Mistake #1 - The Gaijin "A"
あ / ア / a
↑ In this course, when you see images like this, it's safe to assume that the one on the top is the character in hiragana, and the one on the bottom is the character in katakana.
|ああ||ああ||aa||yeah; oh; ah|
This is the worst pronunciation mistake, by far, that I hear gaijin (=foreigners) making. Well, other than intonation, of course. But we'll get to that later.
When people first learn how to pronounce Japanese, someone tells them, Oh, あ (a) is like the “a” sound in “father.” But there’s a huge problem with this explanation: The pronunciation of the English language is varied, messed up, and geographically inconsistent.
For example, I have a friend from Manchester, and the “a” in his pronunciation of “father” is closer to the “a” in my (Californian) pronunciation of “fat.” (If you're from Manchester, and you think that sounds way off, don't hate me. Instead, hate my friend who is misrepresenting your hood.)
Let’s take a look at a scary chart:
This chart is taken from this page on Wikipedia, and it’s showing the various vowel sounds that humans make. If you go to that page, then you can click on the various vowel sounds in order to hear them.
The one with the yellow box over it, [ä] is much like the Japanese “a” sound. It sounds like this:
Looking at that chart again, you’ll notice that there are like five different “a” sounds, so it might be a bit overwhelming. This breakdown might help a bit:
Looking at that (highly confusing) breakdown, you’ll notice that the Japanese “a” sound has equivalents in American and Australian English (or so Wikipedia tells me), but apparently it doesn’t have any exact matches in Received Pronunciation (i.e. “English English”). I’m guessing this is why I usually hear this pronunciation mistake being made by British students of Japanese.
Another way to make this sound is to make the "u" sound in "gun," but open your mouth opening much taller than it normally would be. If you're American, you'll notice that the word starts to sound like "gone," even though you are making a different mouth shape than with "gone." You're making the Japanese "a" sound!
If all of these technical explanations are stressing you out, just remember this: Make a point of listening for the pronunciation of the Japanese “a” as you interact with native speakers throughout your studies. Try to replicate the sounds they make, and your pronunciation should improve considerably. You can also try cool things like shadowing, singing along to Japanese music, YouTube videos and pronunciation lessons.
Also, it might make you feel a little better to know that Japanese students of English have problems with all of those sounds surrounding their lonely, singular pronunciation of “a.” In particular, the “u” in “hut” is a huge problem for them.