This might be hard to believe, but although the Japanese language is one of the hardest languages for English learners to pick up, its sound system is very simple.
Let’s start with the vowels. These are the five Japanese vowels:
There are five Japanese vowel sounds. あ, い, う, え and お. あ makes a sound similar to the a sound in father. い is the vowel sound in, me. The oo in moo is what you hear with う. え makes a sound similar to the vowel sound in bed. Finally, お makes an oh sound. These five vowels are the basis of the Japanese language and getting them right is the first step towards mastering Japanese pronunciation.
So now that you have heard the vowels, let’s move on the rest of the Japanese syllabry. You read that right, syllabry. The remaining Japanese sounds, except for one exception, are syllabilic in form. Meaning they are a consonant sound and they combine that consonant with each vowel sound. Let me show you an example.
This is the K row.
In this row, you have the Japanese symbol at the top and the pronunciation below. The pronunciation is very simple, it is just a hard k sound, followed by each of the vowels. The thing to remember is that in Japanese you would never have just a k sound, you would always have a k + vowel combination. This is the way the system works not just for k, but for the whole language.
This is the S row
You should notice something unusual about this row. While four of the categories are s + vowel combinations, し(shi) is a sh instead of s. This is because while the other sounds use a standard s sound, like in the word “start,” し(shi) uses a sh sound, like in the word “she.”
The T row has two deviations from set pattern, ち(chi) and つ(tsu). ち(chi) is pronounced the same way you would say, chia-pet and tsu is… well… it’s like a t sound followed closely by a s sound. The rest use a standard t sound, similar to the t sound in the word tall.
There are no deviations in this row. Just the standard consonant vowel combination.
One deviation in this row. The ふ(fu) is pronounced with an f sound, like fast, instead of an h sound. Beyond that, standard h sound.
No deviations in this one. Just an m sound plus vowel.
The only deviation for this row is that not all vowels are represented. Beyond that, the ya sound is the same as what you hear in the word yes.
Although there are no deviations in this row, the r sound here is different from the r sound used in English. It is closest to the r sound in Spanish.
W row and N
This is an odd one. Although わ(wa) is pronounced with a normal w sound, を(wo) is pronounced in the same manner as お(o).
N is the only sound that goes against the consonant + vowel formula. It makes an N sound, like night.
So those are the basic sounds, but there are a few others. These sounds are different, because they are considered deformed versions of other sounds.
The characters used to represent this row should seem a familiar to you. They are basically the same as the k row, just with [“] added to the top right side of each character. Those added symbols, called ten-ten, change the sound from a k to a g sound.
Similar to before, this time the ten-ten change the s sound to a z sound and the sh sound to a j sound.
The ten-ten this time have changed a t sound to a d sound. ch has become j and ts has become dz.
B and P row
I’m combing these two into one because as you can see the base character is the same. When ten-ten are used, the sound becomes a b, but when the small circle is added to the upper right side, the sound changes to a p sound.
Remember when I said that the five vowels were the only vowels in the Japanese language? I was being honest there, but there a thing called y-vowels, where the y row sounds, can be added to certain consonants to make a combined consonant + y sound. This is done scriptwise, by adding a small y row character, to the bottom right side of the character to be modified
Please review this chart to see all possible combinations.
The hard stop
There is no single character that ends in a consonant sound or is only a consonanty sound, in and of itself except for ん(n), but you can add the consonant sound to a preceding character from the proceeding character. This is done by adding a small つ(tsu) in between the two characters.
Examples きって(kit-te), ほっと(hot-to). In these examples, the t sound from second character is pushed back to the first character, so that is appears at the end of that characters pronunciation, making a consonant + vowel + consonant sound. This can be used with the consonants p, k, t and s to create a hard stop.
In Japanese you can extend a vowel sound by adding an あ(a), い(i) or う(u). An あ(a) is extended by using あ(a), an い(i) and え(e) are extended using い(i), and お(o) and う(u) are extended using う(u).
Unlike English that use stress and accent in words, Japanese has an intonation system where words have a certain pitch pattern to them. In Japanese, some words start off with a high pitch and then drop, while others start low and rise. The only way to master this is to listen to Japanese speakers and mimic their pronunciation. Although this isn’t important for just general speaking and being understand, if you want to sound like a native, intonation matters a lot.