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かん vs けん, だん vs でん for example. Sometimes, they sound the same to my ears. How to differentiate them? Or are they pronounced the same?

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    That's interesting. May I know what your first language is?
    – aguijonazo
    Nov 4, 2021 at 14:52
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    I am Myanmar. Myanmar. Nov 4, 2021 at 14:53
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    You have no difficulty distinguishing あ and え when they are not followed by ん?
    – aguijonazo
    Nov 4, 2021 at 15:05
  • Yes, I can pronounce some combinations pretty easily. But if I have to say fast or the word is something like さんぜん. It is really difficult to pronounce. Nov 4, 2021 at 15:07

2 Answers 2

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So you are one of those people who pick three one-yen coins from their wallet when asked to pay one thousand.

It is hard to tell how to differentiate two sounds to someone who can’t differentiate them, not least in writing. One thing I can tell for sure is that under practically no circumstances are あん /aN/ and えん /eN/ pronounced the same. As a general rule, Japanese vowels retain their qualities regardless of their position in a word, whether they are long or short, or what other sound comes before or after them.

From the description in your comment it seems that the difficulty arises for you when /aN/ or /eN/ is pronounced like one nasalized vowel, rather than a two-mora sequence. Then, it could be because you are not used to the /e/ sound getting nasalized. I learned from the Wikipedia entry on Burmese phonology that the /e/ sound occurs only in open syllables in your language and also that nasalization happens when a syllable ends with a nasal final, such as /m/, /n/, and /ŋ/, which by definition never happens in an open syllable. Since /e/ does exist as a distinct sound from /a/, you might want to begin by trying to produce a nasalized /e/ yourself and see how it sounds differently from a nasalized /a/.

I don’t think I can’t give any better advice than this.

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Agree with @aguijonazo that you need to slowly train your ears on how to differentiate them.

One way recommended in the book Fluent forever which I find extremely useful myself is doing minimal pairs training:

  • Minimal pairs are pairs of words that are similar in every way except for the element that you're trying to differentiate. For example, けん and かん, せん and さん, たか and たけ, etc.
  • When doing a minimal pairs training, you basically listen to a word without reading it then try to guess correctly which character was used. For example listen to this sound then try to guess whether it is けん or かん. Doing this many times and your ear will be slowly trained to pick up the differences.
  • You can do this using a deck of cards on a software like Anki.

There might not be an Anki deck available to help differentiating and since I think it's quite uncommon for people to confuse them. However since and are basically the IPA /a/ and /e/, you can look for Anki decks with the minimal pairs /a/ and /e/ (it will be close, but not quite the same since vowels in each language tend to sound a bit different).

You can also create your own Anki deck:

  • Come up with your own list of minimal pair words.
  • Search for their pronunciation on forvo and save the audio files.
  • Create the Anki cards based on that. You can refer to this Anki deck for an example on minimal pairs training in Japanese.

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