Care about being and “sounding” fluent?
Yes? Good. You’re about to skip over the millions of Japanese Beginners that have absolutely horrible pronunciations like “sookee,” “desoooooo” and the American R. But first, let’s get this out of the way.
Is perfect Japanese pronunciation NECESSARY?
To be honest, no. Japanese people will understand you. For beginners and people that want survival/travel phrases, no need. In general, you’re expected to
suck not have perfect Japanese. However, if you live in Japan, want to be taken seriously by native Japanese speakers… OR if you want to hear the “日本語うまー” compliments until you’re tired of hearing them because you know you’re still NOT that good… then you should take pronunciation seriously.
So, here’s how Japanese pronunciation works. And it’s easy, don’t worry.
Know the alphabet – Hiragana/Katakana?
If not, stop. Master Hiragana and read this first: How To Learn Japanese Hiragana in Under 1 Hour. Part 1
If Yes… then you already know that most letters are combination of 1 consonant and 1 vowel. If you know your Japanese vowels (c’mon, there are ONLY 5…) you’re pretty much set.
- あ – A. Pronounced as “Ah” like in “Bah!”
- い – I. Pronounced as “Ee” like in “Meet.”
- う – U. Pronounced as “Oo” like in “Moo.”
- え – E. Pronounced as “Eh” like in “Get”
- お – O. Pronounced as “Oh” like in “Bought” or “Roar”
Know the vowels? Then you can pronounce pretty much any Japanese letter. Most letters are combination of 1 consonant and 1 vowel. So, か is Ka, ら is Ra, and ぐ is Gu. Now, vowels can be by themselves. Just the nature of the Japanese alphabet Not hard at all, right? So here’s the first rule of Japanese pronunciation…
1) Each Japanese character, whether consonant+vowel or standalone vowel counts as a syllable.
Take words like…
- ねこ meaning cat, has 2 syllables – ne, ko.
- あらわす meaning “to wash” has 4 syllables – a, ra, wa, su
- せんせい meaning “teacher” has 4 syllables, – se, n, se, i
- きょう meaning “today” has 2 syllables, kyo-u
- アパート meaning “apartment” has 3 syllables – a,pa-,to
In short, the large, full width-kana (including a small や、ゆ、よ、つ and elongated vowels marked by “ー” like in アパート) are counted as one syllable. Got it? Good.
Here’s the second rule to remember about Japanese pronunciation.
2) Each syllable is pronounced for the same length of time with EQUAL stress.
In English, the word “America” has a bit of a stress on the “mer.” It’s kind of like “Ah, Meri, Ka.” The “meri” sounds smushed together and is counted as 1 syllable.
In Japanese, America, or アメリカ, is pronounced differently. Each of the 4 Katakana character you see are given the same length of time and there are 4 syllables. It sounds more like “Ah, Meh, Ri, Kah.”
Another example is the city name, Tokyo. In English, you pronounce it with 2 syllables are “Tow-Kyow.”
In Japanese, Tokyo is とうきょう with 4 syllables (see the 4 full-width kana?) So, it’s pronounced as To-U-Kyo-U.
3) Final Rule: Japanese is read as it’s written for the most part.
You can also watch a Japanese Pronunciation Video Lesson below and hear the Japanese Pronunciation Audio to make sense of this. Click below to sign up for free and find the Pronunciation Lesson in the Video Lessons.
Japanese Pronunciation Rules and Warnings: Top Tips You Should Know To Not Sound Awful.
Just when you thought you mastered it. Wham! Of course, no language comes without rules, exceptions and other crazy change-ups. Here are some pronunciation tips to keep in mind.
- When you see the letter, SU, す in a word… the U in SU can be omitted in the following 2 examples. Ignore these at your own peril.
- Words like すき, SUKI, are NOT pronounced as “SOO-KEE” but rather “SKee.” Please remember this otherwise you sound like an awful anime watcher.
- Words like です, DESU, are not pronunced as “DE-SOOOO” but rather “Des.”
- When you see して/SHITE、してる/SHITERU、した/SHITA or anything that contains SHITE, ignore the I.
- して is not “shee-teh” but just “sh-te.” した is not “shee-tah” but “sh-tah.”
- Don’t apply your own interpretations of pronunciation please. わたし/Watashi is not “Wa-TAHHHH-shee” but a simple wa•ta•shi.
- Learn to trill your R’s just a little bit.
And that’s it. If you think this guide is missing anything, leave a comment below. Let me know what you think.
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