Course: 1 Pre-Lesson: A – Pronunciation Guide & The Basics

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Course 1 Lesson A
Pronunciation Guide & The Basics
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 Introduction 紹介Submit a Question
This area will show you some of what is going to come up in the Japanese From Zero! book series and YesJapan.com.

Why Learn Hiragana?

It’s important to know how powerful your Japanese will be if you can read and write it. Learning to read and write Japanese gives your brain a turbo boost in comprehension. You will immediately see how knowing the hiragana benefits your Japanese pronunciation. All of your life you have been reading the alphabet a certain way. You have learned that the letter combination “TO” sounds like the number 2. This instinct will be hard to overcome at first. In Japanese, to is read as “TOW”. If you read this like you were taught in grade school your Japanese accent would be pretty bad! But don’t worry – this book will teach you the correct way to read the Japanese hiragana writing system. Before you can learn hiragana and katakana, you will need to know how Japanese is represented in the Roman alphabet. This lesson will teach you how Japanese is pronounced. Let’s get started!

The Japanese Writing Systems

There are three Japanese writing systems:

  • hiragana (pronounced “hear-uh-gah-nah”)
  • katakana (pronounced “kah-tah-kah-nah”)
  • kanji (pronounced “kahn-jee”)

kanji are Chinese characters, and each one has a specific meaning. Many kanji have multiple meanings and can be read different ways. hiragana and katakana are phonetic characters derived from the more complicated kanji. They each represent a sound and do not have meaning by themselves. The three writing systems are used together to write Japanese. hiragana and kanji are used together to form all Japanese words. katakana is mostly used to represent words of foreign origin or any word that was not originally Japanese. In daily life the combination of these three systems, plus roman letters called ro-maji, are used in all types of media.

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 Correct Pronunciation 正しい発音Submit a Question
Welcome to the first YesJapan.com lesson! Your pronunciation of Japanese will improve the more you hear it and use it. Don't be discouraged if you don't sound perfect in the beginning!

A-1. The beginning!

This version of YesJapan teaches you how to read and write Japanese progressively. By Course 1, Lesson 9 you will know the entire hiragana writing system. You will begin learning hiragana after the Pre-Lessons. Before you can read hiragana, you need to understand how Japanese is represented using Roman letters (called ro-maji) . This Pre-Lesson should give you an idea of how things are pronounced. And remember – you don’t have to guess how a word is pronounced. You can simply click the sound button to hear it.

Since native English speakers have been taught to read with English pronunciation, it’s often difficult to learn how to read any other way. This leads to Japanese words spoken with a strong English accent. For example, you’ve been taught that the letter combination “TO” is pronounced like the number “2.” The reading of “TO” is already burned into your brain. By learning to read Japanese, you can avoid confusion. Instead of learning a new way of reading “TO”, you can learn the hiragana symbol to. Until you’re able to read Japanese, the pronunciation key below will help you learn the correct pronunciation of Japanese words written in ro-maji.

A-2. English VS Japanese Pronunciation

Anyone can sound great in Japanese. Although English is made up of over a thousand possible sounds, Japanese has many less. A little over a hundred sounds are all you need to speak Japanese. For this reason, it is much easier for English-speaking people to learn natural Japanese pronunciation than it is for Japanese speakers to learn natural English pronunciation. With just a few exceptions, Japanese sounds are based on the five vowel sounds in the next section.

A-3. Normal vowels

These sounds are short and simple, with no glide or lengthening.

For this reason, it is much easier for English-speaking people to learn natural Japanese pronunciation than it is for Japanese speakers to learn natural English pronunciation. With just a few exceptions, Japanese sounds are based on the following five vowel sounds:

Roman Letter Example
a akai
i inochi
u uma
e ebi
o otoko
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Now let’s look at some of the sounds that make up the Japanese language. Use the same pronunciation as above for the sound sets listed below.

ka, ki, ku, ke, ko sa, shi, su, se, so pa, pi, pu, pe, po
ga, gi, gu, ge, go na, ni, nu, ne, no ba, bi, bu, be, bo

The following phonetic sounds are based on the “normal vowel” sounds listed above. The only difference is how the sound starts. The phonetic sound ka is pronounced “kah” The phonetic sound shi is pronounced “shee”” The phonetic sound tsu is pronounced “tsoo” The phonetic sound ne is pronounced “neh” The phonetic sound po is pronounced “poh”

Look at the next group of words and try to guess how they sound. Try saying the word out loud before you click the sound button.

neko
cat

inu
dog

tamago
egg

usagi
rabbit

kumo
cloud

shukudai
homework

A-4. Double vowels

In Japanese it is common that sounds will be lengthened. For example, in some words you will see a sound such as KA followed by an A, or NE followed by E, etc., to lengthen the sound.

Some books will represent the lengthened sound with a straight line over the lengthened vowel. This method may help you verbally, but doesn’t help you when learning how to read and write Japanese. In Japanese from Zero!, A, I, U, E, or O is added to the sound that is to be lengthened just as the actual hiragana symbols are added to the word when written in Japanese. Look at the possible long vowel sound combinations.

Roman Letter Combination Example
Aa, a- okaasan
ii, i- ojiisan
Uu, u- kuuki
Ee, ei, e- oneesan
Oo, ou, o- otousan
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A-5. Be careful!

The meaning of Japanese words can change by the length of the syllables in the word. Look at the following examples to see how accidentally lengthening or shortening a word can change its meaning.

Examples
1. ie
house
2. iie
no
3. obasan
aunt
4. obaasan
grandmother
5. ojisan
uncle
6. ojiisan
grandfather

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A-6. Double consonants

Double consonants such as kk, pp, tt, (also including cch) must be stressed more than a single consonant or the meaning might change. Here are some common examples of words that are easily confused if the double consonants are ignored.

Examples
1. roku
six (6)
2. rokku
rock (music)
3. uta
song
4. utta
sold (past tense informal verb)
5. mata
again
6. matta
to have waited

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A-7. Cutoff and Whispered Sounds

Japanese, much like English sometimes doesn’t always follow it’s own rules. Sometimes words sound different than they are spelled. Luckily in Japanese this isn’t so common. Let’s look at a very common word that is often pronounced differently than you might expect. desu Even though you would expect it to sound like DE SU it sounds like DES. This is common among Japanese speakers, but it’s important to remember that there will be Japanese people whom sometimes pronounce it DESU without dropping the U on the end. You will learn what DESU word means in Course 1 Lesson 1. Let’s see if you can guess what the following phrase sounds like before you click the sound. Nansai desu ka. This also has the U cutoff from the end. Did you guess correctly?

Keep your eye open for sounds that are “whispered”. Whispered sounds are sounds that are said much quieter than the other sounds around it. Watch the video in the Related Videos Area from the George and Keiko Show to learn more about them.

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 Related Videos 関連ビデオSubmit a Question
The video(s) below help explain what is taught in this lesson. It is recommended that you first complete the lesson and then watch the video(s).

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 Pronunciation Help Submit a Question
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