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Step-11: Speak Japanese: Pronunciation 101

Posted by J. Pierre on September 1, 2011

In our last article about learning Japanese, we took a look at creating a personalised learning environment where you’re constantly immersed in the Japanese language. Before moving on to grammar points, we’re going to take the time to listen to — and practice repeating after — some native-level Japanese pronunciation. We will start with the five basic syllables of the Japanese kana:

A —  –ア 

I —  –

U —  – ウ

E –  

O —  – オ

Did you repeat after the speaker? If not, try listening again and practice making your pronunciation sound exactly like hers.

Written Japanese is pronounced exactly as it sounds in the kana syllabaries. In contrast, we have European languages such as English that don’t follow the same sounds as in the alphabet. As an example, consider the fact that we give the letter “A” a name, and don’t use its’ “alphabet name” to say a word such as “apple”, or that the word “read” can be pronounced as “reed” or as “red“. In spoken Japanese, the sounds in the syllabary chart are always the same!

Another interesting aspect of Japanese pronunciation is that it can be extremely easy for native speakers of languages such as French, Spanish and (especially) Portuguese, because the vowels (and consonants) are almost exactly the same as in these languages. If you speak one of these languages, try using their version of the alphabet when speaking Japanese, as it might help improve your pronunciation.

Bellow are three sets of examples, of Japanese pronunciation. We’re only going to explore the “K-column”, the “T-column” and the “R-column” of the kana charts for now, because the vowels (A, I, U, E, O) and the “K”, “T” and “R” consonant sounds are the ones that most people seem to have the hardest time mastering.

As always try to make your consonants as sharp as possible in this next section, as you repeat after the native speaker, while making your pronunciation match hers. First the K-column:

Ka — か –カ

Ki — き — キ

Ku — く — ク

Ke — け — ケ

Ko — こ — コ

 The T-column:

Ta — た — タ

Chi — ち — チ

Tsu — つ — ツ

Te — て — テ

To — と — ト

The R-column:

Ra — ら — ラ

Ri — り — リ

Ru — る — ル

Re — れ — レ

Ro — ろ — ロ

You’ll notice that the R-column is actually more like a “L”-column. If this proves difficult or confusing for you, I suggest saying “L” rather than “R”; with enough practice you’ll be able to roll them together, like a native-speaker.

This also helps us understand why many Japanese people can’t say the letter “R” as we do in English and why, if they can say it as we do, they have a tendency to confuse them by saying such things as “rucky” instead of “lucky” or “lice” instead of “rice”.

As a final note, you may have noticed in previous articles that the Japanese don’t have a V-sound in their syllabaries; it’s just another sound that doesn’t exist in their language, which is why they’re prone to say things such as “bideo store”, rather than “video store”. Keeping these points in mind can help improve your understand of how the language operates, and why it sounds the way it does.

If you can listen for the key vowel and K, T and R-column sounds (and imitate them) while watching TV shows, movies, playing video games or listening to Podcasts from Japan, you’ll be practicing just one more “mindless” exercise that can help greatly improve your pronunciation! In fact that’s precisely my recommendation: put on some Japanese entertainment and practice listening to — and imitating — the five vowels, and the 15 syllables of the K, T and R-column of the kana syllabaries!




Comment if you enjoyed this article! :)

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