How To Pronounce Japanese: “A I U E O” (あ い う え お)

This guide is a part of my ULTIMATE Pronunciation guide. If you haven’t seen the first part yet, make sure to check out from the beginning here.

My first temptation when writing this guide was to provide examples of these sounds in terms of how they might sound in English words, but this would be misguided given that there are countries all over the world that pronounce English differently. Therefore, I have provided letters in the form of the International Phonetic Alphabet along with audio clips to demonstrate the sounds.

Now that you have a solid grasp on what a mora is, it’s time to apply that knowledge as we learn the first 5 (and most important) sounds that make up the Japanese language. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

Hiragana       Romaji      IPA(what’s this?)
あ                       a                      a
い                       i                       i
う                       u                    
え                       e                     e
お                   o                     o

If the Japanese letters are the bricks that build the Japanese language, then these five sounds are the clay that make the bricks! These five sounds are in 98% of the entire Japanese alphabet. This is one of the main reasons that people find learning Japanese sounds relatively easy. This is also why people tend to learn new sounds and hiragana in series of five. Each new set of sounds you learn from here on out will contain these sounds plus one or two new “consonant” components.

One habit you may have to break when remembering these letters is how you put them in order. In English, vowel sounds are ordered “A E I O U”. The first five sounds of Japanese, however, are ordered “A I U E O”. It is very important that you keep these two separate as not only are they ordered differently, but they are also pronounced differently.

It really is that simple, and if I weren’t making the ULTIMATE guide to pronunciation I could end it here and be confident that you know enough about these letters to move on to the next set of 5 once you can pronounce these sounds. However, this guide is indeed “ultimate” and my conscience won’t let me be a liar, so I will go through a plethora of examples and define as many nuances as I can find. Lucky you!

Examples, Nuances, and Such

I will break down each letter with examples that encompass as many uses of the letter as I can think of.  This is a good opportunity to listen to each word and try to hear the sound as it’s being used – keeping in mind what you learned about morae in the previous article (you did read it, didn’t you?). Also, don’t feel that you need to memorize any of the meanings of the words as this guide focuses strictly on pronunciation and not vocabulary building.

あ – A

Some words that contain あ are:

Hiragana   Romaji    Meaning
か                     aka                red
り                     ari                  ant
し                     ashi               foot/leg
い                     ai                    love
たま                 atama           head
たらしい        atarashii       new
おかさん        okaasan        mother
い                 baai                case/situation

can also be used to indicate surprise. I wouldn’t really classify this as a “word” as it’s akin to the English “huh?” or “hnh?”, but it’s worth a mention.

っ!何それ!?
a! nanisore!?
Huh? What’s that!?

い – I

Some words that contain い are:

Hiragana      Romaji      Meaning
い                            i                     stomach
いい                       ii                    good     
く                       iku                 go
ぬ                       inu                 dog 
にち             mainichi       everyday
くらい                  kurai             dark
っぱい              ippai             full
あたらしい         atarashii      new

You will commonly find this letter at the end of adjectives – in fact this is so common that there are grammar rules associated with “い adjectives”. You can read more about い adjectives on Tae Kim’s grammar guide – an excellent resource for all things related to Japanese grammar.

う- U

Some words that contain うare:

Hiragana     Romaji      Meaning
ま                     uma               horse
み                     umi                ocean
しろ                ushiro            behind
ちゅう            uchuu           space
きょう        toukyou        Tokyo (city)
う             koutsuu        traffic
う                      au                   meet

Other Uses For “う”

う can also be used to sound out a groan:

ー、 お腹いったい.
Uuu 、onaka ittai
Ugh, My stomach hurts.

え –  E

Some words that contain are:

Hiragana     Romaji        Meaning
だまめ        edamame       soybean
らい             erai                  admirable
こうん         kouen              park
る             haeru               to grow/spring up/emerge(teeth)
え                  koe                   voice
え                  mae                  front/before (location)/before (time)
こたえ              kotae               answer

What You Should Know About “Ye”

You may know that English the word for the Japanese currency is “Yen”. There is actually no letter in the current Japanese alphabet that makes a “ye” sound.  The real way to spell Yen is “ん (en)”, so in many of the cases that you see “ye”, it is very likely pronounced え instead.

This is because hundreds of years ago “” used to have a very similar pronunciation to “ye”, and so the characters were romanized this way and for some reason have stayed romanized this way. However, this is no longer the case.

Other Uses For え

Thesound can also be used to sound surprise, much like あ. It can also be used to sound out disbelief.

Surprise:
!何それ!?
e! nanisore!?
Huh? What’s that!?

Disbelief:
ー!? まじで?
ee!? Maji de?
Huh!? Seriously?

お  –  O

Some words that contain are:

Hiragana      Romaji      Meaning
いしい  oishii              delicious
うさま         ousama          king
とうさん     otousan         father
おおい              ooi                  many
り              koori              ice
お                   shio               salt
お                   kao                face

This is one of the most straightforward of the five letters that you have learned. The sound is likely something you are used to pronouncing, and the romaji associated with it is very similar to it’s English counterpart. You will commonly find it at the beginning of a noun making it more polite, this is called an honorific prefix.

Other Uses For お

can be used to indicate pleasant surprise:

ー! すごい!
Oo! Sugoi!
Wow! Amazing!

I hope  you found this guide useful. If you did (or even if you didn’t) let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear your input!

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What I Wish I Knew Before Learning Kanji: A Quick Guide to Radicals

This is a guest post! If you like Japan– or comics– check out my site at I think in comics!

I remember my first day of Japanese class.

The first way I was first taught kanji, as far as I could tell, lacked rhyme or reason. Each week, we’d be given a new set of jumbled lines and strokes and curves to somehow fit together into a coherent character. Now, if you’re anything like me, you find kanji intimidating. Difficult. Hard to memorize.

The reason for this is that we’re taught kanji the same way Japanese grade schoolers are: from simplest meaning to more complex meaning. Which means you’ll learn kanji like

before you learn

Now, this makes absolutely no sense to a college student like me. We’re old. We understand those more complex meanings. Isn’t there a better way to learn kanji?

And there is. One that’s actually logical. One that makes kanji much easier to memorize and understand. And that way is…

Kanji radicals, or “bushu” (部首) are simply kanji sub-units. Most kanji are composed of one or more radicals. Let’s give an example…

In fact, kanji dictionaries are usually organized by radical.

Some radicals are actually kanji themselves that can work alone with their own meaning.

Other radicals are modified forms of stand-alone kanji. In their modified form, they cannot be used alone. What do I mean? Let’s take a look at the character for water:

So that’s fun and all. But what’s the purpose of learning radicals?

Sometimes, when faced with a kanji you don’t know, you can actually discern the general meaning using radicals. It’s a bit like trying to figure out the meaning of an English word by prefixes, suffixes, and root words.

And it can make sense with kanji as well:

But not all English words make sense in terms of prefixes and suffixes. It’s the same with kanji: more often than not, a kanji’s radicals will not connect to the kanji’s actual meaning. I still remember learning the kanji for mizuumi, (みずうみ)or lake:

Water, old, moon? It doesn’t really make much sense.

What’s the point of learning radicals, then? Radicals, as I’ve discovered, work really, really well as a memorization tool. Once you learn the basic radicals, you can use them to build larger characters. You can even come up with fun little mnemonics to help the process.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for memorizing kanji, but radicals are a great way to get started. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t learn about radicals until three years into studying Japanese– and even then, I learned about them from my tutor (yup– sadly, I get tutored) and not in class. But it’s never too late– I’ll definitely be studying more about radicals in the months to come!

And now, some disclaimers:

I’m not a Japanese teacher– I simply had the honor of being invited to write a guest post for Aha! Sensei. If you liked this post, you can check out my site, I think in comics!

I’m no expert, by any means. If you’d like to know more, I’d check out these pages (because I certainly did while writing this post)

The 5 Biggest Mistakes People Make When Learning Kanji 

 Kanji Radicals 

Kanji Facts 

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Immersion: The Fastest Way To Learn Japanese

If I could fit more words into the title it would read:

“Immersion: The Fastest Way To Learn Japanese and The ONLY Way To Become Fluent.”

Here’s why – you did not grow up learning your native language. You grew up living it. The language you were subjected to was not carefully prepared and handpicked for your particular “level” of understanding, you were bombarded 24/7 with language every single day from a trillion (yes, trillion) different sources.

Your parents, the T.V., the radio, strangers, friends, family all spoke to you in your language all the time. It was not a sterile environment with textbooks and flashcards. It was a living breathing fully immersed world, and your young and open mind absorbed tiny bits of language information every hour of every day.

A great language student will strive to replicate this environment as completely as possible. To learn from many different sources will help you to maximize the amount of neural connections you make and retain every single day. The Japanese words and phrases that feel the most natural for me are the ones that I picked up by watching a Studio Ghibli movie or hearing in a song I really liked shortly after learning a new word.

It is the strangest thing, and I’m fairly certain all of you have experienced this to some degree. You can study vocabulary lists for weeks straight but the words just leave your head as easily as they went in it, but one day you just hear a word in a song or on a show – one of the very same words you were just studying and now the word just wont leave. You couldn’t forget it even if you wanted to.

The most glaring example of this that I can find in my own personal studies is the word
“皆” (みな). For some reason I just could not get this word to stay in my head – it was just one of those flashcards that I always seemed to forget. One day, however, I was watching Nausicaa and one of the characters had said it. That very moment something happened in my brain, a gear clanked right into the right place or something, and ever since that day I never missed that word when it was said – even if I didn’t understand any other word in a sentence, I could still pick that one out.

We Are The Borg. You WILL Be Assimilated.

What I did from then on out was force myself to watch some form of Japanese media every day until this same phenomenon occurred, and almost every time I did I picked up a new word that just stuck with me. The beautiful thing is, the more sources of media I added (books, radio, internet articles, etc…) the more often I could make these connections and the more rapidly I retained information. There came to a point where the only real “studying” I was doing was writing Kanji, and the rest was just assimilating the information.

I am going to issue a challenge to anybody reading this article. Go out and find one form of media to watch/read/listen to/whatever under the following criteria:

  • Have fun!
  • It has to come from Japan.
  • It has to be targeted to Japanese speakers.
  • It has to be something you enjoy.
  • It cannot contain subtitles or translations.
  • Seriously, have fun!

Now just listen and pay attention. That is it! Don’t try to manufacture the experience by reviewing scripts or lyrics first, just watch and listen. If you notice a word being said often, yet you don’t know the meaning of the word, look it up (just like you would with your native language), you will very likely not forget this new word.

Don’t Limit Yourself!

Don’t JUST watch anime. Don’t JUST listen to J-Rock. Don’t JUST change the voices on Street Fighter 4 to Japanese. Really go out there and try to find new things. The more variety of media sources you expose yourself to, the more unique vocabulary and grammar you are also exposing yourself to – meaning new opportunities to learn Japanese naturally!

If you really want to get motivated (and stay motivated) to immerse yourself, check out Khatzumoto’s blog – All Japanese All The Time. This guy really has immersion figured out. This is a great resource.

Like this blog? Have any questions? Let me know in the comments below!

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The ULTIMATE guide to Japanese Pronunciation.

Part 1 – Pacing and Tone

Yes, you read it correctly. My goal with this series is to create the most comprehensive guide to Japanese pronunciation on the internet. Many websites that teach Japanese will give pronunciation a brief mention, but not much more. What’s more – many language students get so caught up with vocabulary and grammar that they forget about pronunciation.

Here’s the thing – Spoken languages ARE pronunciation. How words are formed is the stuff of all spoken languages in the world, so why not give them more than a brief glance? Can you remember the last time you tried listening to somebody with a really thick foreign accent? Can you remember how painful that was for both of you? Do yourself a favor and give this article more than a scribble on your to do list.

Before We Get Started

First, before I say anything else, let me say this – Pronouncing Japanese is not that hard. It really isn’t, it’s just different. Once you can get a firm grasp of the basics, you will breeze through the sounds like a beast.

Now that we got that out of the way -I am going to start this article assuming you know little to nothing about Japanese pronunciation. Even if this does not apply to you, I still encourage you to read this in it’s entirety because at the very minimum this will be a very good review. As I previously mentioned, this will be a comprehensive guide which will require me to break it down in to several smaller articles to make it easier to digest.

It is important to realize when reading this guide that Japanese is not English. Japanese evolved over the course of thousands of years on the opposite side of the world. As English speakers, our English speaking tendencies tend to creep their way into our language studies because we think in English.

Take a couple of minutes to clear your mind and be prepared to view Japanese from a mindset that is free of English speaking bias. You will be glad you did.

A Couple Quick Notes

My examples will be in hiragana (Japanese letters) as well as romaji (roman letters). I do not in any way condone the use of romaji other than as a bridge to learning hiragana, but I understand that this guide will be read by Japanese students of different skill levels, so I will include romaji.

Also, this guide covers 標準語 (hyoujungo – or “standard language”), which is the standard dialect of Japan. This is not to be confused with the modern 東京弁 (Toukyouben – or “Tokyo dialect”) which has split off of the standard dialect in recent years. Japan has many dialects that may not follow the same rules (especially with regards to pitch-accent), so do keep this in mind if you encounter something “different”.

What is a Mora, and What Does It Do?  

The Japanese phonetic structure is different from English all the way down to the individual letters. In English, we are given the freedom to stress certain vowels differently depending context. We also separate “consonant” sounds and “vowel” sounds. However, in Japanese each letter is given the same weight and measure every single time. This weight and measure is called a mora in linguistics.

Here is a good analogy that I like to teach my students – Think of an English word as being made out of lumber. The consonants support the structure of the vowel sounds, but you can cut the vowel sounds to be as long as you need them to be. Moreover, the lumber is flexible and can bend if you need it to.

Japanese words however are made out of brick. Each letter is placed one after another with no variation in length, and do not bend. The “bricks” in this case are mora. Here is an example:

Cat
ねこ (neko)

In English we stress the “C” and the “T” far less that we stress the “A”. The vowel sound makes up the meat of the word. If you try to say “cat” slowly, yet give each letter the same stress, it sounds weird.

ねこ on the other hand is pronounced with “ね (ne)” and “こ (ko)” having equal stress. In this case “ね” is one mora, and “こ” is another.

You can listen here:

Difference Between Morae and Syllables

It can be very easy for the beginner to confuse morae and syllables so I would like to clarify the difference without getting to heavy into linguistic theory. The easiest way to think of a syllable is a complete vowel sound. Because of this – one syllable can contain several morae. Take, for instance, the Japanese word for hospital:

びょういん (Byouin)

This word has two distinct vowel sounds “びょう (byou)” and “いん (in)” and therefore has two syllables. This word however has 4 morae びょ (byo), う(u), い(i), and ん(n).

Emphasis and Tonality

We often change tone to emphasize meaning.

That is a cat.
That is a cat.
That is a cat.

All three of these sentences have different implications. Japanese also has instances in which you change your tonality, but until you learn what these instances are, it is very important that you don’t let your English tonality carry over into your Japanese. Even if you pronounce every single letter perfectly, if your tonality fluctuates too much, you will have a strong accent.

You might find that this makes you sound boring and robotic – good. It means you are doing it right. As you become more fluent, you will begin to notice words and word structures that have intonation and incorporate these into your speaking, but be aware that you will not be able to do this until you have an ear for Japanese. For now – keep it simple.

Pitch Accent – Tonality That Changes Word Meaning

As you expand your Japanese vocabulary you will run into certain words that change their meaning depending on their pitch. Don’t be too intimidated by this as they aren’t too common. One thing that helps my students is knowing that there are words in English like this. Take the word “record” for instance. This word can have two different pronunciations depending on the context.

While this specific example is not pitch accent, it will help ease you into the idea that words that are spelled the same can have different pronunciations and consequently different meanings.

I could write an entire article on pitch accent rules, but I think it’s only important that you know that it exists. In my experience, words with pitch-accents have been something I picked up as a course of trial and error – not rote memorization. However, for those of you that are linguistically curious here is a link to the wiki with a more depth explanation.

Basically there are three types of pitch accents in standard Japanese. There are pitch accents with an accent on the first mora (high to low), the second mora (low to high), and then neutral pitch accent (no pitch accent).

I collaborated with some native Japanese speakers to get some off-the-top-of-their-heads examples and this is what we came up with:

Accent on first mora                         Accent on second mora/neutral
箸 – はし – (hashi – chopsticks)          橋——–はし – (hashi – bridge)
今 – いま – (ima – now)                   居間 —–いま – (ima – living room)
雨 – あめ – (ame – rain)                     飴——–あめ – (ame – candy)
鮭 – さけ – (sake – salmon)                酒——–さけ – (sake – alcohol)
神 – かみ – (kami – spirit/god)           紙——–かみ – (kami – paper)

If you listen closely you can hear the first instance of the words have a high-to-low pitch accent, and the second accent has a low-to-high pitch accent (or no pitch accent).

Some linguists would burn me for lumping neutral pitch accents with accents on the second mora, but I find that it’s so difficult for beginners to tell the difference (and even for native some speakers!), so I don’t think it matters on a practical level. That being said, please keep in mind that they are indeed different.

So, In summary, remember that each “letter” is called a mora and each mora is pronounced for the same length of time. Remember to keep your tonality at a relatively flat level until you can learn the nuances of Japanese. And finally, there are some (but few) words in Japanese that have different meanings depending on their pitch. In the next article we will be getting into the actual sounds that make up the Japanese language

As always, if you have any questions, let me know in the comments below. And if you found this article helpful, share it with friends!

Next->


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Japanese Protip: Be Okay With Being WRONG

“Don’t fear failure.  Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.” -Bruce Lee

Nobody likes being wrong – It’s a very unpleasant feeling. That slightly embarrassed and frustrated feeling we all get when we are wrong will likely make you wary of making more embarrassing and frustrating mistakes further down the road.

To seek good feelings and avoid bad feelings is the state of mind we are all hard-wired with. It makes sense on an intuitive level – if it feels good it must be good for you. If it hurts, feels bad, makes you sad, or makes you angry, it must be bad for you.

Forget about that. You can choose to let these emotions hinder you, and block you from getting what you want -or- you can choose to take full advantage of these emotions and really beef up your Japanese skills.

Close your eyes and try to recall the most vivid memory you have, happy or sad. Chances are that the memory you recalled was something that was VERY emotionally charged. Things like your first kiss, the day a loved one died, your favorite christmas – these things stick with you. This is because emotions have this way of forcing your brain into remembering things.

So what if you could not only abolish your fears of making mistakes, but actually become a better student by actually MAKING them? Some of the best Japanese lessons you will learn will not come from a book, but from the pure application of what you have learned.

Slipping up and telling your Japanese friend (you DO have one, don’t you?) that you need to buy the world (せけん)and not soap(せっけん)takes a couple of seconds, yet the embarrassment you feel  when you are corrected will sear the lesson into your brain and you will NEVER make that mistake again. How long would you have to sit there with flash cards repeating these to words to force yourself to remember them otherwise? Too long. And whose to say you won’t forget them anyway?

Progress by it’s very nature does not feel good. Progress forces us out of our comfort zones and makes us do things we don’t want to do. Forcing yourself to do something that you are uncomfortable with is not fun. Whether you are intimidated by Kanji, or find the very idea of speaking to a native speaker terrifying, this is something you are going to have to break through if you want to make it. The sooner, the better.

What about you? What was the greatest lesson you’ve learned from your mistake? Let me know in a comment!

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Having Trouble With The Little っ? Look No Further!

Fist I would like to address what the little っ is to anybody who may have seen it and wondered what it’s for – or doesn’t even know it exists! I will be not using romaji in this lesson so I recommend you to brush up on your hiragana before moving on.

In short, the little っ  signals you to hold onto the consonant sound for the duration of one mora. As you may recall from your hiragana studies, the sound of each hiragana character should be for the same duration each and every time you say it. This span of time is called a mora (not to be confused with a syllable; you can find more about this distinction here)

Here are some examples of words with the little っ:

せっけん  (soap)
きって   (stamp)
いっぱい  (full)
ゆっくり   (slow)
いっさい (one year old)

 

Let’s take ゆっくり  for a specific example.

If you were to read this without the little っ you would simply sound out every letter with the same tone at the same pace ゆ-く-り. With the little っ however you are going to be holding onto the “k” consonant sound in  く with your tongue for one mora.

ゆ- っ -く-り.

I would like to clarify that this is NOT just a pause. Many sources will teach it as a pause and this is the incorrect way to practice it.  It is very important that you hold on to that consonant sound. By “hold on to the consonant sound” I mean put your mouth in position to pronounce the sound, but don’t let air through. For all of the linguistics buffs out there, this is called “gemination“.

For the か き く け こ sounds, you will feel this in the back of your tongue. For the た ち つ て と sounds, you will feel it closer to the front. For the さ し す せ そ sounds you will actually pronounce the “s” sound for the duration of the little っ like you are pretending to be a snake.

The little っ is not just a polite suggestion. It’s a steadfast rule! If you neglect to pronounce it, you are changing the word just as if you omitted any other hiragana character. Treat the little っ with the same value that you treat every other hiragana character and you will save yourself some embarrassment in the future.

Here are some other fun uses for the little っ.

  • しっ! (Shh!)
  •  わっ! (Boo!)
  • あっはっはっはっは!(Muahahaha!)
  •  はいっ! (A stronger, more confident version of はい)

I hope I cleared up confusion for some of you, and I hope I saved at least somebody some time and embarrassment with this article. If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions LET ME KNOW! I would really love to hear from you.

If you found this article useful, please share it with anybody you know who is also studying Japanese, maybe they will find it useful as well :D.

Posted in Hiragana, Pronunciation, Writing | 7 Comments

Do I Need To Meet A Japanese Person To Become Fluent?

The simple answer is – theoretically no. I imagine it is possible to become fluent without the aid of a native Japanese speaker. That being said, knowing somebody who speaks Japanese will aid you tremendously in your studies.

If you don’t know any native Japanese speakers, chances are you are getting all of your information from a third party (like myself), and are limited to finding answers to your questions from those sources. This takes a really long time, but if you have a Japanese friend on hand, answers will come almost as soon as you can ask the questions.

Another enormous benefit to actually knowing a Japanese person is that you get to practice the most important skill of learning a language – speaking it. You can speak Japanese to your desk as you study, but it won’t speak back. It won’t correct you. It won’t expose you to new vocabulary and grammar.

So, in short – I imagine that it is technically possible to learn Japanese by yourself, but why bother? You can put your Japanese studies into overdrive and shave entire years off your study time by going out and meeting somebody.

And who knows, maybe you will cultivate a meaningful friendship that will last a lifetime (and all that other fluffy marshmallow stuff)

Do you know any native Japanese speakers? Need any advice on meeting them? Hit me up by sending me an email at ahasensei@gmail.com, or posting in the comments below. I would love to hear from you! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more advice on how to be a better Japanese conversationalist!

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