Kanji get all the love — and all the hate. They are generally considered the most difficult part of the Japanese language and, because of this, students have what Gregg Popovich, head coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, has termed “appropriate fear”: Students fear and respect kanji and therefore prepare appropriately to deal with them.
This appropriate fear may be missing with other aspects of the language, notably with speaking. Speaking Japanese, unlike kanji, is supposed to come to you by osmosis.
Obviously this is incorrect. As with kanji, the phrase 継続は力 (Keizoku wa chikara, “Continuity is power”) applies to improving your accent and speaking ability. Applying repetition to speaking practice will help you sound more natural and bring phrases to your tongue more easily, and there are some tricks you can use to find this repetition more easily.
早口言葉 (hayakuchi kotoba, literally, “fast-mouth phrases,” i.e., tongue twisters) are an excellent way to get some heavyweight repetitions. Incorporating them into your study practice will train the muscles in your mouth to handle any set of sounds, not just the funny-sounding phrases.
As with English tongue twisters, hayakuchi kotoba consist of sentences with similar sounds set to staccato speed. One of the most famous is the nonsense phrase 生麦生米生卵 (Nama mugi nama gome nama tamago, “Raw barley, uncooked rice, raw egg”). Be careful to note that the middle word is nama gome not 生ゴミ (nama gomi, raw garbage), although you wouldn’t be the first to mix these up; even some native Japanese do this.
One that I mixed up at first was 隣の客はよく柿食う客だ (Tonari no kyaku wa yoku kaki kū kyaku da, “The customer next to me eats a lot of persimmons”). When I first heard it, I really wanted the kaki to be 牡蠣 (kaki, oysters). I mean, there’s nothing wrong with persimmons, but oysters are way more うまい (umai, delicious).
And a fun one for Tokyo-dwellers is the nonexistent bureau of government called the 東京特許許可局 (Tōkyō tokkyo kyoka kyoku, Tokyo Bureau of Patent Permission). Be careful not to trip on the 促音 (sokuon), which is the 小さいつ (chiisai tsu, small tsu) in tokkyo (とっきょ) that lengthens the pronunciation of the k-sound in kyo. You can level-up this tongue twister by adding 局長 (kyokuchō, bureau chief) to the end.
The key to hayakuchi kotoba is realizing that you aren’t going for speed alone. Your goal should be to hit every syllable clearly and cleanly along the way. By repeating them, slowly at first and then gradually speeding up, you accustom the muscles in your mouth to annunciating the different sounds. Hayakuchi kotoba are a lot like the the baseball doughnuts that players put on their bats when warming up; once you take them off, as it were, speaking normal phrases should feel like much less of a mouthful.
Echoing and shadowing are two other important techniques that you can use to improve speaking skills.
Shadowing can be tough to do out in public, as the goal is to speak over a native speaker while they say something. This becomes easier if you have recorded material such as a movie or TV show. Just listen to a section of speech and then replay it but repeat the phrases as the person says the line.
The recently popular comedian とにかく明るい安村 (Tonikaku Akarui Yasumura, That Yasumura Who’s at Least Cheerful) is a great place to start. Try echoing his catch phrase 安心してください。履いてますよ (Anshin shite kudasai. Haitemasu yo, “Don’t worry. I’m wearing [underwear]”), which he uses to reassure his audience that he is not in fact naked, although it may appear so because of the way he positions his body.
This phrase is a great way to remember the present progressive form in Japanese. Feel free to pun on this line. If you’re out drinking with friends, just let everyone know: 安心してください。飲んでますよ (Anshin shite kudasai. Nondemasu yo, “Don’t worry. I’m drinking”).
Echoing is a similar strategy, but you should be on the lookout for unfamiliar phrases or variations of phrases you already know. At my work, I occasionally field calls in Japanese, and to vary my phrasing, I listen to how coworkers do this.
For example, asking someone to call back: 二時以降おかけ直しいただけますか (Niji ikō o-kakenaoshi itadakemasu ka, “Would you be able to call back after two?”). Once I overhead this, I quickly retreated into my office and repeated the sentence a half-dozen times to seal it into my mind. Now I have this in addition to the more generic 後でかけ直して もらえませんか (Ato de kakenaoshite moraemasen ka, “Would you be able to call back later?”).
The goal with shadowing and echoing is to be able to try on different phrases — and potentially even different personas — and to determine which is the best fit for you. I’m always reminded of Faye Wong’s character in the Wong Kar Wai movie “2046.” She’s in love with a Japanese man and practices phrases on her own when she’s away from him.
She strolls around her room trying out variations on 行く (iku, to go): 行ってもいいですか (Itte mo ii desu ka, “Is it OK if I go?”), 行ってもいいですよ (Itte mo ii desu yo, “It’s fine if you go”), 行こうか (Ikō ka, “Shall we go?”), 行ってみようか (Itte miyō ka, “Shall we try to go?”).
It might seem silly, but there’s little risk of embarrassment because no one’s around. This provides the practice that hayakuchi kotoba don’t: You need to practice the sounds themselves, but you also need to try on the emotions and attitudes that come with phrases. Using all of these techniques will make sure you’re prepared to step into a role when you’re the lead actor in a little drama called 人生 (jinsei, life).