Funny Face English Pronunciation

Aaron Matthew Ozment, The International University of Kagoshima Graduate School

Large classes, microphones, background noises, lowered faces, covered mouths, and shyness can hinder teachers from effectively providing pronunciation feedback to students. Moreover, due to COVID-19 preventative measures such as wearing masks, social distancing, opening doors and windows, and plastic sheet dividers, language instructors now even have more obstacles for teaching the sounds of English in listening and speaking classes. Twenty-five Assistant Language Teachers in Kagoshima Prefecture complained that it was difficult to teach pronunciation when using a cloth mask because the shape of the mouth and movement of the tongue could not be seen. In response, the City Board of Education outfitted the ALTs with large clear plastic face shields. Kate Jordan, an ALT from Britain, reported (Minami Nippon, 2020, July 5) that although she could demonstrate pronouncing “V” and “R” for the children to imitate, she nonetheless had to listen very closely to the imitations made by the children who were wearing white masks. Happier with the “more airy and comfortable” shield, she said she must however wear plain clothes to teach at Mt. Mineyama Elementary School because patterned clothes reflected on the shield. This issue’s Teaching Assistance column shares advice from a graduate student on how video chatting, remote learning, and Zoom technology can be harnessed to enhance the teaching of English pronunciation for Japanese students. Aaron Ozment majored in music at Michigan State University and recently began studying poetry in the field of English Education. He coined the name Hengao Hatsuon for his demonstrative lesson, which relies on visual cues to develop target sounds. He claims that with a mirror at home or a camera for synchronous remote teaching, his lesson is ideal for assisting students to check their pronunciation in real time.

Based on my belief that pronunciation is the key to confidence, and that confidence is key to language acquisition, I developed a technique to teach sounds. I tell my language school students it’s called Hengao Hatsuon, or, Funny-face English Pronunciation. Standard American English (SAE) is a hazy concept, varying in definition. The Language Samples Project conducted by researchers at The University of Arizona claimed that there were 36 sounds in SAE (Finegan, 2011). Choudary and Sanam (2012) also counted 36 pure phonemes, but this rose to 44 when diphthongs were included. For the purposes of this essay, SAE contains the 36 sounds listed by The University of Arizona, but both of the mid central lax vowels are treated as functionally interchangeable. SAE contains approximately 12 sounds that standard Japanese does not possess. Ohata (2004) identified seven vowel and eight consonant sounds present in SAE, but not in Japanese. Discrepancies in the counting of phonemes may be attributed to different preferences for phonological and phonetic sources.

The front lax vowel sounds (those in the words bit, bet, and bat) are absent, the schwa sound is absent, and the high and mid back lax sounds are absent (put, bought). Regarding consonants, Japanese lacks the English /f/ and /v/, both forms of th (θ and ð ); /l/, and /r/. These twelve sounds represent the overwhelming majority of mistakes that Japanese speakers of English make. Mispronunciation can lead to communication breakdowns, for example when saying these words: collect – correct; van – fan – ban: rice – lice, and so on.

While Japanese sources do not list /ŋ / as a distinct phoneme, the majority of Japanese speakers do not seem to have trouble with it. Further research into this anomaly is needed. The challenge in teaching these sounds to Japanese speakers is that aural differentiation between sounds absent in one’s own native language is difficult. Even more difficult than this, is teaching students to differentiate between sounds which are distinct in English but which are allophones in Japanese. Lax vowels tend to be perceived as the allophones of the tense vowel in the same placement; /f/ and /v/ become allophones of /p/ and /b/, the th sounds (/θ/ and /ð/ ) become /s/ and /z/, and /l/ and /r/ are in free variation with the native Japanese alveolar flap sound.

To that end, I have created different imitable funny faces that allow language learners to differentiate the sound visually (by means of a mirror) while they work on the ability to differentiate aurally or by feel.

The labiodental sounds (/f/, /v/) are grouped together as bunny sounds. Students are encouraged to put their hands under their chins, put their teeth on their lips, and to imitate a rabbit, hamster, or another cute rodent with protruding teeth (Figure 1). If differentiation between voiced and voiceless is difficult, V can be described as “the motorcycle sound”, with associated engine revving motions.

The interdental sounds (/θ/, /ð/) are grouped together as rude sounds. Students are asked to stick their tongues out as far as they can, then close their mouths, then blow the air (Figure 2). For added impact, students may also pull down one eye for appropriate added rudeness.English has many more vowel sounds than Japanese, therefore the front high and middle lax vowels tend to be easy for speakers of Japanese, and so I have never had the need to develop a methodology for teaching them. Further research into the phonological means by which Japanese learners of English can easily determine the use of lax sounds absent in their own language would be useful and fascinating.

The low lax vowel (as in bat) is difficult for students. This has become the vomit sound. Students open their mouths grotesquely, stick out their tongues, and make vomiting noises. This low, front, lax placement results in a perfect sound, and differentiates it from the Japanese aah sound. The high back lax vowel (as in put) is the getting punched sound. The exaggerated sound of pain current in Super Sentai, pro-wrestling, and other forms of entertainment, generally take the form of this vowel. Mock fights can be used, and the recipient, when encouraged to make appropriate sound effect, generally does so. The mid back lax vowel (as in bought) is the cute vowel. The onomatopoeia for appreciating cuteness (awwww) in English seems to carry over well enough into Japanese that once differentiated, students can remember.

Careful notice should be given to the notorious troubles that students have with /l/ and /r/. Cook (2016) notes that the most difficult sounds for L2 learners are not sounds completely lacking in their own language. The most difficult sounds to learn are those that exist as allophones within the students’ first language. As opposed to the other consonant sounds which may be taught as entirely new concepts, additional attention must be given to /l/ and /r/ in order to differentiate them while teaching.

L is the “shita no shita” bottom-of-the-tongue sound. Students are encouraged to raise the tip of the tongue behind their teeth, and to stick out the center portion of their tongues underside from between their teeth (Figure 3). They can then transition to exaggerated La sounds. R is called the Angry Dog sound (Figure 4). Students tend to move their placement of the /r/ sound too far forward. By focusing on mimicking the sound of an angry dog, the sound is forced back down their throats, and the mean of these sounds results in a passable alveolar approximant.

Having differentiated the sounds, the next form of best practice is the selection of minimal pairs and their comic use. For example, “I watch TV,” when spoken without care, becomes, “I like TB.” Translating this for students generally results in a lot of good-natured laughter, and encourages the formation of memetic jokes, which further the goal of locking the differences into student memories. Another common minimal pair I have used to demonstrate the importance of differentiating between sounds is Thursday versus SARS-day, a joke which may not have aged well in this current climate.

During lockdowns and periods of social isolation, a teacher may not be physically present to assist a student with their pronunciation. Even in the era of video chatting and synchronous remote teaching with Zoom, problems with microphones, background noises, and other sound related issues often prevent teachers from giving students the necessary feedback for correcting their pronunciation. To that end, the Hengao Hatsuon system that I presented in this essay, is ideal for pronunciation assistance when careful listening may be difficult. I teach my students to rely on visual cues to develop target sounds. Furthermore, the ability of a student to visually check on their own pronunciation in real time (by use of a mirror or a computer/camera video feed) allows for effective self-study even with lessened attention from teachers.

Pronunciation is a critical aspect of language acquisition. In times of isolation, school reclusion, or communication difficulties, students do not have to fall behind in their efforts to improve their language skills. The use of visual methods to differentiate sounds allows students to better practice at home alone, and allows teachers to be able to identify and correct mistakes even under trying circumstances.


Choudary, D., & Sanam, B. (2012). American pronunciation training for speakers of English as second language. Abhinav National Monthly Refereed Journal of Research in Arts & Education 1(9).

Cook, V. (2016). Second language learning and language teaching, fifth edition. Routledge.

Finegan, E. (2011). Language: Its structure and use, sixth edition. Cengage.–016–1085–1

Minami Nippon. (2020, July 5). ALT shields make it easier to understand English pronunciation in Satsuma Sendai City. Minami Nippon Shimbun.

Ohata, K. (2004). Phonological differences between Japanese and English: Several potentially problematic areas of pronunciation for Japanese ESL/EFL learners. Asian EFL Journal, 6(4). 1–19.