Every language is composed of a unique set of sounds. This may sound obvious, but what you perceive as meaningful sounds will be determined by what language(s) you have been exposed to so far in your life. If you've never heard Japanese before, or if you've never heard Japanese in a meaningful way, you're likely not going to recognize sounds that don't exist in the languages you know, or perhaps those that differ from what you're used to. At first, everything you hear in Japanese will probably sound like an endless stream of fast and mysterious noise, but that's just because your brain hasn't had the chance to parse Japanese.
When you grew up, your brain had the opportunity to master the sounds in your first language(s), but now that you're learning a new language, your brain will now have to essentially start things over. At first, everything you hear in Japanese will likely sound like an endless, fast stream of mysterious sounds, but this is because your brain has no frame of reference for Japanese. Once you start learning more and more words, this struggle will naturally resolve itself.
Over the course of the next two lessons, our goal will be to figure out the unique sounds of Japanese. You won't be expected to sound Japanese on day one, nor should you place that goal on yourself. After all, you may not know a single word of Japanese yet, so it's important to learn how to pronounce words correctly as you learn them so that you're understood.
Of course, you're probably itching to learn Japanese as quickly as possible, so we won't learn about every little thing there is to know about Japanese, but you'll be shown just just enough detail so that you have solid answers to fall back on when you do have questions about pronunciation.
With that, let's look at the vowels of Japanese. Vowels are sounds like "ah" and "eh," but every language--including Japanese--will have its own quirks to them. Our mission will be to find out what those quirks are.
In Japanese, vowel length is crucial in distinguishing words. To understand what vowel length means, imagine clapping your hands in intervals of three seconds. Each clap equates to one syllable. Now, regardless of how you speed up or slow down the intervals, so long as the intervals are equal to each other, you're replicating how Japanese speakers hear the language being spoken.
When we say a vowel is a short vowel, it means that the vowel length is just one beat. When we say a vowel is a long vowel, it means that the vowel length is two beats. The speed at which someone is talking may vary as a conversation progresses, but the speed at which any given word is enunciated should remain constant so that such vowel length contrasts can be made. Otherwise, you might say something unintended.
|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 (yes)|
|Short "o"||To (door)||Long "o"||Too (ten things)|
※ An "oo" should never be pronounced as a long "u" sound. In the context of Japanese, it should always be viewed as an elongated "oh" sound.
How to Pronounce "ei"
The vowel combination "ei" is usually pronounced as a long "eh" sound, but all words that have "ei" can be pronounced as is, meaning as "eh-ee." For now, it is safe for you to simply pronounce the two vowels separately as you can never go wrong there. Over time, you'll learn about the sources of Japanese vocabulary, which will be the ultimate factor between the two pronunciations.
"Tokei" or "Tokee"
"Eigo" or "Eego"
How to Pronounce "ou"
The vowel combination "ou" is usually pronounced as a long "o" (ō). However, there are many words in which "o" and "u" are pronounced separately. Once we introduce Japanese spelling, knowing when to decide between the two will be very easy. So for now, just relax and practice pronouncing the words below.