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Japanese pronunciation guide

In order to understand Japanese pronunciation, you’ll need to be familiar with hiragana, the core Japanese alphabet. Linguistically, we call hiragana ‘syllabary’ in that it is a set of symbols that represents syllables.

Each hiragana character represents a sound, and any sound used in the Japanese language can be represented by a single hiragana, or a combination of two hiragana characters. When you learn hiragana, you’ll be learning a seemingly random symbol, and associating it with a seemingly random sound.

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There are fewer sounds used in spoken Japanese than there are in English. Japanese doesn’t have an English ‘l’, sound for example (which is why some Japanese people struggle with words beginning this letter when they speak English).

Japanese pronunciation is far more simple than English. Take a look at the following two sentences.

I *live* in a small town.
I prefer *live* comedy to YouTube.

Take a look back at the word live. Same four letters, same order, same language—different pronunciation. Japanese is not like this. No matter what order the letters are in or how long the word is, once you’ve mastered hiragana, you’ll be able to read every Japanese word with perfect pronunciation.

Most of the sounds in Japanese are consonant-vowel combinations. For example:

Ne-ko ‘cat’
Ha-ji-me-ma-shi-te ‘nice to meet you’
Yo-ro-shi-ku ‘please’
Ku-ri-su-ma-su ‘Christmas’

The consonants are b, d, g, h, k, m, n, p, r, s, t, w and y.

Most of the consonants are the same as in English but some are slightly different. The ‘r’ in Japanese is very light and almost like an ‘d’ or even a ‘l.’ In a way, it’s similar to the ‘tt’ in the North American English pronunciation of ‘little.’ It’s just a tap of the tongue on the top of the roof, not the hard ‘r’ of North America.

Another is the ‘f’ of the ‘fu’ combo. It’s almost like just blowing air through your nearly closed lips. It’s not the way we make it in English, where you rest your top teeth on your bottom lip.

There are only five vowels and they have to be pronounced perfectly or else nobody will understand you. They are:

‘A’ as in ‘father’
‘I’ as in ‘eel’ (a long ‘e’)
‘U’ as in ‘boots’
‘E’ as in ‘elephant’ (a short ‘e’)
‘O’ as in ‘orangutan’

Japanese makes a few distinctions we don’t make in English. One is its double consonants. With a double consonant, you insert a slight pause before the vowel. In some cases the only difference between two words is that one has a double consonant and the other a single. This is why it’s important to pronounce these correctly. For example, itte (行って – go) and ite (いて – be) are different words.

There are also long and short vowels. A long vowel is sort of like two beats of a short vowel. Actually a long vowel is like a regular vowel in English. The short ones are quite short. So, there’s a difference between oki (沖 – the open sea), Ooki (大木 – a proper name) and ookii (大きい – big). Also, don’t mix up komon (顧問 – adviser) and koumon (肛門 – anus) or else hilarity might ensue.

Finally, a major difference between Japanese and English is that Japanese has no stress. I don’t mean there’s no stress when learning Japanese. There’s awful stress that will make you insane sometimes, especially when you encounter keigo (敬語 – honorific Japanese). But the words themselves have no stress. Try to pronounce each with flat intonation.

I recommend anyone who wants to learn to pronounce Japanese well that you learn katakana and hiragana, the two syllabary writing systems, before anything else. This helps you not slip into pronouncing words the way the English looks.

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