Pronunciation: Chinese and Japanese

Ever since I learned the proper pronunciation in Mandarin of pinyin x, q, and j, I’ve had my doubts about the true pronunciation of Japanese. According to the Japanese textbooks I learned from, the Japanese し (romanized as shi) is pronounced nearly the same as the English word “she.” Any textbooks that wanted to go into picky differences would be likely to talk about the differences in vowel sounds between English and Japanese, not the “sh” sound.

I have a very clear memory of a chat with a Japanese exchange student named Miya in my junior year at UF. She made an offhand comment about how foreigners couldn’t pronounce the Japanese し sound quite right. Having already spent a year in Japan, I was pretty confident in my pronunciation abilities, so I took on the challenge. She told me to make a huge “show all your teeth” grin and say し. At that point I was still saying “she.” I tried it, and then she did it. With the mouth in that position, the difference becomes rather obvious. I could hear it, but I couldn’t account for it. I shoved it into the back of my mind, where I keep the rest of the inconvenient knowledge.

Learning pinyin x taught me an important lesson. Two sounds that may sound pretty much identical to me can sound very different to native speakers of the target language. This was very important when learning Chinese, because pinyin x and sh, q and ch, and j and zh must be differentiated in Mandarin Chinese.

The difference with Japanese is that there are no such sound pairs. There are no similar sounds “competing” with し in Japanese, so the English pronunciation of “she” can easily be understood by native speakers of Japanese as し. The same goes for じ (ji), ち (chi), and their derivatives (しゃ, しゅ, しょ, じゃ, じゅ, じょ, ちゃ, ちゅ, ちょ). This explains why educational materials in English on the Japanese language don’t distinguish between the “sh” of English and the Japanese “sh,” but it doesn’t excuse it.

To finally settle this issue, I turned to the Wikipedia. It’s amazing how authoritative and comprehensive a resource it has become. I often find it to be a very helpful and succinct reference for linguistic issues. The articles I compared were Japanese language: Phonology, Pinyin in IPA, and International Phonetic Alphabet Chart.

Here are the IPA symbols for relevant sounds:

  • X Chinese:[ɕ]
  • SH English:[ʃ] Japanese:[ɕ] Chinese:[ʂ]
  • Q Chinese:[tɕʰ]
  • CH English:[tʃ] Japanese:[cɕ] Chinese:[tʂʰ]
  • J English:[dʒ] Japanese:[dʑ] Chinese:[tɕ]
  • ZH Chinese:[tʂ]

I’m not going to go into detailed analysis as to why the Japanese sounds are more similar to the Chinese sounds than to the English sounds (this post is already boring enough), but they are. Short version: the Chinese pinyin sounds x, q, and j and the Japanese sounds “sh,” “ch,” and “j” are all palatals, but the English sounds are not. In the case of pinyin x and Japanese “sh” they’re identical: [ɕ].

Ever since my ZUCC days I’ve noticed that (diligent) Chinese students make excellent students of Japanese. It’s easy to chalk it up to some similar cultural features and a largely overlapping character set, but it goes beyond that. For one thing, the Chinese meticulously study the pitch accent for every Japanese word. That’s something not often done in the West. Presumably the Chinese do it because the importance of tones in the Chinese psyche carries over to the study of Japanese, even though tones and pitch accent are very different in both nature and importance to their respective languages. In my opinion, the Chinese are obsessing unnecesarily there. In the case of pronunciation, though, the Chinese seem to have a natural advantage when studying Japanese.

Related: Pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese: Setting the Record Straight

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