You’re 10% of the way to speaking Japanese with this one trick
Now that we’ve got the click bait headline out of the way let’s get down to today’s lesson – basic Japanese pronunciation and how English is used and pronounced in everyday Japanese. One study suggests anywhere between 5% to 10% of modern Japanese is derived from English.
We are just teaching Japanese pronunciation and loanwords so we are just going to use katakana and the western derived romaji. Romaji is the Japanese word for the roman characters that western language speakers already know. In the context of Japanese romaji is what is used to teach the gaijin and for signs and such within Japan to assist westerners.
Naturally, the Japanese couldn’t be bothered to use the same version of romaji that is used to teach foreigners, Hepburn, and created their own version called Kunrei-shiki. For our purposes, the two are mostly the same.
For those keeping count that means that are four “official” ways to write Japanese – kanji, hiragana, katakana, and romaji.
It sounds like what?
To an English speaker Japanese doesn’t share much vocabulary with English compared to Romance languages. It also has very different grammar and sentence construction. However, for an English speaker the pronunciation is very straightforward. Almost all the sounds in Japanese are already used in English. That means with a relatively short lesson we can have you able to read and pronounce Romanized Japanese words like names, places, movie titles, etc.
Let’s review the following chart:
The first row is katakana and the second row is romaji. We are only focusing on the reassuring roman characters at the bottom of each box. Focusing on just the “vowel” section the first row goes – a, i, u, e, o. The next row is ka, ki, ku, ke, ko. Are you beginning to see the pattern? It’s generally consonant (or consonant with a “y” sound) plus a, i, u, e, o.
Japanese generally doesn’t have the same concept as consonants and vowels in English. Instead Japanese’s building blocks are mora, essentially syllables. The chart above contains essentially every basic sound in Japanese. If you can pronounce these syllables then you can say anything in Japanese.
Don’t read Romanized Japanese as English!
The biggest mistake English speaker make is reading Romanized Japanese as English. There are no “long vowels” and “short vowels”. The vowels sounds for Japanese are:
A – sounds like the “a” in father
I – sounds like “ea” in “seat”
U – sounds like “oo” in “boo” as in what you say when you want to startle somebody
E – sounds like the “e” in “set”
O – sounds like “o” in “so”
- Ban – prohibit (short “a”)
- Bane – a cause of great distress or annoyance (long a because of the “e” at the end)
- Bane (ばね)- spring (e.g. coil, leaf). It’s pronounced “bah neigh”. Notice unlike ban and bane that the Japanese is TWO syllables.
That’s really the biggest obstacle to reading Romanized Japanese – remember to only pronounce the vowels one way and to make the consonant and vowel pairs form syllables.
All the other stuff…
Naturally, it’s not quite that simple there are few other quirks and things to keep in mind.
- The “R” sound. Surprising few people, Japanese speakers have trouble distinguishing between “R” and “L”. Part of that reason is that depending on the word the sound fluctuates between what an English speaker hears as an “R” and “L”. In Japanese, the ra, ri, ru, re, ro row isn’t pronounced like an English “R”. The tongue starts at the top of the palate. I’m not a Spanish speaker, but have read it’s very similar to a Spanish “R”.
- Intonation and stress in Japanese is very different from English. It most certainly DOES exist, but for an English speaker trying to not sound ridiculously wrong in Japanese you are better off pronouncing everything “flat” and give equal weight to all the syllables. You’ll pretty much be wrong 100% of the time, but you will sound much more natural and mostly be understood. Much more so than using English stress.
- The “tsu” sound. This one just doesn’t exist in English. You are probably familiar with the word “tsunami”. It sounds a bit like clicking your tongue and saying the name “Sue”. Touching your tongue to the roof of your mouth is the key here and it is important as that is how you distinguish from the Japanese “su” sound. This distinction can be quite difficult to hear initially.
- The one “consonant” in Japanese ン or ん “N”. It’s a bit of an oddball, but the sound is the same as English. You are probably familiar with it from “hello” or “good day”, こんにちは or koN ni chi wa. Notice how this word doesn’t read or sound the way you are used to hearing it. That “N” attaches to the first syllable and phrase is FOUR syllables long.
- The small “tsu” or ッ. The small “tsu” in romaji is written as doubled consonant. I honestly have no idea how this crazy double consonant convention came to be. It’s used to signify a pause and has no effect on pronunciation. For example, ブック or bukku which can be used for “book”. In this you say “bu” briefly pause and say “ku”.
- I’ve saved the trickiest one for last. You will read doubled vowel sounds in romaji. Like the small “tsu” above this has nothing to with how the vowel sounds, instead it means you prolong the vowel sound. For example, ビル or “biru” means “building”. But ビール or “biiru” means “beer”. To say the word imagine it taking THREE syllables worth of time, but said as only TWO syllables – BII RU with an extension of the first sound.
- Tokyo – English spelling for the capital of Japan
- 東京- kanji for Tokyo and normally what you see in public signs
- But Tokyo can be properly written as とうきょう – in hiragana. Note the う character here. That’s telling you the Tokyo is pronounced “toukyou” (Hepburn) or Tōkyō (Kunrei-shiki). The marks over the “o” here tell you to extend the length of the vowel, but NOT to change the pronunciation. You’ll note here the doubled vowel is two different vowels o and u, but the sound is still “o”.
OK, let’s put our knowledge to work
Surprisingly, Wikipedia has lengthy page on gairaigo and wasei-eigo which mean “foreign words” and “Japanese-English words” respectively. I’ll pull some highlights here that you might find interesting. Naturally there are many, many more than what I’ve highlighted here and on the Wiki page.
For extra credit
I’ve selected an especially “useful” YouTube video for you to practice your newfound Japanese language skills. Like lots of J-Pop it contains actual English choruses to be “trendy” plus the English that has become part everyday usage in Japanese. Both English and Japanese subtitles are available if you click on the CC symbol.
I’d recommend watching it with English subtitles first so you can hear how Japanese people pronounce English. Big issues for Japanese speakers are the “th” sound and the final “t” sound in English. So for example. “thank you” becomes サンキュー or “san kyuu” and “heart” becomes ハート or “haato”.
If your stomach can take it I’d suggest watching it a second time with the Japanese subtitles. In the Japanese subtitles where you see English sentences and characters that’s an intentional insertion of English to be cool. Where you see English written in katakana that’s English that is in everyday use in Japanese language.