Basics of Japanese: Pronunciation
As far as pronunciation goes, Japanese is an extremely straight-forward language and predictable language. This makes it a lot easier to know how to say new words. Unlike English which has all kinds of weird rules and exceptions, Japanese words are said exactly how they’re written.
NOTE: Hiragana and katakana are pronounced in the exact same way.
If you’ve ever studied Spanish, you already know the vowel sounds for Japanese. There are only 5 vowel sounds and they are always the same.
A = Open wide and say, ‘Ahh’.
I (ee) = Eek! There’s a snake!
U = Oooh, you’re in trouble
E (eh) = I’m from Canada, eh?
O (oh) = Oh no! My dog ate my homework!
Pretty simple, right? But there are a couple more things to remember:
‘U’ often gets dropped when combined with certain consonants (k, s, sh, t, ch, h, f, b, p). This means the ever-popular “desu” is less “de soo” and more “des”.
All consonants are “hard” and close to English consonants. Easy!
However, there are a few consonants that are slightly different from English. The biggest ones are ‘TSU’, ‘FU’ and the ‘R’ sounds.
‘TSU’ is actually pretty easy, although it takes some practice to hear the difference between SU and TSU. Basically, take a word like “cats” and hold on to that final “ts” and use it to say the word “tsunami” the Japanese way!
‘FU’ is tougher. It’s more like a whisper. A good practice for ‘FU’ is to try saying it in front of a candle. If the light flickers, you’re saying it too hard!
Finally, there’s the ‘R’ sounds. They’re not like the English R at all, it’s more like a combination L, R and D sound.
I’m sure by now you’ve all had to write a haiku: a 5-7-5 syllable poem. The reason why hiragana and katakana are called syllabaries is because each kana character is a syllable. That means ‘sushi’ is 2 syllables (su + shi), tsunami is 3 (tsu + na + mi), and Oosaka is 4 (o + o + sa + ka).
With a word like “Oosaka,” it’s pretty obvious you’re just lengthening the ‘O’ sound. But there are a couple Japanese ways of spelling that do this same lengthening but might trick you into thinking you’re supposed to be saying two different sounds. Let’s take a look at our two culprits: ‘U’ and ‘I’.
‘U’ after an ‘O’ or ‘I’ after an ‘E’ aren’t spoken separately but are rather just lengthening the previous sound. Thus, ‘toukyou’ = ‘tooh kyooh’ and not ‘toh oo kyoh oo’ and ‘eiga’ = ‘eegah’ and not ‘eh ee gah’. Of course, these aren’t exaggerated long sounds, they’re just slightly longer than normal and almost imperceptible if you don’t listen out to them.
Speaking Practice Tip
The best way you can practice sounding Japanese is to do a little roleplay. Pretend you’re a pesky younger brother/sister, turn on your favorite J-drama, and mimic the characters. It’s okay if you don’t know the real words or get tongue-tied more than once! This technique is called “shadowing” and it can really help you improve getting the basic sounds right, which will then help you transform into a fluid speaker.