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Japanese Pronunciation pt. I: introduction

One of the biggest surprises I got when I first started studying Japanese was that my teachers spent very little time teaching pronunciation.  Before Japanese, I had studied Thai and Mandarin Chinese, two tonal languages that both contain a number of sounds that are not found in English or many other languages.  Basically, with Thai and Mandarin, if you don’t get the pronunciation down, your whole speaking ability will be seriously crippled, because no-one will know what you’re talking about.  As such, beginning classes spend the few few weeks working mostly on pronunciation.  This can be pretty boring, but it’s quite necessary. 

I also remember, when I first started studying Thai, I had some classmates who had lived in Japan, and they told me “This language is way harder than Japanese.”  As such, I was actually kind of surprised that Japanese turned out to be a fairly difficult language for me, in some ways definitely more difficult than Thai.  Thinking about it though, I’m sure that what these people were comparing was just the initial pronunciation hurdle.  With Japanese, if you have a decent ear for sounds, you can learn and use a number of basic set phrases fairly quickly, even if you can’t use the grammar well enough to make original sentences for yourself.  Chinese and Thai are pretty much the opposite of Japanese in that respect:  it takes weeks until you can pronounce well enough to make simple phrases intelligible, but once you get over the hurdle, the grammar is simple enough that you can start making your own sentences fairly quickly. 

However, with all that in mind, another thing that I’ve found surprising about learning Japanese is how many non-Japanese, especially English speakers, who have fairly bad Japanese pronunciation.  Not saying that mine is so great, but when I can’t make myself understood, it’s almost always because of things like grammar or vocabulary usage, not pronunciation.  With the Japanese phonetic system being far more basic than many other Asian languages, you’d expect that people would have less trouble with pronouncing Japanese words.  However, I haven’t really found that to be the case.

I have a theory as to why this is so:  when you study certain Asian languages (Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese being prime examples), you quickly become aware that you are in a very different phonetic universe, and you really understand that you have to work on pronunciation a lot if people are going to understand you at all (and your teachers hopefully have the same mindset!).  With Japanese, however, most of the sounds have near equivalents in English, so I think a lot of English speakers figure that they can pretty much get away with pronouncing everything like English, leaving more time to focus on more difficult aspects of Japanese, like the grammar and vocabulary.  This seems logical enough, but it’s also too bad, because Japanese shouldn’t be a difficult language to pronounce correctly if you are aware of the how the language works phonetically and take some time to get it right. 

So, in that spirit, I’ve writing this article to explore Japanese pronunciation, in the hopes that it can give other learners some useful perspective about what to pay attention to.  This will probably be most useful to beginners, but I’m also hoping that it will be useful to people who have been studying Japanese for a while. 

Next installment:  Japanese vowels!