Japanese Pronunciation: An Intro to the Basics

japanese pronunciationLearning to speak Japanese can be a fun and surprisingly easy experience.  With the popularity of Japanese entertainment throughout the world, more people than ever are gaining an interest in learning this language.  Before you can become conversational or fluent in any new language, it is important to have some guidance in proper pronunciation.

If you are a native English speaker, you are in luck.  Many of the vowel and consonant sounds in Japanese are very similar to English, therefore making the transition a bit easier.  In fact, learning Japanese as an English speaker may be a tremendous advantage.  Use this beginner’s pronunciation guide as your starting point to understanding the intricacies of Japanese pronunciation, and start learning a new language today!

What Makes Japanese so Easy for English Speakers?

Well, “easy” is a relative term.  Any new language is going to require study and rehearsal in order to progress.  The more you put into your studies, the more you will get out of them.  The aspects of Japanese that make it a friendly language for native English speakers are numerous.  First of all, if you speak English, you already know a language with nearly twice as many vowel and consonant sounds as Japanese.  While Japanese has five vowel sounds, English has twelve – and while Japanese has fourteen consonant sounds, English has twenty four.  Looking at Japanese in terms of sounds, there are fewer to memorize.

How Are Syllables Sounded Out?

When Speaking Japanese, each syllable has the same length, and has the same emphasis placed upon it.  When you become more proficient in your studies, it is true that you will begin to notice slight variations in length between stressed and unstressed syllables.  As a beginner and casual speaker however, it is perfectly acceptable to make each syllable one “beat” in your speaking.  It might be good practice to clap along with your syllables.

For instance, the greeting “konnichiwa” can be broken up into four syllables: “Ko – Ni – Chi – Wa”, each one said in its own beat.  Clapping along with the rhythm will get you used to the individual sounds all being approximately the same length.  Your speech patterns should put equal strength on every syllable, while also giving each one equal time.

Every Japanese syllable is “open” meaning it ends in a vowel.  Sounds in English such as “hot”, “car”, “top”, and “couch” all end with consonants, making them “closed” syllables.  With only two exceptions, Japanese syllables do not end in consonants.  We will get to those exceptions a bit later, but for now, it is good to remember the rule that each syllable ends on an open vowel sound.

What Are the Exceptions to the Syllable Rules?

There are two exceptions.  We will go through them individually.

The first is the “n” consonant sound.  When speaking the “n” sound in the middle of a word, it is given its own syllable.  Take for example the Japanese word “ringo”, meaning “apple”.  It would actually be pronounced in three syllables – “ri – n – go”.  The same would be true of the word “kanji” given to Japanese characters.  It would be pronounced in three syllables thus: “ka – n – ji”.

The second exception is that of the double consonant.  In English, we do tend to blend these sounds together to create one, shorter sound.  Take the song lyric “The sun will come out tomorrow”.  Specifically focusing in on the last two words, we tend to pronounce those like this “Ou Tomorrow”.  In reality, the proper term would be with a pause and restart of the “t” sound – “ouT Tomorrow”, clumsy as that sounds.

In Japanese, that double consonant is not clumsy, and does indeed warrant the pause and restart between each one.  The word “Nippon” (meaning Japan), would be pronounced with a small pause between each “p”: “Nip – Pon”.  Likewise, the word “gakkoo” (meaning school) would be pronounced “gak – koo”.  Remember to do that hand clapping to keep your pace appropriately timed.

These extra beats may indeed feel a little unfamiliar to us native English speakers, as we do tend to glide through similar consonant sounds.  Yet, it is important to give each consonant its own space when speaking Japanese, as this will make your speaking more clear and understandable.

How Do the Vowels Work?

There are five vowel sounds in Japanese, and they can each be matched up this way:
The letter “a” is pronounced like the sound in the word “father”
The letter “e” is pronounced like the sound in the word “pet”
The letter “i” is pronounced like the sound in the word “feet”
The letter “o” is pronounced like the sound in the word “no”
The letter “u” is pronounced like the sound in the word “tool”

Each vowel sound is given its own syllable, meaning there are no diphthongs, or blended vowel sounds in the Japanese language.  Take the English words “mountain” or “rain” – in those examples, we blend the consecutive vowel sounds into one gliding sound.  In Japanese that does not happen.  Consecutive vowels each get their own sound in a word.  So, the Japanese word “aoi” (the color “blue”) is actually a three syllable word: “a-o-i”.  Remember to do those hand claps like were mentioned before to help you space out those sounds.

There is a special set of rules for double vowels.  Basically, each of the five vowel sounds has a long and a short sound.  The long sound is pronounced whenever the vowel is doubled, and furthermore, the long sound takes up two syllables.

So the long vowel sounds would go like this:

long [a]: “ah”, “aa” “a” (Spelled the same as the short version)

long [e]: “ei”

long [i]: “ii”

long [o]: “o” “oh”, “oo”, “ou”

long [u]: “u”, “uu”

What About Japanese Grammar?

Like any other foreign language, here are a few key differences between Japanese and English grammar to be aware of before you begin.  In English the traditional sentence order is Subject-Verb-Object.  So an example English sentence would be “John gave Mary the money”.  In Japanese, the sentence order is slightly different.  It goes Subject – Object – Verb.  So, using our same sentence from earlier, it would read more like “John Mary the money gave”.

Furthermore English places prepositions such as “at”, “to” and “by” in front of the words they relate to.  “At the bridge”, or “To the store” or , “By the sea” would all be acceptable phrases in English.  Unlike English,  in Japanese, the corresponding words are placed after the word they relate to.  So, a Japanese phrase might read more like “Tokyo to went”.

How Can I Further My Studies?

There are always great classes available to get you started.  Otherwise, it does not have to be difficult to add a little more Japanese practice into your days.  You could begin by watching Japanese language films and animation, and using those as listening practice.  Also, there is plenty of great Japanese music available for you to listen to.  Sometimes, music can be your best teacher, because a song can be easier to memorize than written words.  Other than that, just practice, practice, practice. Speak Japanese out loud whenever you can.  Hearing yourself pronounce words is a good indicator for where your strengths and trouble spots lie.  Once you have those sorted out, you can begin to improve in specific areas.

For further help from the pros, check out these affordable and easy courses at Udemy:

Casual Japanese for the Beginner
Teach Japanese Using Hand Actions