How To Speak (Fake) Japanese

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.

  • DAVIDPD

    Yes. It works. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9JhuOicPFZY (Still not sure if hot chili oil is “layu” or “rayu”)

  • BradG
  • Phant

    I think it’s a lot easier to imitate japanese, because if you know the sounds, you can easily create words with that sounds. Even though it’s gibberish you’re actually using words :D

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1550596562 Alexa VanDemark

    I think it kind of goes along with the “learn the rules before you break them” idea. But making fun of language (especially your own) is so much fun.

  • Sage

    Not trying to criticise your article, Hashi-san, but your article seemed to be written with a specific audience in mind. I HIGHLY doubt that ” 99% of the time when somebody else tries to imitate another language, it’s done in a really mocking and borderline racist way”. This is a very strong statement and very biased. Are children learninf foreign languages also racist and mocking? Please, Hashi, you know better than that. Mocking and racist are not correlated in any way. Just because you saw a bunch of idiots here and there it does not mean you need to write an angry article about it. Besides, would you really say that Japanese people imitating English sounds are racist and mocking, or is this article only targeted to dumb, ignorant Westerners(some of whom you seem to have already met)?

    Your article is really sharp, and angry (along with some made-up numbers). I came here expecting the typical Tofugu laid-back style and instead I found some angry Tofugu intern spitting angry at every typed word. Koichi is going to scold you for this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/LukeHero Luke Hero

    Babadaboopie?! Babadaboopie!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=511987068 Eggers Christopher

    Thanks, I was worried about my upcoming Japanese final. Not anymore.

  • Mr Ando of the Woods

    I dunno, imitating a language even if it is mockingly isn’t inherently a racist thing in my opinion because it might actually have some base. It might be mean but I think people might have gotten a little caught up in calling the r word.

  • achiachi

    This article seems to be pseudo-linguistic nonsense, backed up by data that I sincerely doubt has been researched thoroughly. You truly believe the /r/ sound to be the only problem speakers would have in acquiring the sounds of Japanese? It would sincerely help if you included exactly who you were talking about. People who speak English have different problems in acquiring the sounds of Japanese than people who speak Spanish for example.

    Assuming you were arguing that English speakers have this trouble I would argue that there are two sounds that are just as, or even more difficult. [ɸu] (ふ/fu) and [ɯᵝ] (う/u). English speakers can so easily just substitute in the ‘oo’ sound that actually is found in their language, and go along their merry way. This is not a huge problem, mind you, as managing the sounds (phonemic inventory) of a language is just one more small step on the road to fluency. But do not shrug off the other sounds of Japanese so quickly, there are more problematic ones than are apparent. Why do you think most universities with large Japanese departments offer classes in Japanese phonetics and phonology?

  • Rutger

    Made me think about this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vc8tfioOKvU

  • NineCoconuts

    Good effort, but not one of Tofugu’s better articles. :-(

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1438943897 Stephen Knight

    One of my favorite “fake language” performances was (quite a ways back) by Tamori (he’ll still roll it out from time to time if pressed), where he imitates a mahjong game between a Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and American. He captures the ambiance of each language so perfectly that it’s only after one go-round that you realize only the Japanese is “real.” Of course, it’s only really funny the first time you hear it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1438943897 Stephen Knight

    You’d be amazed just how much bad “fake” Japanese makes it into American movies, even today–when everyone should know better. Even worse are the fake Japanese speaking fake Japanese-inflected English… embarassing to watch.

  • bobo

    oh JTFC. I hope you aren’t serious.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001535919021 Heather Stewart

    this was actually painful to watch

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001535919021 Heather Stewart

    I always though that Japanese sounded kinda like cats talking. My cats are always like “じあああ?” I’m also pretty sure I once heard one say 食べちゃた!

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    If nobody else in the room speaks the language either, you can just do this sort of thing:
    わたしのどうぞよろしくとってもげんきおねがいします。ありがとう。たいへんですか?でしょう?おひさしぶりがひこうきで、だいすきでした。
    El anaranjado muy de la escuela gracias en el ciudad, para los hermanos grande, esta fuego por la cabeza en otro pais manyana.
    Run for the advice of person, if the sandwich of the green left field is happy, for make we are under it always of the everything.

    In other words, just string random words together. You don’t have to say anything coherent if nobody present would understand it anyway. So you only need about a two dozen word vocabulary plus a good general sense of what phonetic combinations are plausible, and away you go. It takes less than a day to learn enough about a language to do this.

    However, the minute you run into anybody who’s had even a couple of semesters of the language, they will quickly see through this.

  • Anonymous

    I’d say one thing you missed is emphasis. I don’t know how to say it, but something like this: http://www.hulu.com/watch/307140

    Does anybody have a clue what I’m getting at, or am I just flailing about?

  • ZXNova

    Or be a man and use kawaii moe uguu desu! *shot*
    冗談、冗談。

  • henderson101

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9WO3oXSbGNk is pretty amazing.

    I have an issue with Koichi’s R tutorial. I’m a British English native speaker and there is minimal difference in the position I place my tongue in to say an L and a D.. We’re talking millimetres not centimetres. Quarter on an inch would be, what, 10mm/1cm? The more I think about it, the more I overengineer it in my execution, the harder it becomes to be absolutely sure, but I can honestly say that depending on how fast I speak, my tongue tends to hit the same spot for T, D and L – the spot slightly varies, but the T/D is never as far forward as he implies.

  • Mescale

    Don’t froob the nastation cho!

  • futuramafreak

    The German “ß” sound does exist in English, as it can be replaced by “ss” (and often is in the newest government-sponsored German). It would have been better to say “ö” or “ü” because those sounds don’t exist in English and are very hard for non-native speakers to pronounce.

  • Emi

    Haha, that episode of Family Guy is what popped into my head when I read “a bunch of Italians singing a gibberish”.

  • Y.

    I’ve lived in several foreign countries, and ended up working in a very rural town in Southern Thailand, where no one around me spoke English during mornings, afternoons, and the early part of the evening.

    I was able to pick up a lot of Thai during that period, but it was all through mimicking what I heard and witnessing when words were used. I still remembering stories behind most the words I learnt.

    I remember when I was in the kitchen one day, a girl came over and I tried telling her there were no eggs. I knew the word for “no” and the word for “eggs”. When I told her, she nodded and said, “No /have/ eggs.” It’s incredible how quickly you can learn and understand the meaning of words like that… Body language also gets incredible far.