#2 - Learn to Pronounce & Write Japanese
We have a lot to cover in this lecture, so let's get right to it. We all have short attention spans, anyway, yeah?
Like I mentioned in the last lecture, before we really dive into the Japanese language, we need to know (1) how it is pronounced and (2) how it is written.
Let's see if we can learn all of that in one short lesson...
Note: Much of what you'll see below is taken from our 100% free, 99.2% awesome Kana Mastery Course:
(1) How to Pronounce Japanese
There are only five vowel sounds in Japanese. This is like a gift from the language-study gods. To give you a little perspective, English has around 19 vowel sounds. Good luck ever finding a Japanese person that can pronounce all of these words correctly: bat, bait, bet, beat, bit, bite, boat, bought, but, boot, bird, bard, beard, bored.
Of the above list, the only similar Japanese vowel sounds would be:
- The AH sound in bOUGHt: あ [ a ]
- The EE sound in bEAt: い [ i ]
- A shortened, unrounded version of the U sound in bOOt: う [ u ]
- A sound somewhere between the EH sound in bEt and the AY sound in bAIt: え [ e ]
- The O sound in bOAt: お [ o ]
あ [ a ]
い [ i ]
う [ u ]
え [ e ]
お [ o ]
(Note: Letters inside of brackets are not official IPA spellings.)
One more time, that’s:
- あ [ a ] (ah)
- い [ i ] (ee)
- う [ u ] (oo)
- え [ e ] (eh)
- お [ o ] (oh)
Those vowel sounds are the heart of Japanese pronunciation. Just by attaching them to a smattering of hard consonants, we can make 90% of the sounds of Japanese.
- k, g
- s, sh, j, z
- t, ch, ts, d
- h/f, b, p
As you may have guessed, a lot of those letters don’t match up with the English sounds exactly, but most of them are pretty close.
The sounds of Japanese will always appear as a “syllable” (actually, a mora, which I talk about in the Kana Course) and usually that syllable will usually have a vowel at the end. Examples:
- “t” attaches to “a,” and we get ta, pronounced “tah,” and written in hiragana as た.
- “g” attaches to “i,” and we get gi, pronounced “gee,” and written as ぎ.
- “s” attaches to “u,” and we get su, pronounced “soo,” and written as す.
た [ ta ]
ぎ [ gi ]
す [ su ]
The “syllables” of Japanese will always appear as a consonant-vowel combo, as show above, or as a single vowel, like this:
- a is pronounced “ah,” and written in hiragana as あ.
- i is pronounced “ee,” and written in hiragana as い.
- u is pronounced “oo,” and written in hiragana as う.
あ [ a ]
い [ i ]
う [ u ]
Also, sometimes a consonant can snap onto a syllable with “y.” The syllables with “y” are や “ya,” ゆ “yu,” and よ “yo.” So, for example, we could snap a “k” onto the front and get きゃ “kya,” きゅ “kyu,” and きょ “kyo.” But this is still only one syllable (in the English sense of the word).
Using this information, you can basically make every sound in Japanese. For example, here is every single sound that you can make in Japanese with the “k” consonant:
- “k” syllables
- ka (“kah”) か
- ki (“kee”) き
- ku (“koo”) く
- ke (“keh”) け
- ko (“koh”) こ
- kya (“kyah”) きゃ
- kyu (“kyoo”) きゅ
- kyo (“kyoh”) きょ
か [ ka ]
き [ ki ]
く [ ku ]
け [ ke ]
こ [ ko ]
きゃ [ kya ]
きゅ [ kyu ]
きょ [ kyo ]
Now, here is every single sound that you can make with the “b” consonant:
- “b” syllables
- ba (“bah”) ば
- bi (“bee”) び
- bu (“boo”) ぶ
- be (“beh”) べ
- bo (“boh”) ぼ
- bya (“byah”) びゃ
- byu (“byoo”) びゅ
- byo (“byoh”) びょ
ば [ ba ]
び [ bi ]
ぶ [ bu ]
べ [ be ]
ぼ [ bo ]
びゃ [ bya ]
びゅ [ byu ]
びょ [ byo ]
Catching the pattern here? As you can see, the sound constructions of Japanese are pretty simple. Admittedly, in those two lists above, I’m leaving out some of the less straightforward sound constructions, but this is the bulk of what you need to know about pronouncing Japanese. (As mentioned above, for the details on pronouncing and writing Japanese correctly, consult our Kana Course.)
(2) How to Write Japanese
There are three types of Japanese characters: (1) Hiragana, (2) Katakana, and (3) Kanji.
First, here’s the short version: Hiragana and Katakana represent the sounds of Japanese, with katakana being used primarily for foreign loan words and hiragana being used for everything else. Kanji, on the other hand, are (logographic) characters adopted from China.
Put once more in overly simplified terms, hiragana and katakana represent sounds, whereas kanji represent meanings, and all three of them (can) represent words or parts of words:
"Tom loves pizza."
Let’s take a quick look at why we use three different types of characters in the sentence above.
In this sentence, トム (tomu) “Tom” and ピザ (piza) “pizza” are written in katakana, because Tom is a foreign name and ピザ (piza) is a foreign loan word.
Note: Katakana is not limited to foreign names and loan words. For example, manga (a Japanese type of comic book) is sometimes written in kanji, as 漫画, and sometimes written in katakana, as マンガ. Also, sometimes katakana will be used to give a word a rough nuance and/or make it seem emphasized in some way.
Kanji is used for the first two of three characters in the word 大好き (daisuki), which means “liked very much” or “loved.” The character 大 means “big” and the character 好 means “favorable” or “pleasing.” So “big pleasing” means “liking a lot” or “loving.” Although it is not 100% apparent from a simple example like this, once you know the meanings of the kanji, having them in sentences makes them (1) easier to read, because they break up what would otherwise be long strings of hiragana, and (2) easier to understand, because there are little “clues” to the meanings of each word in each kanji.
Hiragana is used for everything else in the sentence. It is used for the particles は (wa [irregular reading]) and が (ga), for です (desu), which is kind of like the verb “to be,” and for the final ki sound in 大好き (daisuki), which has no kanji.
Uh, wait a sec. Particles? Kind-of verbs? Yeah, sorry. You can learn about those when you get to our Bunkai Beast course or other grammar-related materials out there in the world. Let's not worry about it just yet.
Wait, do I have to learn all these characters right now?
I do recommend learning hiragana and katakana immediately, but kanji is an entirely different beast (which I'll discuss in the next lecture).
So, how do you learn hiragana and katakana?
If you want to thoroughly master these characters and their pronunciation, I would go through the entire Kana Course.
There is a simpler option, too, though:
Step #1:Print or save the following PDF and images.
Step #2: Download the following audio files (=the sound of each kana).
Step #3: Study each until you know both hiragana and katakana — an essential step in your journey to Japanese fluency.
So now we have the following:
- Unit #1 – Checking Yourself Before Wrecking Yourself
- Decide if you’re really committed to learning Japanese.
- Mentally prep yourself for high volumes of consistent, level-appropriate language exposure.
- Start listening to audio loops.
- Unit #2- First Steps to Learning Japanese
- Learn about Japanese pronunciation.
- Learn Hiragana.
- Learn Katakana
Are you getting overwhelmed yet?
If so, no worries! Just take this one day at a time. Learning Japanese is not a race. It’s an endurance test. Enjoy yourself, try to form habits, and have an awesome time on this journey.
Next we’re going to look at the monster that is kanji.