It has been said that, in terms of all the languages in the world, pronouncing Japanese words is relatively easier in comparison. This is because Japanese has only five types of vowels, roughly 16 consonants and three special syllables. To put this into perspective, English contains more than 20 vowels and 24 consonants. There are, however, several confusing features for the Japanese language that language learners need to be aware of.
The following features of Japanese are very distinct from other foreign languages. If you master them, you will be able to speak the Japanese language as naturally as the Japanese people themselves!
- Word pitch accent.
- Sentence pitch accent (intonation).
Before we begin with forming a proper rhythm when speaking Japanese. You need to know what a hiragana and mora is. A hiragana is a Japanese syllabary or one component of the Japanese writing system. A mora is a unit in phonology that determines syllable weight, which (for some languages) determines the stress or timing of words.
So, one hiragana letter forms one on-beat unit called a mora. Unlike in English, there is basically no change in the length or speed of each sound based on a difference in stress. Simply pronouncing each mora with an equal length will make your speech sound more authentically Japanese. For example:
For this example, there are 12 moras in total; so it is important that the 12 beats appear at even intervals when saying this phrase.
Double consonants | っ
Japanese learners often skip ‘っ’ or compress it. ‘っ’ should, however, be said in the same length as the other moras. This is seen below:
- I ◯ sshu u kan i ◯ tte ma shi ta 。
- Make sure that ‘◯’ lasts for one beat.
Long vowels | う and え
Japanese learners often skip the long vowel ‘う’ or, vice versa, make it shorter. Instead, ‘う’ should also have the same length in time as the other moras. Please see below:
- I shu ◯ kan itte ma shi ta。
- Make sure here that ‘◯’ lasts long enough.
Syllabic nasal | ん
Japanese learners often say the sound ‘ん’ shorter or more vague than it actually should be. ‘ん’ should be pronounced clearly and be distinct from the preceding vowels. It should also maintain the same length as all the other moras.
- I sshu u ka [n] itte ma shi ta。
- Make sure to pronounce [n] clearly.
2) Pitch accent
Japanese stresses are expressed by a difference in pitch rather than depending on sentences and meanings. So how does one learn pitch for Japanese?, many students have asked, but there are no rules to this. Unfortunately, you simply have to just memorize examples one by one. Japanese pitch, can however, be divided into several patterns. Seen below:
- Pattern 1) 頭高 | atamadaka - The start (head) is a high pitch type.
- こ ↓ んど (Next time).
- Pattern 2) 中高 | nakadaka - The middle (body) is the high pitch type.
- に ↑ ほ ↓ ん (Japan).
- Pattern 3) 平板 | heiban - The middle (body) and end (tail) are both high pitch type (Flat).
- な ↑ まえ (name).
One definite rule is that the pitch of the sound between the first and second moras must absolutely change for any of the words in Japanese. This means, if the first pitch for the mora is low then the second pitch for the second mora must be high. Conversely, if the first pitch for the first mora is high then the second one must be low, for example:
- は ↓ し (chopstick) - high-low.
- は ↑ し (bridge) - low-high.
These moras must also always have the same pitch accent. Pronouncing these Japanese words’ pitch accents are always fixed, regardless of emotions or circumstances.
3) Pitch accent in a sentence
Japanese accents tend to disappear when words are connected, for example in sentences like the one below:
- にほんの うみは 日本の海は | nihon no umi wa
Japanese learners tend to be able to accent correctly a individual Japanese word. But in sentences, however, if the movement up and down in pitch becomes too intense then pronunciation starts to sound unnatural. Check this out in the examples below:
- に ↑ ほ ↓ んの ↑ う ↓ みは。
- に ↑ ほんのう ↓ みは。
- Here, there is almost no pitch change within the phrase ‘ほんのう’.
- ご ↑ らん ↓く ↑ ださい。
- ご ↑ らんくださ ↓ い。
- Here also, there is almost no pitch change within the phrase ‘らんくださ’. The pitch also sharply falls from the final ‘さ’ towards ‘い’.
By simply overcoming these three obstacles, your Japanese pronunciation will become much better! I hope you have enjoyed this article and that it can be a step in the right direction to help language learners tackle Japanese pronunciation properly. What are some of your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below! Good day.