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

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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