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I have recently become aware of the difference between the English and Japanese "sh" sounds, which I understand are formalized as the palato-alveolar fricative [ʃ] and the voiceless alveolo-palatal fricative [ɕ]. I am trying to correct my pronunciation from [ʃ] to [ɕ], but I can't seem to nail the right sound. I discussed it with some Japanese friends and they suggested that I pronounce it without opening my mouth as much (口の空間を狭くして) so that's what I have been attempting, but it seems like that has somehow resulted in し often being misheard as ひ (資料as肥料、代償as代表) and the like. I did some research online and it seemed to reinforce what I was doing; I read somewhere that the Japanese し is pronounced with a "flatter tongue," that is, the flat part of the tongue behind the tip contacts the alveolar ridge. But the flatter I make my tongue, the less sharp the "sh" sound becomes, and altogether it sounds even more ひ-like.

Any thoughts, tips, or materials out there that could help me out? If I move my tongue very close to the front of my mouth as I pronounce it I can produce a much sharper "sh" sound, but is this correct? I feel like I"m using the tip of my tongue more than the blade in this case but maybe I'm wrong? Any advice you could provide me with would be incredibly helpful!

  • Japanese "sh" is basically a voiceless "i". Try alternate between i and sh making iiiiiiiiiiiiiishhhiiishhhiiishhh sound without moving your tongue. – Yang Muye Jun 1 '15 at 13:56
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    @Yang Muye, I see where you're coming from in terms of positioning of tongue, but ɕ and i are quite distinct (for starters, one's a vowel, and the other's a consonant). Depending on how the asker pronounces i (whether correct or not), this could lead to quite different results based on the shape and location of the tongue – sqrtbottle Jun 1 '15 at 14:06
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    I think a much bigger difference between the English and Japanese sounds is that English /ʃ/ is labialised and Japanese /ɕ/ is not. See footnote 6 of the table here. – Zhen Lin Jun 2 '15 at 7:23
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Shape of the tongue aside, what's important is that you're placing the tip of your tongue against your lower teeth. Try placing the tip of your tongue right where your lower teeth go into your gums. Thinking about the shape of the tongue in the mouth makes little difference; it's more about where the tip is in your mouth (as with all consonants).

Position of tongue in ⟨ɕ⟩

Here's a picture. Don't focus on what the tongue looks like in the mouth (it's just a blob, as tongues are, and won't help). Look at where it meets the teeth. Try make a fricative there yourself, and compare yourself with native pronunciation until you think the two match.

If you don't get it within minutes of practicing, that's generally not a huge issue, as hearing the lanuage more will make the sounds easier to mimic, but I think consonants are easy enough to figure out just by thinking about it (vowels are usually how people sound the most "foreign" in a language, because there's a lot more variation).

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  • Learning totally new sounds takes a lot of practice, generally. I can't promise my advice helps, but just try experimenting with sounds every chance you get (like how babies babble to get the feeling of sounds in a language). When you're alone, just shift your tongue around and try make various sounds, not limited just to ɕ, or even to sounds in Japanese, and it'll help you replicate the sounds other people make in any language. It's a big help (but risks looking weird if you're around other people) – sqrtbottle Jun 1 '15 at 14:09
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This method may or may not work, and will probably work better if one be a native speaker of some form of British English, but try saying “syi” as in the onset of “suit”, when it be pronounced as “syoot” instead.

The British English realization of “sy”, as distinct from “sh” is actually fairly close, and also shares the same underlying phonemic sequence with the Japanese sound. Remember that “sh” is not considered a single sound in Japanese, it is rather analysed as a sequence of two sounds that simply assimilate into each other in pronunciation.

Speakers of dialects of English that lack “sy” and pronounce “suit” identical to “soot” might find it difficult to pronounce “sy”, however — one's mileage may vary.

P.S.: I did a spectogram of British English: “soot”, “suit” and “shoot” as well as a Japanese “しゅ”:

enter image description here

The part with the dark bands at the bottom is where the vowel starts, before that is the sibilant-like sound in each language where the dark band is at the top. As you can see; in English “s” the dark band is at the top, and in English “sh”, it is in the middle, whereas in the Japanese sound, it is in between both, as well as in the English “sy” in “suit”.

One thing of interest is that English “s” and “sh” are constant, whereas in English “sy”, the dark band moves noticeably. In the Japanese sound the band also moves, but to a lesser degree, indicative of that in both languages these are actually two sounds, not one, that to some extent transition into each other.

In English “syoo” however, the vowel seems to have elements of a diphthong, as one can see a dark band flowing down, and transitions from something more “i” like to something more “u” like. This is præsent in the Japanese to a far lesser extend and can probably be omitted, but the Japanese vowel in “しゅ” does still seem to slow some slight progression from a i-like vowel to a u-like vowel. Whereas in English “soot” and “shoot”, the u-like vowel after it is nigh completely constant.

I also cut out the sounds used for comparison by ear, in the same order:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1aILXJ-oWIYFB6wvb5agIrGKmuX_jniwe/view

I also now did a spectogram of one speaker's rendition of the “し” in “知らない”, to satisfy my own curiosity more than anything:

enter image description here

This also seems to indicate a mild transition during the fricative, indicating that the tongue position isn't constant, but to a far lesser extend than in “しゅ” and certainly the English sample of “suit”. There are also more dark bands in the middle at the end than at the start here.

So lessons to be learned from this:

  • the Japanese “し” and “しゅ” sound seems to be somewhat in between the English “s” and “sh” sounds, probably closest to “sy”, but a bit more in the “sh” direction than “sy” normally is in English.

  • The English “syoo” sound shows a far more prominent set of transitions than the Japanese “しゅ” sound, which shows more than the Japanese “し” sound, but both still show transition whereas English “soo” and “shoo” are constant.

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