There are about a hundred syllables in Japanese, give or take.
I looked up today how many syllables there are in English, and the answer, apparently, is 15,381.
I think this gets to one of the roots of why Japanese is a difficult language to master for English speakers, and English is a difficult language to master for Japanese speakers. Japanese syllables are always pronounced the same way. It’s true that they might run together and thus make slightly different sounds in practice, like あい sounding a little like the English “I”, but there’s very little variation in the sounds of Japanese syllables, even when recited at high speed and no matter what the syllables are connected to.
In English, though, the syllables can change their pronunciation based upon the surrounding syllables.
So, let’s say, you have the Japanese syllable に, or “ni”. In English, we can pronounce that quite a few different ways. It can be pronounced as in “night”, or “nitwit”, or “Nimoy”. So, it’s tempting to say “Nihon” as in “nitwit” rather than “Nimoy”, but only one of those is correct, even if in English, the first one is far easier for us to say.
So Japanese pronunciation is actually rather difficult for us English speakers, because we have this tendency to mispronounce the syllables based upon English rules. The variances are subtle, but very real.
Couple that with the English system of emphasis stressing rather than pitch stressing, and it’s really, really easy to unintentionally mispronounce Japanese words.
For example, in the word “kawaii”, I find myself wanting to pronounce it like “Hawaii”, you know, the state. But if I sound it out, that’s not really the correct pronunciation. It’s more like “ka-wa-ii”, where each syllable is distinct and pronounced exactly as it would be if the syllables were on their own. It’s complicated because when you run it together it really does kind of sound like “Hawaii” – it’s a very subtle distinction. But it’s an important one.
But I really thing the greatest challenge in this aspect is the fact that with so few syllables it’s really easy to let your guard down. “Self”, you might say to yourself, “This isn’t so hard! Just say it as written!” And you’re right, but then you say it as written according to English syllabic rules, and screw it all up.
I imagine for Japanese, the challenge is very difficult as well, going in the opposite direction. They’re trained that every syllable and vowel is pronounced exactly the same way, and they’re faced with fifteen thousand syllables, all with different rules and put together slightly differently, using sounds they may not even know existed. It seems a real challenge even for Japanese to stop using unneeded vowels at the end of words. Some Japanese even seem to think it’s not worth the trouble. I think it’s not worth the trouble, indeed, to get a perfect American or British accent. That may be beyond their reach and not worth the time. But just as we need to learn the rules of Japanese pronunciation as a matter of respect, I don’t think it’s asking too much to expect the same from them eventually.
The word “eventually” is important, btw. I’m not suggesting that Japanese students just out of high school should have English pronunciation that excellent. As they generally feel about us, I’m just happy they’re trying. But if we’re to communicate well, we both need to make that little bit more effort eventually.
Let’s all “try our best”.