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‘Japanglish’: Why Do Japanese Have Difficulty Speaking English?




This article was prompted after reading an explanation why the Japanese cannot speak proper English — that, supposedly, post-war U.S. occupation authorities did not allow the teaching of proper English. The same explanation said the intent was to use Koreans who would be taught proper English to enforce American directives.


This, of course, is a bunch of nonsense. 


The reason Japanese have difficulty with English is because of the limited range of vocalization used in the Japanese language. Unless pronunciations and nuances of foreign languages are learned in childhood, the human ear and brain has difficulty in discerning them.  


Instead of an alphabet of vowels and consonants, Japanese has 5 vowels and a syllabary made up by combining one of the vowels with each of 14 consonants, with some exceptions plus a few odd vowels. There is also an “n” sound that is the only consonant which comes at the end of a word.



Japanese people generally attempt to speak foreign languages while staying within this limited syllabary instead of going outside the box, so to speak.


When English is spoken using this syllabary, it ends up as unique “Japanglish” (a word that was just made up). Most other foreigners speak English with accents carried over from their native tongue, but not as distinctly different as the Japanese.  


Here is the Japanese Kana (phonetic) syllabary. Numbers in parentheses are explained in the comments which follow. Letters in caps are irregular, and those in italics are repeats of previously-listed syllables, and both replace the normal sequence which is the cause of much of the English mispronunciations.  



Kana Syllabary

Note: There are syllables which combine two syllables, eliding the first vowel (ex: ji + ya = jya).


But this is not about teaching Japanese. It is to explain why “This is a jungle” ends up as “Jisu izu a junguru.”  



This syllabary constitutes almost the entire range of Japanese pronunciations, with some eliding in mid-word. Example: school/gakuko is pronounced, “gakko.”  All words end with a vowel, except those words that end with “n.”


The “Romaji” system — a method of writing Japanese using Roman characters — uses English letters to spell out the syllabary. In Romaji, three-letter syllables are reduced to two letters, but pronounced like the original. Example: “Shi” is written “si” but still pronounced “shi,” and “tsu” is written as “tu,” but pronounced “tsu.”  


Let’s examine in a little more detail how Japanese phonetics are used to pronounce English.



Five Vowel Sounds


First, there are five vowels in Japanese: a i u e o. They are pronounced: ah ee oo eh oh.



Pronunciations do not vary, unlike in English where “a” is pronounced differently in cat, car, and care; “o” in row, cow, and mother, etc.  In Japanese, “a” is always pronounced “ah.”


Thus, “can’t” is pronounced, “cahnt” — and probably the reason some Japanese claim to have learned the King’s English. As an aside, Korean has 11 vowels and words ending in consonants.  



The SH Sound


Second, “Si” is replaced with “shi,” and words with “si” are pronounced as “shi.” Example: seem/sheemu, seat/sheeto. There is a “se,” but silk begins with “si” and comes out as “shiruku.”     




The TA Sequence


The “Ta” sequence logically would be, “ta Ti Tu te to.”  However, in Japanese Ti is replaced by “chi,” and “Tu” by “tsu.” Thus, “Tito” becomes “Chito,” and, “I go to town” becomes “I go ‘tsu’ town.”


There was a time when Americans had a problem with pronouncing “tsu,” but today Americans have no problem with words like “tsunami,” which have joined the English vocabulary.



The HA Sequence


In the “Ha” sequence — “ha hi FU he ho” — the FU sound is used instead of “hu.” The sequence “fa fi fu fe fo” is missing.


As a result, “coffee” is pronounced “kohee.” But there doesn’t seem to be any other problem with the lack of an “f” in Japanese.  



Koreans have no “f” sound in their language and, as a result, “coffee” sounds like “koppi.”



The ‘Y’ Sounds


Yi and Ye are missing. This, however, is not a problem.


There is a difference in Japanese pronunciation of yes/ies, yellow/ielo, but it is generally not discernible by the human ear.




Those Rough ‘R’s’ and ‘L’s’


In Japanese, the R is slightly trilled, but there is no clear R or L used in the language. For both, the phonetics in Japanese could just as well be written “la li lu le lo.”  



Consonants at the End of the Alphabet


The W sequence in Japanese is also limited. Only “wa” stands out on its own. Any other would-be “W” sounds are a repeat of syllables in other sequences.


“Wo,” the last syllable in the sequence, is pronounced as “uo” or “o.” Lacking a “wu” sound, words such as “wool” are often pronounced “ooru.”  


There is a “ze” but no “zi” sound. The English sounds for “zi” is replaced by “ji,” causing a zipper to become “jippa.” Strangely, the Japanese have no difficulty with “zen.”




The D Sequence


In the D sequence, “da” is a sound that traverses both languages. However, the sound “ji” replaces “di.” As a consequence, a diplomat becomes a “jeepromatto.”  “Du” is also missing. “Dupont” becomes “Ju(no pun intended)ponto.”



The End of a Word


The sound for “Un,” written “n” in Romaji, is the only consonant that comes at the end of a word.




Missing Syllables


There is a lack of syllables beginning in “v.” This results in substituting the “b” sound for what would otherwise be a “v.”  Example are: victory/biktori, vacation/bakeshon, vacant/bekanto.


When writing, though, there is an “u” with special markings to indicate “v.”



Using Japanglish Creatively


To summarize, speaking English with the limited range of pronunciations in the Japanese language results in difficulties with English pronunciations. The solution seems obvious to me. However, not being in the education field, this short explanation was written for the curious rather than as a teaching guide, and a lot has been left out.    


The Japanese incorporate Japanglish words into their language with increasing frequency, replacing original Japanese words or inventing new ones. Some are easy to understand, like “reru pasu” (rail pass) and  “contentsu” (contents). 



But others defy understanding without explanations. For example, “pasukon” is abbreviated from “pasanalu konpyu-ta” and means “personal computer.” Here is a lulu: “puragomi.” The “pura” is from purasuchikku (plastic), and it combines with “gomi,” a true Japanese word for waste. The resulting “puragomi” means plastic waste.


Japanglish is not only how the Japanese speak English. Many Japanglish words have become part of the Japanese language, often unrecognizable from the original English. As new words keep cropping up almost daily, even the Japanese have problems keeping up. In contrast, Americans only have “tsunami,” “umami,” “sushi,” and “sukiyaki” to contend with.


Editorial Note:

This article did not use any references, not even for the syllabary, so all errors or omissions are mine. To my knowledge, the word “Japanglish” is an original term. The term “Japlish” has been used to describe the argot (a mixture of Japanese and English) once spoken by the Japanese American fishing community of Terminal Island in California. The use of the term “Jap” is a pejorative, and the term has been subject to debate whether it is racist or not. I personally do not like it and avoid using it. It has overtones of demeaning the Japanese.


Author: Archie Miyamoto, LTC, U.S. Army, Retired

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