresponding character. Not recognizing their "er" as equivalent to English "r" seems unrelated: Indo-European languages have a variety of "r" and "l" sounds and even we find it difficult to pinpoint the common denominator.LjL 2017-05-03T23:07:01.160

2@MilesRout yes but only within 5 minutesLưu Vĩnh Phúc 2017-05-03T23:28:32.453

@MilesRout so you delete and post a corrected version. Same difference.JDługosz 2017-05-06T05:35:10.893


There's a very good Wikipedia article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perception_of_English_/r/and/l/_by_Japanese_speakers

In it, there is the remark that

native speakers of Japanese who have learned English as adults have difficulty perceiving the acoustic differences between English /r/ and /l/, even if the speakers are comfortable with conversational English

Imagine your name is Robert Loyal!

So the next time you think someone from Japan is lamenting lack of beauty ("I ugly"), realize he or she may be saying, "I agree!"

For your amusement, I suggest the poem "The Chaos" by Gerard Nolst Trenité: http://ncf.idallen.com/english.html


Posted 2017-05-02T10:47:25.207

Reputation: 21


To add to all the above answers, I would like to point out the same phenomenon is to be found even between neighbouring European languages. Sometimes it's a simple matter of cultural politeness.

As a trilingual English-Dutch-Spanish speaker I have observed that while English and Spanish both contain the phonetic θ (thing, paz) and English contains the ð (this, other, smooth), they both require sticking your tongue out of your mouth, beyond your teeth. The Dutch language does not contain any such phonetic that requires that, and also Dutch people learn it is impolite and an obscene gesture to stick your tongue out of your mouth. As a result, and with no other physiological inhibition, the Dutch, most of whom are proficient in English, pronounce both phonetics as 'de' or 'te'. Spanish, even those less proficient in English, have no such problem. It also explains why Hispanics on the American continent pronounce the Spanish θ as 's'. The same of course, goes for the Germans, hence their 'ze'.

After all, English is such a rude language, the English constantly sticking their tongue out towards you.

And to bough down in all humility, I must admit I cannot distinguish between the Spanish 'r' and 'rr' (pero vs. perro). My Spanish wife cannot for the life of her understand that.


Posted 2017-05-02T10:47:25.207

Reputation: 11

Although the mentioned phenomenon is interesting, this post does not answer the question, so, unfortunately it is not suitable for StackExchange format.bytebuster 2017-05-06T20:47:10.523


This is a really amusing question. I usually think: before someone asks, why does someone speak in a language with accent or that why are they not so idiomatic, flip the coin, and ask: can you even speak 2 or 3 complete sentences in their languages?

Japanese language doesn't have some phonics (vowels and consonants) that is in English. Just like English doesn't have some phonics in Spanish. For example, a lot of Westerners cannot pronounce the word Ng, which is a Chinese last name. So to make it possible for them to pronounce it, it is transformed to "Eng". I heard the theory was that (1) you are not used to saying that phonics all your life, so can you say it immediately if it deviates from your habit (2) when in childhood, some of your bone and joint structure near your mouth is already formed for you to use that phonics system a lot, so if you want to pronounce some different phonics, you are working against your bone and joints to do the job (after you have become an adult).


Posted 2017-05-02T10:47:25.207

Reputation: 109

1Please cite something about this theory with respect to the second part of it (the bones and joints actually changing their structure according to the phonetics of your native language), because it's completely new to me and I find it implausible, especially considering there are people perfectly fluent in multiple language as long as they have learned them all in childhood.LjL 2017-05-05T21:07:26.793

like you said, IF they learned them all in childhood. So what if they didn't. For example, there are some consonants that somebody was trying to show me a language in South America, and I couldn't give out some vibration sound, but she could easily do that. I heard of that bone and joint remark from somebody who watched a documentary on human speech development. Even if I can ask him now, he probably would not remember the name of the program, but if interested you probably can check some programs in this area and you probably can find more info about this.太極者無極而生 2017-05-06T00:41:54.473

Why do you think physical changes in the bones would explain it better than the normal theory of phonological development, which simply assumes that people learn what they need and do not learn what they don't need, and then, later in life, it becomes more difficult to learn what they haven't learned when they were children? Because, you know, even adult people can learn sounds that they were previously unable to pronounce. It is not easy, but it can be done. I could not pronounce the Italian /r/ sound as a child; now I can. A physical theory about bone development doesn't explain that.LjL 2017-05-07T03:12:14.273

well... you are talking about general people who "at times" need to speak another language, right? People in Asia might speak a few lines of English per year, or if the work requires it, maybe 20 minutes in a day. They may do it as part of the job. There is no good reason for them to perfect some consonant in English, just like I know many westerners did not perfect the way of saying Ng in Cantonese.太極者無極而生 2017-05-07T15:46:59.903

That is not my point. It is obvious to everyone that people who rarely speak a foreign language don't normally have a native-like accent in it; there is no doubt about that. The question is whether an ability to pronounce the sounds more accurately can be acquired through exercise, or that is prevented because someone's native language actually shaped the bones in their mouth at a young age, which is what you said is a theory. I've simply never heard that theory and find it extremely unlikely given evidence.LjL 2017-05-07T19:12:40.213