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


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Anonymous Says: February 1, 2005 at 7:45 pm

    Interesting stuff…

    however, I think for your average student of japanese, fussing over minor pronounciation differences like this is not as important that many other more difficult challenges they have to face.

    Of course, if the student ever reaches a level where understanding others, and make one’s self understood isn’t a problem anymore, then it might be time to perfect pronounciation

    also, I agree it is amazing how comprehensive and high quality Wikipedia has become

  2. Of course you wouldn’t introduce these difficulties in lesson 1, but for a serious learner wouldn’t it be better to learn it sooner rather than having to modify your pronunciation later on?

    This Japanese “sh” reminds me of a similar example: many Indian speakers of English pronounce “t” and “d” as retroflex rather than alveolar. This is not a problem for native English speakers from other countries to understand, but it is certainly perceived as (part of) a foreign accent.

  3. Yeah, this issue is not super important for most learners, but the Japanese “sh” should not be introduced as “the same” as the English “sh” if they are not really the same. In textbooks for beginners, a simple footnote would be nice. Nothing elaborate.

  4. Do you think it works the other way around? I remember some Japanese students taking my Chinese class when I taught it in grad school, and they had a lot of trouble with pronounciation, more so than they did with English. Or maybe I was an exceedingly poor model…

  5. Prince Roy,

    No, not at all. Japanese students, in general, have a very hard time with the pronunciation of foreign languages. Gifted language learners from Japan will be just as good as any other gifted language learner, but it seems like on average, their mother tongue puts the Japanese at a disadvantage.

  6. I think learning good pronunciation habits at the beginning of learning a foreign language is very wise and return on investment is particularly rich. I recall one time in Germany, a couple of Americans were asking directions from a German passerby, the German told them that he did not speak English. They were speaking German to the German, not English; but their German pronunciation was so American that it did not sound German. Just a few line drawings, some narrative and one can have the details on the point-of-articulation and the method-of-articualtion and your accent becomes less of a barrier in communicating. I do not know why American educators put so much effort into making Americans speak with such a heavy American accent.

    Concerning the ability of the average Japanese in learning a foreign language as Prince Roy and yourself have noted, I will hazard an alternative view. I do not think there is anything intrinsic within the structure of the Japanese language that would make it an inhibitor to learn a foreign language, rather I think it is the relative linguistic isolation of Japanese speakers (similiar to most Americans).

    To compare the Japanese situation with Chinese, one can, I think, better understand what I am alluding to. When we talk about the Chinese language is quite often a misnomer, what we are referring to is to a Chinese language family, consisting of mayber seven languages. Within these languages are many dialects, and so forth. One of these dialects has become the standard for the entire language family. To compare this with IndoEuropean languages, let us say that Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy were all one political unit, and that instead of calling their languages Romance languages, we called them collectively after their parent tongue, Latin. And of the various languages makiing up Latin, we chose one, the “Mandarin” of Latin, let us say Italian, and one of its dialects, the language spoken by the educated in Rome as the “standard language” of Latin. So everyone, whether they spoke Portuguese, Spanish, Catalon, French, Italian, or other would also learn the standard language, Roman Italian, also. So in China many from a very young age develop skills in learning foreign a language; whereas in Japan and the United States no such skills are developed to the young. Teaching Spanish or some other language to young students for one hour a day or week is insufficent to develop those skills.

  7. yeah! Japan is a monolingual island nation like Britain and OZ and NZ. Compare your general European’s language ability with your average Pom, Ozzie, Kiwi or Yank!! Same goes with comparing your average Japanese with someone from say Malaysia/Singapore/Thailand

  8. John and Prince Roy were both talking about Japanese students mastering the pronunciation of foreign languages, nothing else. Anyway, I certainly believe that anybody can learn good pronunciation (though probably not “native” per se) if they make the effort and are taught properly, but in reality a lot of people just fudge it — so I gather that the point is that Japanese students fudging foreign pronunciation are likely to have more problems than students from other countries fudging foreign pronunciation.

    As for the Chinese situation, it is far from true to say that everyone learns to accurately pronounce Mandarin. For example, I haven’t met many southern Chinese, but of those that I have met most of them pronounced “sh” and “s”, and some pronounced “r” as “l”.

  9. Todd: I have no disagreement with what you are saying, but why would Japanese students be more likely to have problems fudging their accents than other students?

    As for the Chinese situation, I think we have a slightly different phenomena. All Chinese speakers think they speak the same language, Chinese rather than different languages. In the Shanghai area, speakers use the alveolar ‘s’ in place of the retroflex ‘sh’. In consequence, when many speak putonghua, they do not make a special effort to use the retroflex ‘sh’, but continue using the alveolar ‘s’. I have met many Chinese whose English pronunciation is remarkedly good. There are many who have very heavy accents, but I am surprised at the numbers who have a very good command of English pronunciation. I suspect that is because they know that English is a foreign language and make an especial effort at mastering the differences, whereas within Chinese, the effort may not appear to be as urgent.

  10. I seem to observe that Chinese who grow up in a monolingual environment, and there are many, tend to have difficulty with foreign languages or even eith Mandarin. Those who could speak several dialects in their childhood would likely have an easier time in future langauage classes.

  11. JFS,

    I understand your point, but it seems like you’re coming from a purely theoretical standpoint. Allow me to add some observations which are based on hands-on experience.

    I have observed that the Japanese, in general, seem to have worse pronunciation than their classmates when studying a foreign language. I’ve seen it for English and for Chinese. I’ve also had a lot of people (mostly Chinese) observe to me, “the Japanese are pretty bad at foreign languages, aren’t they?” This kind of comment is unfair, though, because it’s based solely on pronunciation ability.

    You ask, “why would Japanese students be more likely to have problems fudging their accents than other students?” There are reasons.

    1. The Japanese loooove to import foreign vocabulary, but convert it into “Japanese.” That means the foreign words’ pronunication (mostly) follow Japanese phonological rules. In Japan, we often referred to this as “katakana English” (because of how the words are written).

    A good example of this is English colors. They ALL have “katakana English” names in Japanese, which are generally known by everyone, even people who don’t “speak English.” Buruu, Reddo, Ieroo, Guriin, etc.

    I think maybe this “katakanization” of foreign words becomes a habit that’s hard to break. Just a wild guess, though.

    1. Also, and much more importantly, is the structure of Japanese words. To quote the Japanese phonology wiki I linked to in my entry:
      “There are 5 vowel and 17 consonant phonemes [in Japanese] (compared to roughly 15 vowels and 22 consonants in English).”

    In addition, of Japanese’s consonant phonemes, there is only one official final consonant: “n” (although “s” and a few others also occur). This is plenty for the Japanese language, but it puts Japanese students of foreign languages at a disadvantage because it’s much harder to learn a new language when many of the sounds are completely foreign to your tongue.

    Not only does Mandarin Chinese contain more phonemes than Japanese, but many Chinese can pronounce even more phonemes because they’re fluent in other Chinese dialects as well.

  12. John, you are correct, my hypothesis for explaining this phenomenon is purely theoretical. The “hands-on-experience” you refer to is the collection of data that will either support or undermine my theoretical hypothesis. I am not afraid of being wrong, I have been wrong numerous times; but I am not ready to throw in the towel just yet.

    Your point 2, I think, may have some merit. I will discuss this a little later on. Your point 1, on the other hand, I will discard. I think it is pretty a universal trait of languages that imported words will quickly conform to the phonological rules of the language the words are imported into. There is nothing strange about this, of course I am assuming that the imported word is gaining a wide base of users. To pronounce an imported word as it is pronounced in the originating language will require a special effort on the speakers part, and most individuals do not make that effort, as a matter of fact, most speakers will not even know how to make that sound. We see this in English all the time with imported French and Spanish words used daily in English.

    Your point 2, though, does carry with it a lot of value. One needs to reflect on this item. But as I reflect on this, I am wondering if it really is important whether one learns to articualte only a few sounds or many sounds that are not in one’s own native language. In other words, if one needs to learn only a few new points of articulation or many new points of articulation, it should not be the decisive criteria whether a certain class of speakers are good students or poor students.

    I think it would be fairly easy to develop a test for this, and as far as I know, perhaps there are studies already made. One would need to divide, not only by language groups, but within language groups those individuals whose language environment is monolingual and those whose environment is polylingual. That is, those individuals who on a daily basis only hear and use their own language and those on a daily basis hear and use two or more languages. A statistical analysis can then be made to see if there is a significant impact.

    What I suggest, if there is such a statistical inference that one’s language environment makes a difference on learning a foreign language, then perhaps the teaching curriculum should be modified to differentiate between these two groups. Perhaps they need to have further instruction in sound articulation and responding thereto.

    Going back to your point 1, I have seen many thesis made about the effect of kata on the ability of Japanese in this or that: but I just do not think there is much scientific basis for their ideas. If all words were in hana, I do not think there would be much a difference. But then, this is just speculation on my part.

  13. JFS,

    It’s certainly true that borrowing with modification is a universal trait of languages. What makes the case of Japanese special is the scope. I think the color example is telling. I mean, why should Japanese people import all the English names for colors into Japanese?? It’s baffling. But the phenomenon certainly doesn’t stop with colors. You really have to live in Japan to realize the extent of foreign word importation going on there.

    On point #2, I think there have been studies done, but I’m too lazy to search for them, sorry. 🙂

  14. Although I haven’t lived in Japan, I still have an opinion, and that is that borrowing wouldn’t make much different. For example, I can speak both the English and Chinese versions of Australia’s capital cities, and I can use either version in the correct language context without confusing them. As for Chinese words borrowed into English, if anything the Chinese pronunciation affects how I say them in an English context, not the other way round.

    I still support the argument that Japanese’s small phonemic toolkit makes learning foreign pronunciation a challenge. But it’s not so simple as counting the number of phonemes in English (etc) that aren’t in Japanese, the point is how many phonological features do they need to learn. Returning to a situation I know more about to give an example, English speakers learning Chinese need to learn to distinguish aspirated and unaspirated stops (instead of voiced and unvoiced), retroflex fricatives, etc. But once they have mastered one of the retroflex fricatives such as “sh”, the others (“ch” and “zh”) should come easily.

  15. John, you couldn’t prounce shi. In English, I remember I couldn’t pronounce the word “due” properly from my British teacher. Now I don’t even remember how the Brits pronounce the word, is it the same in American English I wonder?

  16. Hey John,

    Did you ever notice issues with the “Fu” in Japanese? (Sorry i dont have the hirigana fonts handy) While living there, I gradually noticed that it was more of a “hu” than a “fu”.

  17. Ben, There are no F sounds in Japanese language, Fujiyama is pronounced as hujiyama.

  18. Not quite. Before /u/, /h/ (in the Tokyo dialect, which is what I assume that John is talking about) becomes an unvoiced bilabial fricative [0¯5].

  19. American english pronounce “due” like chinese “du”, British pronounce it like “d¨¹”

  20. I have to agree with Todd and John here. If the point of one’s study is to master a spoken language so that they are understood by almost all speakers of that language, that person will have a more difficult time if the language they are learning has many more sounds than that currently available to them in their native language. This seems to be true of Japanese when compared with English and Chinese. However JFS does make a good point, but it doesn’t apply when you narrow the scope to practical spoken language which depends on a good deal of correct pronunciation.

    About Japanese importing English words, it goes a lot farther than place names and colors (as John alluded to). It has gotten to the point where old people can no longer watch a newscast and understand everything because a lot of the modern vocabulary was imported from English. I can walk into any Japanese convenience store and say ‘chenji onegaishimasu’ (‘chenji’ – change, ‘onegaishimasu’ – please) and they will understand me when the real Japanese word for ‘change’ is something totally different.

    Anyway, I don’t think the pervasiveness of loan words is a hinderence to English language learners in Japan, but it definitely could be if they are not made aware of the difference in pronunciation in their classes.

  21. Ben,

    Alai is right on the money. You can also find that information at the Japanese phonology wikipedi link (did anyone look at those??).

    The key is that the Japanese “fu” is bilabial rather than labiodental like the English [f]. In English we use our lower lip and upper teeth to make an [f] sound, whereas in Japanese the lips alone are used to produce the sound, so it’s certainly not the same.

    I found that the Japanese “fu” sound seemed to have a range of acceptable pronunciations within the native speaker community. Sometimes it sounded more like an “h”, sometimes more like an “f.” But it was always pronounced in the same manner.

  22. Regarding the ways to pronounce “due,” I guess Canton might be referring the British pronunciation that has a flavor of the Chinese “j¨¹” which Americans don’t do.

  23. John, I have lived and worked in Japan also and am familiar with the situation you describe. From an historical standpoint this is not the first time this has occurred in Japan. Beginning sometime just before the Yamato unified Japan they began importing Chinese laonwords, reaching a peak during the early Heian period. These words also included colors and numbers, etc. So today what we usually regard as Japanese words are really long ago assimulated Chinese words. Englsih did the same thing just after the Normans consolidated their hold on England and the English language finally came into being; that is, they started importing Latin words like mad till they make up nearly 70% of the vocabulary items, and these also include colors and numbers, etc. Perhaps not quite the same, but very similiar; we use dual axial rigs rather than two axial rigs, for instance.

    I am in full agreement with John, Wulong, etc. in the need to use good instructs in pronouncing foreign words, learning the points of ariculation and the method of articulation, etc. That, to me, is not the question. As Prince Roy and John had pointed out, the Japanese appear to be, on a whole, rather inept students of foreign languages. I also think the observation is legitimate (although I have met here in China several business men, not students, who have very good Chinese language skills, including pronounciation). But Japanese are not the only ones who can be stereotyped in this fashion. I recall a movie, the title I forget, but it took place during WWII. I suspect the movie was produced in the 50s or early 60s. This small group of GIs were behind German lines when the war started in earnest and they needed to make their way to the coast of France. During their progress they came in contact with a long line of French refugees. One of the GIs spoke French, and so he went up to the mass of people and asked, in French, where were they going. They all looked at him and kept on moving, not saying anything. He, frustrated, yelled out loud, what is wrong with these people, don’t they know their own language. It is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on American’s ability in foreign language skills. Perhaps not with this lates generation, but previous generations were terrible students of foreign languages. Since English has a rather large set of phonemes to work with, I am rather sceptical of using the lack of such as the cause of this phenomena among Japanese.

    I also agree with John’s oringinal comment about the real lack of phonological descriptions of Japanese sounds in textbooks. I have looked and continuously look for that and can only find a few notes, usually on the ‘fu’ sound, sometimes on the ‘tsu’ and the ‘t’s and perhaps on the ‘ng’, and that is it. And that is usually spread among several texts. Chinese is much better, John’s site is pretty good in this area, Rutgers is good, Harvard and MIT, alright. etc.

  24. Side note: You’ll definitely notice the difference if you ask a Japanese speaker to pronounce ‘shichi’ (seven). It does not even sound close to ‘sheche’ (use English pronunciation rules to pronounce that last one).

  25. I am now staying in Japan as an exchange student and I think Chinese students can pronounce Japanese pretty well. Every time I just try to pronounce Japanese ¤· as xi in Chinese pinyin, :0)

  26. Very interesting discussion here. 🙂

  27. Hello
    I have been learning Mandarin for about 18 months and while I find your discussion very interesting, I haven’t a clue about some of the terminology you guys use e.g. the difference between alveolar and retroflex.
    Could you recommend a site than explains these terms? One with particular reference to learning Mandarin would be great.
    Whilst in Japan I was astonished by the number of seemingly (?) western words in use there. My favourite was eggu.

  28. Hi,

    thanks very much for the comparison of japanese sh and chinese x. Had some trouble with the right pronunciation of the chinese x for some time.

  29. i’m a speaker of English and Mandarin ( Cantonese is my dialect), i’m currently learning japanese, personally i don’t find much difficulty in pronouncing the words, but i’ve noticed that some adults have a problem with ‘tsu’ i don’t know why though.

    i’d like to liken the learning of languages to my knowledge of madarin’s impossible to sound right using another language’s system to make a sound in the language you’re trying to learn. for example, when in a pinyin book, i see ‘shi’ it sounds very VERy different from how i would pronounce the character. as a result books fully in pinyin are quite inrecognisable to me. it’s easier to start learning IN the language, without likening any of it’s pronounciations to one that you’refamiliar with. it seriously screws up the pronounciation.

    i’m amazed by how similar japanese kanji sound in relation to chinese… especially the cantonese dialect.

  30. Hi i come from china
    i am a cantonese
    I can pronounce all languages exactly
    because i have been hearing them on TV since i was a child
    yes different area has different accent,we can’t require them speak foreign language exactly
    few people could do it like me
    just let it be,conmunicate that counts,understand the meaning is ok
    even has a bad hearing
    even in a country like china where i live in
    different accent can be hear everywhere.
    north accent sounds different with we south
    city accent sounds different with the country
    it gives a conclusion to us that different accent is a common problem in all the world,we just need not pay too much attention to it

  31. Looks like there’s a typo in your IPA transcription for the Japanese “ch”:
    CH English:[tʃ] Japanese:[cɕ] Chinese:[tʂʰ]

    Japanese:[cɕ] -> [tɕ]
    (which to my ear is the same as the Chinese “q” both in tenseness and in aspiration.)

    For the analytically-minded, some knowledge of phonetics can really help one’s pronunciation, as you have discovered.

  32. I noticed the Japanese bad pronunciation of English problem and like John I put it down to their importing of English and how they are educated in school, learning Katakana English from their teachers. Even just going to a Japanese restaurant you notice words that sound very familiar, like Cha Han…..its Chou Fan in Chinese. I always imagined that if you took a modern Japanese person and brought them back in time 150 years ago they would not be understood as Japanese as a language has changed so much.

  33. David Marjanović Says: April 5, 2015 at 9:42 am

    While you have accurately described the Pinyin x in other posts, it doesn’t have an IPA symbol. [ɕ] stands for a coronal, not dorsal, “alveolopalatal” sound made with the tip of the tongue between the positions for [s] and [ʃ]. To the best of my knowledge, [ɕ] is what the Japanese sh really is; I’ve heard Chinese people pronounce x that way, but – in my very limited experience – those were the same people who pronounce zh, ch, sh as z, c, s.

  34. Confizzled Says: April 8, 2015 at 12:12 am

    On the topic of foreign language learning and pronunciation ability (discussed by JFS, John and others) – I took a first year French class in high school (USA) where the teacher wouldn’t correct the student’s pronunciation of “Je” to the point that someone who had initially pronounced it correctly switched. (Half the class pronounced Je like “J’ai.” It was so cringy and I wanted to yell at all of them.)

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