In the previous pronunciation lesson, we covered the plosive consonants such as <k>, <t>, <p> and their voiced counterparts <g>, <d> and <b>. In this lesson, we will be covering the exception sound し(shi) and its derivative sounds しゃ、しゅ、and しょ.
At first glance, し (shi) seems like a pretty easy sound to make. After all, in English we have a very similar sound that we also spell with the digraph sh, and use in words like she or ship. However, the English sh is slightly different from the Japanese sh. Of course, you will still be understood pronouncing し like you would in English. However, if you truly want to sound like a native, understanding the subtle difference between the two is an essential skill to acquire.
So what is the difference? The super technical answer is that the English sh is a voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant, written in IPA as ⟨ʃ⟩, while the Japanese sh is a voiceless alveolo-palatal sibilant, written in IPA as ⟨ɕ⟩. Both sounds have a very similar manner of articulation, however the Japanese ⟨ɕ⟩ is much more palatalized than the English ⟨ʃ⟩, which means that your tongue moves up towards the hard palate during pronunciation.
The practical effect of this (which is what you are probably most interested in), is that while the English ⟨ʃ⟩ sounds very forceful and aspirated, the Japanese ⟨ɕ⟩ is much softer, sounding somewhere between a regular ⟨s⟩ and a ⟨ʃ⟩. Additionally, due to the palatalization, ⟨ɕ⟩ sounds like it is immediately followed by a very soft ⟨j⟩, the sound the English letter y makes in words such as you.
If you happen to speak Mandarin Chinese, then you’re in luck. The pinyin initial x, used in words such as xie xie (thank you) is also an example of the phoneme ⟨ɕ⟩ and is pronounced identically to its Japanese counterpart (except for the obvious lack of tone in Japanese).
So let’s take a listen at the different sh sounds in English, Mandarin and Japanese.
Notice how forceful and aspirated the pronunciation is. You can really hear the h.
Next up, Japanese:
Notice how it is much more subdued. It’s also much closer to a regular <s> than the English version.
Lastly, we have Mandarin:
As you can hear, the Mandarin pronunciation is very similar to the Japanese pronunciation. The use of tone in the Mandarin word masks some of the similarity but it is still easy to hear that just like the Japanese version, the Mandarin pronunciation is much “softer” than the English one.
If you are still having trouble hearing the difference between English and Japanese, don’t worry. As mentioned earlier, the difference is subtle and will not affect other people’s ability to understand you. However, if you keep listening and practice consistently, you too will become able to hear (and produce) the difference, bringing you one step closer to sounding like a true native.