Everything you’ve gone through has been preparing you for this moment. The final boss is approaching and it’s a sound that only appears in Japanese… It doesn’t exist in English! What is “r” in Japanese?
Alright, I’m being too dramatic (lol). The truth is, the Japanese [r] sound is one that does not exist in English so today is going to be a little tougher than what we’ve gone through so far, but it’s really nothing to worry about.
Any sound that hundreds of millions of people have learned before is one that you can learn as well. Let’s get started and see what it’s all about.
The 5 Japanese [r] Sounds
Let’s start off by listening to the native sounds and talking a little bit about them. Then we will go into greater detail in the next section.
ら = ra
り = ri
る = ru
れ = re
ろ = ro
What’s interesting about this sound is that Americans will tend to just use their natural American [r] sound when speaking Japanese at first.
But when you listen to Japanese people speak English, they will tend to use their Japanese [r] sound whenever there is an English word that uses the letter “l” in it. Words like:
And so on.
That’s because the Japanese [r] sound is much closer to the English [l] sound than any other. Let’s get more into it now.
Special Notes On [r]
Something that I don’t talk about a lot is that I used to take voice lessons when I first started at University back in the day.
I had to sing songs in several languages including:
I remember my teacher telling me to pay special attention whenever I had to sing a word with an “r” in it because the American [r] sound that I was used to using every day is a particular sound that does not exist in other languages.
It is created by pursing the lips, and bunching up the teeth in the mouth and then releasing them.
This is totally different from the Japanese [r] sound that we are going to go over today.
This particular sound doesn’t exist naturally in English, but it can be created by making a sound that is somewhere between a [d] sound and an [l] sound.
Here’s an exercise to help you. Try saying [da-di-du-de-do] in English. The place where you place the tip of your tongue to make that initial d-sound is pretty close to, but not exactly the same as, the Japanese [r] sound.
From here, try putting the tip of your tongue just a bit further towards your teeth so that you are between the [d] and [l] sounds in English and you should be able to find the sweet spot
You then produce the Japanese [r] by saying “ra” while pulling the tongue away from the roof of your mouth.
If you’re familiar with Spanish, then you can get to correct sound similar by doing a Spanish [r] tap (not a roll, although that can happen with Yakuza).
This is one of those cases where it’s probably easier to learn the correct sound when you are not an American since you won’t have this struggle.
Again, this is one of those situations where all I can really do is raise your awareness about it, give you some tips and best practices for learning it, and then it is up to you to spend enough time listening to it and mimicking it yourself to truly get it down.
We talked about writing out the kana to learn them, and we also talked about using flashcards instead. In the next lesson I’m going to talk about an additional technique that you can consider using if it sounds good to you.
But before we get to that, let’s finish today’s tasks first.
ら = ra
り = ri
る = ru
れ = re
ろ = ro
Take note of the similarities of る and ろ.
This is also a pair that I’ve never really struggled with mixing up, but I can very easily see how they can be confused for one another.
I think in my mind that ろ looks almost like a complete “o” which matches with the [ro] sound that it makes.
On the other hand, then る has the big circle with a small loop included at the end. The word “loop” has that [u] sound in it, which matches the [ru] for this character.
I don’t know if those tips will help you remember it or not, but I wanted to share it with you just in case you needed a little extra help on these ones.
On a side note, if you’ve come up with a good way to tell these two apart, let me know in the comments section below so that everyone who comes through this course can benefit from it as well.
Cultural Notes on [r]
I mentioned earlier that the Japanese [r] sound is very similar to “a tap.” This is true for the majority of the time, but there actually are situations where Japanese people will roll their R’s.
Generally speaking, it is a male who is doing it and he falls into one of the following character archetypes:
- Tough guys
However, I’ve heard women do is as well when they are kind of a “macho” girl who can beat up the boys.
I say that I’ve heard it before, but I should probably clarify that it has only been in anime!
I don’t hear real life people talking this way, although I’m sure that they do sometimes for fun or whatever.
So keep in mind the fact that sometimes you will encounter rolled R’s in Japanese, but I would advise you to not use them in real life situations because you will probably sound like an anime character or something.
Example Words With [r]
We have completed another twofer section, where it used to be just one lesson in the original version of this free course.
That means it is time to practice some example words!
We’ve got quite a long list this time and it’s mostly centered around the [y] and [r] sounds in Japanese. Take a look at them now, try saying them yourself, and then listen to the recording to help lock it in.
かみなり = lightning
からて = Karate (the martial art)
みる = To look
はなれる = To leave
そろそろ = Any time now
ゆみ = Bow (and arrow)
やわらかい = Soft
よる = Evening
It may seem like you’ve learned a lot of information so far, and you have, but the good news is that these initial building blocks are going to reappear over and over again as you continue to learn more Japanese.
That means you will have plenty of opportunities to review old information and clean up any misunderstandings or mistakes that you may have regarding any part of the language.
I like to think of learning a language like filling up a big bucket of water. As long as you keep pouring more and more in, it will eventually become full.
Keep going! You’re doing great!
I enjoy our time together, but pretty soon I won’t have any more of these practice sessions for you.
I’m sure you’re looking forward to that, lol!
- Practice all of the [r] sounds 6+ times.
- Practice each of today’s hiragana 5+ times.
- Practice the word list 3+ times.
Oh, what’s that? You’re all done? Well then it’s time to move on my friend!
This next lesson will be the final one on the basic hiragana characters. It’s also going to be pretty different from all the previous ones that we have gone through so far.
Are you curious to see what it’s like? If so, let’s check it out!
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Further Resources for Learning Japanese: