Pronunciation is perhaps the most important part of learning a language. It is also one of the hardest parts of a foreign language to learn because not every sound will be shared with your first language, and the ones that they have in common may not be exactly the same.
This lesson is not meant to scare you into thinking Japanese is impossible to pronounce, nor will it tell you about every little detail. The purpose of this lesson is to introduce you to not just what the sounds are but the basic fundamentals of how to use them. If Japanese were pronounced similarly to English, we would not need to introduce any new terms. We don't have that luxury, but any new term will always be defined.
To begin learning how to speak Japanese to over 120 million speakers, we need a base line for spelling words in a way that is familiar enough to you as an English speaker. We can't go over Japanese script in a page because there is no alphabet, and the script is totally different to anything found in Europe. So, we'll use English letters, which are called Rōmaji. This does not mean that this will completely reflect the true pronunciation of sounds, nor does it mean we'll be using it from here on out. Once we get to Lesson 2, you will begin to learn actual Japanese writing.
We now need to learn the sounds behind the (C)V structure. Unlike English which has so many vowels, Japanese only has 5! They're pronounced clearly and sharply like the American English approximates below. You won't sound native in a day, but following these guidelines will ensure that you'll at least be understood.
Another thing that we can't ignore even at the very beginning is the Japanese pitch accent system. In English, each word has a particular stress pattern to it. Japanese has each syllable be either low or high pitch.
Lesson Note: Rises in pitch will be marked in bold and pitch drops will be marked with ↓. This is because Japanese has a pitch accent system. This will be used for ALL WORDS in this lesson. We will not focus heavily after this lesson on pitch accent, but it is not an arbitrary part of pronunciation!
|A||Like the a sound in "buy".||Ta↓ (field)|
|I||Like the i in "police".||Ki↓ (tree)|
|U||Like the "oo" in mood. Compress your lips without protruding them.||Uta↓ (song)|
|E||Like the e in "set".||Ike↓ (pond)|
|O||Like the o in "oh".||Oka (hill)|
American English happens to have each vowel in its inventory more or less except u. No form of English actually has the Japanese u, which is why you're instructed to utter it with the above pronunciations. The exact pronunciation of the rest of the vowels are still not just like the American or British pronunciations. Example words have been chosen as being those which are generally pronounced the same across the English speaking world.
When a word has two vowels side by side, you don't fuse them together. In reality, especially with a and i next to each other, it may sound like they are pronounced together. Speakers, though, hear them as being separate. So, be careful!
| Ai||Love/indigo||Ii||Good|| Au||To meet||Uo||Fish||Iu||To say|
Exception Note: Iu is actually pronounced as "yuu". Exceptions are not fun, but this is one that just cannot be ignored. So, this rule is not optional to learn!
Long vowels are twice as long as short vowels. This may not seem like a big deal, but vowel length contrasts words in Japanese like in the words below. Even if you don't accidentally say another word, you'll be essentially saying a nonexistent word. So, it's important to not mess up. Mistakes at the beginning are inevitable, but as you listen to more Japanese, take note into not just pitch going up and down but also the length of all the vowels.
|Short A||Obasan (aunt)||Long A||Obaasan (grandma)|
|Short I||Ie (House)||Long I||Iie (no)|
|Short U|| Yuki↓ (snow)||Long U||Yuuki (courage)|
|Short E||E↓ (Painting)||Long E||Ee/ee (yes)|
|Short O||Ton (ton)||Long O||Toon (tone)|
Practice: Try pronouncing the following words.
1. Koohii (Coffee) 2. Chiizu (Cheese) 3. Chuugoku (China)
Spelling Issues: "ei" & "ou"
Sometimes, what is spelled as "e+i" is normally pronounced as a long e, but it can always be pronounced as "e" followed by "i". Similarly, "ou" is often a long o, but it is often just "o+u"! When we get into Japanese writing, we'll learn exactly how to know when to use which!
Practice:Try pronouncing the following words.
"Long e" or "e+i": Sensei (Teacher) Always "e+i": Mei (Niece)
Always "long o": Ou (king) Always "o+u": Omou (to think)
Pronunciation approximation is based on American English. Most consonants are very similar, but attention to those in bold. More example words of all these consonants follow the chart along with more detailed information about how to say the sounds.
Terminology Note: Voiced sounds--g, z, d, etc.--are made by vibrating your vocal folds.
|K||As in "kite"||Ka↑||Mosquito|
|G||As in "go". It can sound like ng inside phrases.||Kage||Shadow|
|S||As in "sad". Before i, it becomes SH.||Asa||Morning|
|SH||As in "shin". It's closer in the mouth than English.||Ashi↓||Foot/leg|
|Z||As in "zen". zi → ji.||Kaze||Wind|
|J||As in "jeep".||Aji||Flavor|
|T||Blade of tongue behind upper teeth. tu → tsu; ti → chi.||Te↓||Hand|
|D||Voiced form of t.||Sokudo||Speed|
|CH||As in "chin".||Ocha||Tea|
|TS||As in "its".||Tsukau||To use|
|DJ||Voiced form of ch but now just a j.||Hana(d)ji||Nosebleed|
| DZ|| Voiced form of ts but now just a z.||Tsu(d)zuki||Continuance|
|N||As in "not".||Neko||Cat|
|H||As in "high". As in "hue" with i or y. hu → fu.||Hada||Skin|
|F||Blow air through your lips. No teeth!||Fune||Boat|
|B||As in "big".||Baka||Idiot|
|P||As in "pig". Not as much air comes out.||Pajama||Pajama|
|M||As in "mat"||Mune↓||Chest|
|Y||As in "you".||Yakusoku||Promise|
|R||Like the t in water.||Karada||Body|
|W||Compress the lips rather than protrude them outward.||Yowai||Weak|
1. N is made with the blade of the tongue on the back of the upper teeth with a, e, and o, behind the ridge of the mouth with i (like in news), and behind the teeth with u (like in noon).
2. Sh, j, ch, dz, and dj are all made by placing the tongue right behind the alveolar ridge in your mouth, which is the ridge that you can feel where the sockets of your teeth are.
3. Y is only used with a, u, and o. W is only used with a and o, but most people replace "wo" with "o". Excluding N', which is special because it's spoken with the same amount of time as everything else, all other consonants can be used with all vowels. Be careful with "i", which changes some consonants.
Don't mix up d and r. Also, don't mess up tsu with su. The following chart shows some pairs of these showing how costly a mistake it would be to mix them up.
|Kami||God||Kami||Hair; paper||Shimbun||Newspaper|| Pan|| Bread|
|Inu↓||Dog||Yubi↓|| Finger||Kangae|| Idea||Kawa↓||River|
| Katsu||To win||Baka|| Idiot||Mura↓|| Village||Muda||Useless|
Practice: Try saying the following words out loud.
Ni↓(2) Tana (Shelf) Umi (Sea) Kage (Shadow)
N' is pronounced as m before p, b, and m, n before t and d, ng before k and g, and elsewhere like an n-sound made in the back of the throat. Pronounce N' with the same amount of time as any other sound. It does not start any words in Standard Japanese.
|Kin'en = No smoking||Kinen = Commemoration|| Kan'i = Easiness ||Kani = Crab|
Questions (1): Describe how the following words are pronounced.
1. Shimbun 2. Kangae 3. Kin 4. Sensei
Additional Consonants: Palatalized Sounds
The palatalized (made with contact with the roof of the mouth) sounds are ky, gy, sh, j, ch, ny, hy, by, py, my, and ry. Except for sh, j, and ch, they're only used with a, u, and o.
っ: Long Consonants
っ doubles the length of a consonant, making it sound harder. It may also show an audible stop at the end of a word. For romanization, consonants will be doubled with exceptions to sh (ssh), ch (tch), and ts (tts). When showing an audible stop at the end of a word, it will be left in Kana, which is why it's shown.
|Shippai||Failure||Kitchin||Kitchen||Yokka|| 4 days ||Zasshi||Magazine|
Usage Note: Don't double n or m. G, z, d, h, f, b, r, w and y are only doubled in loan words or exaggerated spellings.
Devoiced vowels are vowels that sound silent. In fact, it's often the case that there's essentially no trace of the vowel in pronunciation. The one thing to be careful is that you don't simplify the 'syllable' count. So, if you have "de-su" and the u goes away, you don't simplify it to "des". Rather, it would be "de-s".
The vowels i and u may sound silent between and or after k, s, sh, t, ch, ts, h, f, and p. They are more likely devoiced the faster you speak. For example, "good morning" sounds like "o-ha-yo-o go-za-i-ma-s". However, not all speakers do this.
Practice: Try pronouncing the words with the underlined vowel(s) devoiced.
Kushami (Sneeze) Tafu (Tough) Sukiyaki Hito(↓) (Person)
Words are often distinguished by pitch (height/depth of a sound). Ame means "rain" when the high pitch is on a but "candy" when on me. Although pitch-accent varies in Japan, knowing the basics will help you sound more natural. There are four basic patterns that affixes (things attached) + words can take.
|1|| The pitch starts high, drops, and stays low.||＼＿||háshì (chopsticks)|
|2|| The pitch rises, peaks, then drops suddenly. ||／＼||hàshí (bridge)|
|3|| The pitch rises then drops on an attached element.||／￣（＼）||otoko (man)|
|4||The pitch rises from start to end.||／￣（￣）||hashi (edge)|
Pitch gets more complicated in full sentences. It's important to learn the pitch of new words, but imitating others is perhaps more efficient and productive than strict memorization.
|3|| Akarui↓|| Bright||4|| Empitsu ||Pencil|
Questions 1 (Free-Response):
1. It sounds like shimbun.
2. The n in kangae sounds like ng. So, it's more like /ka.ng.ga.e/.
3. It sounds like /ki.n/, but the n is not the English n because it doesn't stop air flow.
4. The n is like a nasal vowel and "ei" can make a long e. So, it sounds like /se.n.sē/.
1. 4 morae 2. 3 morae 3. 3 morae 4. 4 morae