How to Speak in Japanese

If you’ve ever had the desire to learn and understand Japanese, then I’ve got some wonderful news for you: You absolutely can do it!

Japanese can be thought of as two parts: there’s the speaking part, which is what most people think of when they imagine Japanese, and then there’s the written part, which is completely foreign to most people.

If you are a beginner when it comes to Japanese, then your first job is to learn how to speak in Japanese. You first priority must be to learn how to pronounce the sounds of the language, and to train your ears and mouth so that you can become comfortable with the new language.

Once you’ve got a basic mastery of how to pronounce words and construct sentences, it will be much easier for you to pick up the written part of Japanese. This is the normal and natural way that people learn their first language, and you should also use it to learn Japanese as well.

How to Pronounce Japanese Words

Japan, Kyoto, Tenryuji Temple, wooden tablet covered with text, close-up

If you speak English, then speaking Japanese will be a walk in the park for you. Unlike in English, where a single vowel can and does have multiple sounds depending on how it’s used, in Japanese each vowel has only one sound and it never changes.

Here are the five vowels in Japanese and their pronunciation:

  1. a” as in car
  2. i” as in medium
  3. u” as in luke
  4. e” as in bed
  5. o” as in go

The consonants in Japanese are pronounced the same as in English except for two things:

  1. They are not as explosive as they are in English. They are much softer
  2. The “r” sound is not quite the same

To pronounce the “r” in Japanese you put the tip of your tongue right at the top of your two front teeth (where the teeth and gums meet) and then pronounce the syllable. Try doing that and saying “robo” now.

Learning to pronounce the “r” in Japanese is probably the hardest thing you’ll have to do. Everything else is pretty downhill from there.

But there is one more thing that is a little unusual for English speakers, and that is pronouncing the “tsu” sound in Japanese.  Go ahead and say the words “eight suits” a few times. Now slow it down and try to combine the “t” at the end of “eight” with the “su” and the beginning of “suits.” That should give you the correct “tsu” sound.

Long sounds, stop sounds, and silent sounds

Japanese may only have five vowel sounds, but they use those five sounds in many different ways. You already know the basic way to use them, so let’s take a look at “long” vowel sounds.

Long sounds in Japanese are pretty common. It’s important to not to mix up the length of a regular vowel with a long one because it can and DOES change the meaning of the word.

To use a long vowel, simply hold the length of a normal one for twice as long. So “a” becomes “aa” and so on. There are a few ways to show that a vowel should be held twice as long. Either a line will be put above the vowel, like this “ō” or the vowel will just be repeated, like “ii”.

One final thing to note is that in Japanese, each syllable is equally stressed. It would be correct to pronounce it “ha-na-bi” (fireworks) and it would be incorrect to say it like “ha-NA-bi

Here are two words in Japanese that sound almost identical, but one has a longer vowel:

  • ojisan (pronounced like ojisan) = Uncle
  • ojiisan (pronounced like ojiisan) = Grandpa

Stop sounds on the other hand, sound like there is a slight pause in the word. Kind of like the English word “pizza” for example. Here are two words to compare and contrast stop sounds. Pay attention to the “te” sound:

  • Mite (pronounced like mite) = Look
  • Matte (pronounced like mat-“”-te) = Wait

In Romaji (Japanese words written in English letters) the stop sound is represented by a double consonant (that “tt” in the last example)

Silent Sounds are pretty simple to use and understand. Generally speaking, the only vowels that are “silent” are “i” and “u” when they are the last sound in a sentence. An example would be “desu” which sounds like “dess.”

Also, if the “i” or “u” comes right before an “s” “k” or “t” it tends to become silent. This is mainly for phonetic reasons. When you speak Japanese at a moderate or fast pace, it becomes smoother and easier to speak with these vowels becoming silent.

The word “suki” sounds like”skee”

“suki desu” which means “I like it” in Japanese sounds like “skee dess.”

Sometimes you will hear people actually pronounce these “silent” vowels. That’s not a problem, it’s fine either way. Sometimes it’s just more fluid and natural to not pronounce them.

Spoken Particles

One of the most interesting things about Japanese is the use of “spoken particles.” But what the heck does that mean?

Let’s take the topic particle “wa” for example. If I said “watashi wa Nick desu” (I am Nick) the “wa” marks the topic of the sentence, which is me in this case 🙂

Or if you said “nan desu ka” (what is this?) the “ka” particle works as a spoken question mark. Pretty cool, isn’t it?

There are TONs of different spoken particles in Japanese! Some are only used by women, some of them are only used in formal situations, and so on. There is a huge variety of them and they all provide a different nuance to the sentence.

Don’t worry about them too much. You will learn the most common ones first and as you get better at Japanese, you will start to use and understand the rest

Japanese is backwards?

One of the things that makes learning Japanese tricky is the word order. In English we use a SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT structure. Here’s an example:

I – hit – the ball.

“I” is the SUBJECT, “hit” is the VERB, and “the ball” is the OBJECT.

But in Japanese the word order is actually SUBJECT-OBJECT-VERB. The subject is still the first part of a sentence, but the object and the verb have switched places. That same example would be like this in Japanese:

I – the ball – hit.

And then, add to that the fact that the SUBJECT of the sentence is often omitted in conversation when it’s obvious what the subject still is.

It might sound like a lot if you’re totally new to the language, but you get used to it pretty quickly. Once you memorize a few phrases and spend some time speaking them out loud, the different word order starts to feel natural.

Where is May?

Now that you’ve familiarized with the Japanese language, let’s take a look at some of the words and use them! Here’s the list of the words:

  • mei    = May (a girl’s name)
  • desu   = to be
  • doko  = where
  • wa      = the topic marker particle
  • ka       = the question particle

Now let’s put them together to form a question:

mei wa doko desu ka? = Where is May?

This whole time we’ve been using Romaji to spell the Japanese words. I mentioned that earlier, but let’s go a little deeper into it and the other ways to write Japanese.

Romaji is “Roman Characters” or to put is simply, the alphabet. But the Japanese actually use two separate phonetic scripts and some Chinese characters to write their words. Here’s what that same sentence looks like using the Japanese writing systems:

メイはどこですか?

That was just a little preview of it. Let’s leave an in depth discussion for another time.

So where do you go from here?

Well that about wraps it up for today! I hope you all enjoyed reading this and I also hope that you learned a few new things about Japanese!

If you’d like to learn more Japanese, then you might be interested in checking out a free trial of Rocket Japanese. It’s a great way to check it out for free and see if you like it.

Learn to speak Japanese easily with Rocket Japanese!


Now I want to hear from you! Have you been studying Japanese for a while? Or are you brand new to the language?

Let me know with a comment below!

16 Comments

  • Jacob

    This is great!
    I have a plan to travel to Japan and I’ve heard that it is required to know at least the minimum, especially for the less urban areas where the natives don’t usually speak English.
    I have some scattered words here and there – mostly from anime. But not something you can actually develop a minimal conversation with.
    This is certainly feel like it cover the basics and “Rocket Japanese” sounds promising – I was looking for something like that to learn Japanese.
    Thanks a lot!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, most Japanese service people speak English pretty well in the big places like major airport, big chain hotels, famous restaurants, etc. But for the most part, Japanese people are monolingual. If you stop someone on the streets or travel to the smaller towns, then you’ll need to know as least some basic Japanese in order to communicate.

      Learning how to actually speak Japanese is something that Rocket Japanese does really well. And there’s a free version that let’s you check out the early lessons free. I’ve got the full version and I’m a little over 200 hours into it! There’s about 550 hours worth of materiel in all if you get all three levels like I did.

  • Patricia

    It is very encouraging to hear that learning Japanese would be something that I could actually accomplish. The language – both written and spoken is beautiful and poetic. The free trial course and descriptions on this page are very helpful and inspire me to try it. A lot of information on this page is provided free, demonstrating that the course would be an excellent way to learn a challenging language such as Japanese.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I totally agree! Learning a language can be a pretty big undertaking, so I personally think it’s a good idea to just test it out at first to see if you really like the language before diving in head first.

      What I like most about FREE TRIALS is that the company lets you see exactly how their program works with no risk at all. If you end up not liking it, then you don’t have to worry about anything. But if you DO end up enjoying it, then it’s a smooth transition from the free version to the premium version!

  • Dave

    I’ve always wanted to learn an obscure language outside of the traditionally taught languages we learn in school.
    I’ve thought about Japanese, Chinese, Mandarin, Cantonese.
    I think all of these would be an excellent skill to become fluent in, especially if I chose to earn money as a translator.
    Which of these languages is easiest to learn and which are most used?

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hmm, that’s a very interesting question. All of them are part of a group that is considered the hardest to learn if your native language is English. But here’s what I would probably say about them:

      Japanese = easy to pronounce, but hard to get used to the reverse word order.
      Mandarin = easy word order, but hard to get used to the different tones.
      Cantonese = Similar to Mandarin, but even MORE tones to learn!

      Mandarin is the most spoken language on the planet, and China is #2 in the world as far as economies are concerned, so that one might be the best to learn for translation work.

  • Amy

    Thanks for the info, Nick!

    I don’t know if it’s realistic for me or not, but my family is taking a vacation to Japan next summer (to see the sites across the world) and I didn’t know if this program you recommend would be good to get ready for a trip like that? I want to find something that is easy for us to learn as a family (I have three teenage boys) that would at least show the locals that we respect their culture. If you have a minute, let me know what you think. This was such a great site to come across! Thank you!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Amy, that is super cool that you all are taking a vacation to Japan! And yeah, it can definitely help you learn some useful Japanese for when you go.

      What’s really cool about the Rocket Japanese program is that they’ve got a totally free version so that you can try it out with no risk. If you don’t like it, then you don’t have to worry about it at all. And it can be accessed on any computer or smartphone, so it’s easy to let multiple people try it.

      Hope you like it, thanks!

  • Kalie Downey

    Hey, Nick. This is the coolest thing I’ve seen all week. Props to you!

    I have a weird question. Is it true that there is no “L” in Japanese? Back in the day, I had a teacher who was a native Japanese speaker, and he could not pronounce my name.

    It’s pronounced “Callie” but he called me Kay-Ree. The other students and I used to try to teach him how to say “L” but it simply could not be done! When we asked him why, he said “L” is an “R” in Japanese.

    Just thought I’d ask!
    Kalie

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Kalie, yeah you are exactly right. There’s no “L” in the Japanese language! Anytime they use a loan-word that would normally have an “L” in it, they replace it with an “R” since it’s the closest thing they have.

      Your name is a great example! I also saw another one today: they pronounce “Prologue” as “Pro-raw-gu”

      And thanks for checking out the site! I’m glad you enjoyed it ^_^

  • Gus

    Wow! This is such a helpful web page, I love the way you broke down the sounds used in each word so that a beginner can practise them phonetically.
    I always thought of learning japanese as a difficult task and I’d always been quite frightened of starting it but this has really put my mind at ease and made it seem achievable. I have managed to learn french and a little spanish, maybe japanese can be the next on my list 🙂

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey that’s pretty awesome that you already speak several different languages! Yeah, if Japanese is something you’re interested in, then I would definitely encourage you to check it out sometime. And you can always come back here at Japanese Tactics to learn more ^_^ Thanks!

  • ariefw

    Hi Nick,

    I have tried learning Japanese for a while but found it a bit difficult.
    Maybe I should put more effort to it.
    I have some basic Mandarin. Will it be easier for me to learn Japanese?
    I still can understand some of the Japanese by reading its Kanji because it is the same.

    What is your recommended method to learn Japanese? Should I register for a course? Or is it enough to learn it from internet?

    • Nick

      If you’ve already learned a little, it will definitely be easier the second time you start. The most important thing is to just set yourself up for success. Have a daily goal that is easy (like study for 10 minutes only, nothing more) so that you can achieve it each day.

      There are some great courses out there and I’ve tried three of them – Pimsluer, Rosetta Stone, and Rocket Languages. Rocket Languages is my preferred method as it has a great format and is very fairly priced. Check out my review of it here:

      http://howtoreadjapanese.com/how-to-learn-japanese-a-rocket-review

      For beginning again, you would definitely benefit from a course since it’s very structured and you can hear how words are pronounced as well as read how they are written.

      Hope this helps!

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