For some reason, imitating other languages really intrigues me. There’s just something about being able to mimic a language you don’t actually know while still getting enough right to make other people understand what they’re going for that’s incredibly cool to me.
Whether it’s a bunch of Italians singing a gibberish song meant to sound like English, or native English speakers imitating their own language, it’s fascinating for me to hear how other people hear my native language.
Of course, I’d say that 99% of the time when somebody else tries to imitate another language, it’s done in a really mocking and borderline racist way. You see almost anybody imitating an Asian language and they usually say something like “ching chang chong,” mix their Ls and Rs, and/or liberally quote that kid from 16 Candles.
When language imitation is done wrong, it’s reminiscent of when you were a kid and your brother or sister imitated the way you talked. For me, at least, most of the time that ended in tears.
Given all of that though, I’ve been wondering recently what it would take to speak Japanese without actually speaking Japanese, and how to do it in a way that wasn’t as racist as that one uncle in your family (you know the one). Here’s what I’ve come up with:
Understand the Sounds
Most people don’t understand that the number of sounds in the Japanese language is quite limited compared to English and other languages. So when people imitate Japanese, sometimes they use sounds that don’t even exist in the language. It’s like trying to imitate English and using the German “ß.”
Fortunately for the most part, the different sounds in Japanese are pretty easy to pick up. Usually the only difficulty people have is with the Japanese “R” sound. A few years back, Koichi did a whole video about how to pronounce the Japanese “R”:
And of course, for the rest of the sounds, you can pick those up pretty quickly and easily by learning hiragana (which you can do using our free ebook, cough cough). Once you have those basic Japanese sounds down, you’ll have the basic framework to sound like you at least know Japanese
Understand the Body Language
You always hear people using some statistic about how 40% or 60% or some made-up percentage of all communication is non-verbal. While I can’t vouch for the dodgy math, I definitely agree that non-verbal communication is extremely important.
A lot of Japanese non-verbal communication is pretty unique to Japanese culture. Of course there’s the obvious bowing and nodding to various degrees in various situations, but it goes beyond that. Eye contact, different gestures (remember that scene in Inglourious Basterds?), all are part of how the Japanese communicate non-verbally. For more, check out our guide to Japanese body language.
Once you have the gestures and sounds, you’re basically there, right? Maybe not.
Is It a Good Idea?
The more I thought about what goes into pulling off a convincing impression of the Japanese language the more I became convinced that you basically already need to know Japanese to do it.
One of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen was a guy in one of my Japanese classes in college doing a dead on impression of a WWII-era Japanese speech. This guy, a Japanese Studies major who’s lived in Japan for several years, knew enough about Japanese language and history to poke fun at it in a really convincing, if not incredibly niche, way.
I don’t think I’d ever try to imitate a language I knew absolutely nothing about, because I know that it wouldn’t be very funny, and I’d probably be making a fool of myself.
Plus, there’s the issue of racism that we talked about earlier. I don’t want to turn into the grand wizard of the KKK for a few seconds just to try and parrot a language I don’t understand.
My advice is to work on your real Japanese before your fake Japanese. Don’t try to imitate something you don’t yet fully understand.