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
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:
- “a” as in car
- “i” as in medium
- “u” as in luke
- “e” as in bed
- “o” as in go
The consonants in Japanese are pronounced the same as in English except for two things:
- They are not as explosive as they are in English. They are much softer
- 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 o–ji–san) = Uncle
- ojiisan (pronounced like o–ji–i–san) = 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 mi–te) = 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.
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:
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!