A Rundown Of Japanese Pronunciations

Introduction

Fair enough, unlike some other languages, the Japanese language is not the most difficult language to pronounce. It also depends on your native language as well — most of it can be quite easy. You can easily make the most accurate sounds just like a native Japanese speaker.

However, there are a few sounds that aren’t quite that easy. A lot of the time, people can’t seem to get it right. That’s because some of the pronunciations in the Japanese language don’t seem to exist anywhere else outside of the language itself!

While it’s possible to spend hours and hours talking about Japanese pronunciation and trying to master it, I’ve compiled a general rundown of the Japanese pronunciations that will do just as well — if not better. Let’s take a look at everything there is to know about the Japanese pronunciations and how to fix yourself if need be.

Japanese Sounds

The Japanese sounds aren’t all that difficult. In fact, the Japanese pronunciations are consistent, repeatable and predictable! If you compare it to the English language, the Japanese pronunciation rules are the easiest in the world!

The English language consists of vowels and consonants that make up syllables. If you sit down and actually calculate the number of syllables we have in the English language, you can be here all day! A consonant and a vowel combined can have multiple ways of pronunciation.

That’s not the case at all in the Japanese language — there are no consonants at all, just vowels and a fixed number of syllables that are always pronounced the exact same way. So if you have learned the hiragana, you basically have mastered 95% of the entire Japanese pronunciations.

It’s just the 5% that I’m going to help you tackle.

Japanese Vowels

The Japanese vowels are much like English vowels. There are 5 of them: あ, え, い, お and う

あ is not pronounced as “eh” like how we pronounce the letter A, but as “ah” like when we say “ah, that’s right”.

え is also not pronounced like “ee” when we pronounce the letter E — it’s pronounced as “eh”; you might say it’s similar to the letter A but there’s a bit of a difference.

い is so far from the letter I where it’s pronounced “ai”, and is more like “ee” — kind of like the letter E.

お is the simples; it’s pronounced just like the letter O.

う is similar to the letter U, but it’s just “oo” instead of “you”.

Japanese Syllables

As mentioned before, the Japanese language has a fixed set of syllables. Instead of having consonants, they have individual sounds instead. So there’s no hiragana that represents consonants but only vowels and then skip to the syllables instead.

For example, か is described as the combination of “k” consonant and “a” vowel, but in the Japanese language, it’s just “ka”.

There are also special characters like ち where it’s a combination of two consonants “c” and “h” with the vowel “i” to make one Japanese syllable “chi”.

Basically, there’s no separation between consonants and vowels in the Japanese language. Japanese uses syllables to make the same sounds but using fewer symbols instead of breaking it down to its smallest forms. You might think it’s a bit unusual but it keeps the varying pronunciations to a minimum. 

The Difficult Sounds in Japanese

We’ve covered the easy bit of Japanese pronunciations, which is practically all of them — except for a few exceptions. There are two Japanese syllables that are harder to pronounce than others, but I’ll give you a few tips on how to master them.

1. Tsu (つ)

The first one is つ. This one can get quite difficult. The romaji (ロマ字) form is “tsu” as in from the word “tsunami”. Only, when we say “tsunami”, the “t” consonant is silent in English. In Japanese, every romaji symbol is pronounced: the “t”, the “s” and the “u”.

The hard part is pronouncing the “t” aspect of the Japanese syllable. The trick is to sneak a short “t” sound right before saying the “s”. It should be as long as the “t” in “psst”. Try saying “psst” backward and you’ll probably get the “ts” pronunciation part down.

2. N (ん)

This lone ranger is a unique one. It’s actually the only consonant in the Japanese language. ん looks like the letter N — good news, it sounds exactly like N, too!

Well, most of the time. There are very unique situations where the character is pronounced as the letter M instead of N. For example, the word “senpai” is spelled as せんぱい in Japanese hiragana. However, it’s pronounced as “sempai” instead, especially when people talk really fast and it’s easier to just say it as an M instead of N — but everyone will know it’s still spelled with the ん character.

Tips To Sound Natural When Speaking Japanese

If you’ve reached this far, you’re basically at 99% when it comes to proper Japanese pronunciation! But, of course, I won’t be done until you’re at 100%. Here are some tips to sound even more natural when speaking Japanese — you’ll sound like a native in no time!

Pausing and dragging appropriately

In the Japanese language, there are times where you get the small tsu (っ). That’s your queue to pause for a bit. For example, in the word “kitto” (きっと, which means certainly) you ought to pronounce it as “kit-toh” with a slight pause in between the two syllables. If you say it as “kito”, it’ll mean a totally different thing — きと means plan or project in Japanese.

There’s also the opposite, which is dragging the pronunciation out. This happens when there are two of the same vowels together: ああ, ええ, いい, うう, and even similar combination ones like おう.

An example is りょうこう to mean good or fine and りょこう to mean travel. If the first word is not pronounced as “ryouh-kouh” but instead “ryo-kouh” then you’re mentioning “travel” instead of “good”.

Get rid of the U

Level up your Japanese by cutting out your “u” pronunciations at the end of a word whenever necessary. The easiest examples are です and ます. Instead of “des-u”, try saying it as “dess” and instead of “mas-u” try saying it as “mas”.

R to L

Even though there are some Japanese syllables that are pronounced as R like ら, れ, り, ろ and る, change the pronunciation of the R to L.

It’s actually not even that simple. The correct pronunciation is an in-between of R and L. You have to barely touch the tip of your tongue against the gums behind your front teeth and not push your tongue against the back of your front teeth. 

Confusing, I know. But with practice, you’ll master it.

Fu to Hu

There’s this unique Japanese syllable that is ふ, and while the romaji is “fu”, it’s not pronounced with the F letter. The “f” pronunciation doesn’t exist in Japanese, just like how the “r” doesn’t. 

Rather than saying “fu” when pronouncing the syllable, switch to pronouncing “h”. Your lower lip and teeth shouldn’t meet but ever so slightly touching each other like they’re teasing.

Similar to the previous one, you just have to practice it till you make it!

Conclusion

That’s as brief as I can make a rundown of Japanese pronunciations to be, and it did cover all of them without elaborating too much till I bore you to death. Now that you know what to look out for — like the つ and ん — and what to change — like R to L and Fu to Hu — you’re on your way to sounding like a native. So step up your game and use this as a guide to getting your 95% to 100%!

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