Japanese is a fascinating language. However, learning how to speak it may be an uphill task. Especially if you do not have time for practice. It is critical to work on how you pronounce Japanese words in your journey of learning the language.
You will find that there are new sounds in Japanese that perhaps you’ve never come across if you are a pure English speaker. On the other hand, some sounds exist in English but don’t in Japanese. The more you practice to make the right sounds the better you become and the more effective your Japanese lessons will be.
Here are some tips to help you use Japanese phonetics like a pro.
Why Japanese phonetics?
Unlike Mandarin, Japanese is an atonal language. Therefore, the spelling of words is aligned to the phonetics and pronunciation rarely changes. You will notice during your Japanese classes that when words are written in romaji, they sound exactly as they appear. For instance, the word Toyota is pronounced as exactly as it appears. But you have to pronounce the vowels like in Spanish so that you get it right.
This phonetic approach is not only consistent but also somehow easy for Singaporean English speakers to grasp.
Start by focusing on simple sounds
We’ve talked about pronouncing Japanese vowels like is Spanish so that you can get it right. In your initial classes, you will learn that the Japanese language has five vowels:
- /a/ as pronounced in “task.”
- /e/ pronounced in “grace.”
- /i/ as pronounced in “feed.”
- /o/ as pronounced in the word “go.”
- /ɯ/, which sounds like the oo sound in “look.”
These vowels have a consistent pronunciation in Japanese and the best part is that you already know them in English.
In some cases, the vowels /i/ and /ɯ/ are silent when preceded or followed by certain consonants. However, this is not new to English speakers. The best way to get the pronunciation right is by learning a few simple Japanese words and practising regularly.
Practice the pronunciation
Your teacher may be held up with too many Japanese classes so he or she may not be able to offer dedicated speech coaching. But that does not mean you cannot practice when you are by yourself. Here’s a fun way to get started on the pronunciation practice.
- Get a news clip or a video that features a native Japanese speaker and has reliable subtitles.
- Select a sentence from the subtitles, read it, and listen to the speaker saying it again and again.
- Read the sentence once more and practice in front of a mirror.
- Watch your mouth movements and try to mimic what you heard from the native speaker.
- Use the recorder app on your smart-phone to record your speech and keep comparing your pronunciation with the native speaker’s.
Over the course of your Japanese classes, you will notice that consonants don’t always sound the same. Just like in English, the ‘g’ sound in the word ‘geese’ doesn’t sound the same as in the name ‘George.’
Such is the effect of palatalization, and it also exists in Japanese. However, when written in Katakana, these palatalized sounds are represented by “smaller” kanas adjacent to the bigger ones. They express the new sound. For instance, “び+よwould be びょ.”
Don’t be intimidated. This is just like English, where the phonetics are consistent and you find that you will improve as you practice.