Difficult Japanese words (for me to pronounce)

It is said that Japanese pronunciation is easy for native English speakers, but I think that this can make them complacent. Whilst a lot of sounds in Japanese also exist in English, there are still lots of differences between these sounds. This means that there are still quite a few difficult words to say in Japanese.

After reading this SoraNews24 article on the hardest Japanese words to pronounce, I had a think about the Japanese words that I find difficult with. My list is as follows:

暖かい あたたかい/ atatakai = warm 

笑われた わらわれた/ warawareta = was laughed at 

現れる あらわれる/ arawareru = to appear 

恋愛   れんあい/ ren’ai = love, romance 

範囲 はんい/ han’i = extent, scope 

全員 ぜんいん/ zen’in = all members 

婚約 こんにゃく/ kon’nyaku = engagement 

雰囲気 ふんいき/ fun’iki = mood, ambience 

遠慮 えんりょ/ en’ryo = hestitation, restraint

旅行 りょこう/ ryokou = travel 

料理 りょうり/ ryouri = cooking, cuisine 

This was actually a useful exercise for me, because it got me thinking about the types of sounds I need to keep working on to improve my pronunciation.

I then came across the following video by JapanesePod101 which brought up a lot of similar sounding words to my list.

I’m assuming a lot of these words are trickier for those that only speak English. However, I think 暖かい -> 暖かくなかった would be on most people’s lists – I can never remember if I have said enough た’s!

That word aside, I can pretty much characterise my difficult Japanese words into about three rough categories:

Words which mix w- and r- sounds:

  • 笑われた わらわれた was laughed at
  • 現れる あらわれる to appear

As a child, I always used to struggle with differentiating w- and r- sounds in English; for instance, I remember pronouncing “rainbow” as “wainbow” by accident quite a lot! This is quite common with young children and you usually grow out of it.

For some reason when it comes to Japanese I get tongue tied when I have to quickly switch between w- and r- sounds!

Words that have ‘n’ as a consonant in the middle

  • 恋愛 れんあい love
  • 範囲 はんい extent, scope
  • 全員 ぜんいん all members
  • 婚約 こんやく engagement
  • 雰囲気 ふんいき mood, ambience

‘N’ often sounds like its English counterpart, but depending on its position within words it can sound more like a ‘m’ or a ‘ng’.

This difference in sound reflects how the Japanese ‘n’ is more nasalised following certain sounds.

In addition, the other thing that I find difficult is not blending the sounds together when ‘n’ is followed by a vowel. For example, ‘renai’ should be pronounced so that the sounds ‘ren’ and ‘ai’ are separate – unfortunately it often comes out as ‘ren nai’ or ‘re nai’.

Words which have lots of r sounds, especially include ‘rya’/ ‘ryu’/ ‘ryo’

  • 旅行 りょこう travel
  • 料理 りょうり cooking

My pronunciation of the Japanese R has improved with some practice, but I struggle a lot with the ’rya’ and ‘ryo’ sounds in particular.

Words with ‘n’ followed by ‘r’

  • 遠慮 えんりょ reserve, constraint

Further examples – 心理 しんり/ state of mind, 管理 かんり/ management, control

The word 遠慮 combines two of my biggest pronunciation difficulties! Fortunately, Dogen explains how to pronounce this particular sound combination in this clip from his excellent pronunciation course.

Tips for tackling difficult Japanese words

As this is very much a work in progress for me, I am still looking at various methods to improve my pronunciation. There are a couple of things that I think are helping so far.

Train your ears and your mouth

Firstly, I’ve been reading about how I should be making the sounds in terms of mouth shape and tongue movement. When I listen to spoken Japanese now, I pay more attention to how the sounds are made, especially for difficult Japanese words.

I think that this ear training is an important first step in making your pronunciation more accurate. Dogen’s course mentioned above covers this in a lot of detail and is helping me a lot. I’ve also been dedicating some time to shadowing, which I am intending to write about in another post. I’ve been using Japanese tongue twisters as a warm up exercise!

Record myself and listen back to it

One thing I might do more often is to record myself speaking – as embarassing as it feels to do this, it is much easier to pick up on your own mistakes this way.

I’ve been learning Japanese for a relatively long time and so these bad pronunciation habits are probably ingrained into how I speak. For this reason, I am not expecting quick results and intend to focus on developing a regular pronunciation practice routine in order to improve how I sound in Japanese.

Remember, just because you find certain words difficult now doesn’t mean that you will never be able to pronounce them more accurately!


I imagine that a lot of these words will be much easier for speakers of other languages. I often hear that Japanese pronunciation is easy for Spanish speakers.

Which words do you find difficult to pronounce? Do you think the languages you already speak help you with Japanese pronunciation? Let me know in the comments!

8 thoughts on “Difficult Japanese words (for me to pronounce)”

  1. choronghi.WORDPRESS.COM

    I don’t know about Spanish being an advantage. Both languages have a lot of vowels but the way you move your mouth/position your jaw etc to pronounce are still completely different as far as I can tell. I know how people move their mouths/jaws etc to speak korean, Japanese, English and the areas are all different. I’m currently learning Spanish and so far I can only talk with an American accent. The japansss didn’t help that much. Spanish is its own, unique language so I gotta spend time with it to find out exactly how I’m supposed to move my mouth to make my sounds. I made the same assumption you did before I knew Japanese.

    As for Japanese I sometimes stumble with pronouncing ら行 like おっしゃられる or 仰られても

    1. Thanks for your insight, that’s really interesting.

      Lots of ら行 sounds together seems to be a common one!

  2. Great list of difficult words! When I first saw the title of your post I was guessing that my list of difficult words would be the same as yours, but there was much in common. Generally I have trouble with the られる and words like 恋愛. Oddly, I have no problem with 婚約, and I’m generally OK with words like 旅行. I agree 遠慮 is a hard one!

    管理 was a word I had trouble with but with a lot of practice I was able to learn to pronounced it better. I use a “L” sound at the end and it helps. I’ve also improved my られる pronunciation with much practice (I managed to ‘loosen’ up my tongue there as well).

    While 暖かい is a little tricky, I usually pronounce it like あったかい since I’ve heard native speakers use that.

    I thought about it awhile and I finally came up with one difficulty that I have and you didn’t list, though it isn’t technically a word: かきくけこ. Do you have trouble with this?

    1. Thanks for the tip on 管理!

      I’ve noticed that られる seem to come much more naturally when I’m singing a Japanese song at karaoke, I guess it’s to do with all that singing loosening up the tongue.

      か行 can sometimes be tricky for me, especially where there are lots of similar sounds together

  3. I find difficulties in pronouncing pretty much all adjectives declined to the -なかった form 😅 I also have the weird tendency of adding a ‘か’ add the end of a sentence even when I don’t intend to make a question. Thanks for your insights on the topic, recording myself while speaking it’s a habit I started during my first months of studying Chinese and then stupidly interrupted, I should definitely go back to it!

    1. Hi Julia, I know what you mean. It feels like Japanese adjectives get too long when in the なかった form sometimes.

      I’m glad that recording yourself has helped you, I’ll try to stick to it (I don’t think I’ll ever get over the embarrassment of listening to myself though)

  4. When I first started learning Japanese I had a lot of trouble pronouncing りょうり. It’s words that have “r” sounds after each other that trip me up. They sounds like tongue twisters!

    1. Hi Jillian, thanks for commenting. I’m glad I’m not the only one – even now, I always have to say it more slowly just to make sure I say it correctly!

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