Why Japanese Is Mad-Easy to Pronounce
I love the sound of Japanese.
Don't get me wrong―I love English, too (sometimes).
But no language has ever lured me in with its rhythmic phonemes quite like Japanese does.
One of my favorite phrases in Japanese is 語呂がいい (goro ga ii), which means "(something) has a nice ring to it."
In American English, that’d be pronounced:
GO (like GO, GOal, GOat )
RO (like eat ROe, and ROw, ROw, ROw your boat)*
GA (like, GOne, GOt, GOd)
EE (like [an extra long] rEEEd, blEEEd, fEEEt)
語呂がいい (goro ga ii).
*Pronunciation Note: That “r” in RO is actually somewhere between an “R” and “L” sound. Specifically, it is like the “t” sound in “auto” or the “tt” sound in “butter” or “better” as they are said in American English. (For you linguistic masters, this is because the Japanese “r” varies between a postalveolar flap [ɽ] and an alveolar lateral flap [ɺ]… not that I really understand what that means ^_^.) With English “R” sounds, one’s tongue will typically touch the top of their mouth way in the back. It may help to note that Japanese speakers (when speaking English) have a very hard time making “R” sounds but not “L” sounds, because they never place their tongues so far back like this. I’ll talk about this a bit later when exploring common pronunciation mistakes made by us 外人 (gaijin, “foreigners,” [Literally: “outside person”]).
Anyways, yeah, the closest English to 語呂がいい (goro ga ii) is probably “(something) has a nice ring to it.”
So you can say this about words and/or sentences that have a nice ring to them. All you have to do is place the thing that has a nice ring to it in front of this phrase, with the particle は (though this character is "ha," as a particle [how we're using it here], it's pronounced "wa") connecting the two…
この kono means “this.”
言葉 kotoba means “word.”
名前 namae means “name.”
文 bun means “sentence.”
は wa is a particle for marking topics in Japanese. (I’ll melt your brain with detailed explanations about particles in the Bunkai Beast Grammar Guide. For now, don’t fret.)
This word has a nice ring to it.
This name has a nice ring to it.
This sentence has a nice ring to it.
Anyway, let’s take a more practical, less entertaining look at Japanese pronunciation…
Japanese is one of the easiest languages to pronounce in the world. That said, in this course I’d like to provide a methodical, in-depth look at the sounds of Japanese. I think it’s important to really break down the sounds of a foreign language so that you can mimic them appropriately. Also, if you’re trying to impress people with your Japanese skills, good pronunciation is probably more important than good grammar or vocab.
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 ]
(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. I’ll point out some of the trickier sounds in the following sections. So no sweat, yo.
The sounds of Japanese will always appear as a “syllable” (actually, a mora, which I’ll talk about in a second) 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.
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.
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
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
Now, here is every single sound that you can make with the “p” consonant:
- “p” syllables
- pa (“pah”) ぱ
- pi (“pee”) ぴ
- pu (“poo”) ぷ
- pe (“peh”) ぺ
- po (“poh”) ぽ
- pya (“pyah”) ぴゃ
- pyu (“pyoo”) ぴゅ
- pyo (“pyoh”) ぴょ
Catching the pattern here? As you can see, the sound constructions of Japanese are pretty simple. Admittedly, in those three lists above, I’m leaving out some of the less straightforward sound constructions, but we’ll look at those in a minute. Before doing that, though, I’d like to point out why Japanese “syllables” aren’t really syllables after all…
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