Japanese is actually pretty easy to pronounce. Like any language, Japanese has two kinds of sounds: Vowels and Consonants.
Japanese vowels are pronounced a lot like Spanish vowels. There are 5 different vowel sounds in Japanese: a, i, u, e, o. (Notice that they are ordered here differently than in English, where we tend to say a, e, i, o, u. The reason is that this is how the Japanese syllabary is ordered, which is discussed more in the page about the Japanese writing system.)
- ‘A’ is pronounced with the “ah” sound, as in “father.”
- ‘I’ is pronounced with the “ee” sound, as in “tree.”
- ‘U’ is pronounced with the “oo” sound, as in “food.”
- ‘E’ is pronounced with the “eh” sound, as in “men.”
- ‘O’ is pronounced with the “oh” sound, as in “over.”
Ah, ee, oo, eh, oh—–a, i, u, e, o—–ah, ee, oo, eh, oh!
These vowels can also appear next to each other, in which case they are simply lengthened.
Japanese is a syllabic language, which makes it very rhythmic. It helps to divide the syllables into beats in your mind.
So, seki, “seat,” has two beats: se-ki.
However, for a word with two vowels in a row, those vowels become elongated (take up the equivalent of two beats).
So, seiki, “century,” has three beats: se-e-ki.
(Hopefully, this isn’t two much information, but you may want to note that first I wrote an ‘i’ for seiki, then I wrote it as an ‘e’ when I broke it down syllabically. This is just something people do when they write Japanese in romaji and hiragana. If there is a double ‘e’ sound, people write ‘ei’. If there is a double ‘o’ sound, people write ‘ou’. It might sound confusing, but it will feel very natural once you’ve studied a for a little while. I promise!)
You’ll have to be careful when pronouncing this beats, because in Japanese a word with a double vowel actually has a completely different meaning in Japanese (as you can see from the example above). I can’t count how many times, when I first lived in Japan, I would get a strange look from a native speaker when I did, or did not, elongate a vowel!
But don’t fret too much about mispronouncing Japanese. You are going to make mistakes all over the place. If you weren’t, then you wouldn’t be learning, right? Just be sure to practice a lot, and to find some good Japanese podcasts so you can hear native speakers and compare your own speech to theirs.
Vowels can also be combined to make somewhat different sounds.
For example, ‘a’ + ‘i’ = ‘ai’ and sounds like the vowel sound in “pie.” This kind of makes sense though, if you try to make the Japanese sounds for ‘a’ and ‘i’ in quick succession. Try it out.
That might sound ridiculous, but Japanese people have been talking fast since they were born, so why would they bother to pronounce those two sounds separately?
Japanese consonants tend to be like English consonants in their most commonly used forms.
Since Japanese is syllabic, each consonant is always attached to a vowel sound… for example: ka, ki, ku, ke, ko. This is the case for every single consonant…except for one: n.
‘N’ is special in Japanese, a lone letter that attaches to the end of syllables sometimes. For exmaple, in hon, “book,” the ‘n’ latches onto the ‘ho’ syllable. Your Japanese teacher might tell you that this still counts as a two-beat word. Still, sounds like a little less than two to me! But I’m no expert.
Sometimes, Japanese also includes the sound of a double consonant, though it isn’t written quite that way unless it’s in romaji. Example:
Motto, “more” is written with two t’s in romaji, but in hiragana it appears as a small tsu, “っ”, making it look like もっと。 Be sure to save a beat for that extra ‘t’!
That’s actually pretty important, because leaving out that extra beat can mean a different word. So, while ‘motto’ means “more”, ‘moto’ can mean “before” or “source” (or about 100 other things, which you’ll surely be most excited to encounter in your future studies).
I’m hoping that should be an ok primer for the sounds of Japanese. If I sucked at explaining, let me know in the comments below and I’ll revise, ya? Instead of re-reading this seven times, check out YouTube and type in “Japanese pronunciation” and a bunch of vids will show up. They also have some pretty good pronunciation lessons on JapanesePod101.
Surprisingly enough, there have yet to be any studies regarding whether or not sharks are capable of discerning the difference between vowels and consonants.
Good luck with your studies, everyone.
p.s. Here’s my free course, bundled with awesomeness (and love):