The Basics of Japanese Language

A lot of people think that learning Japanese is like a Mammoth’s Task. Tons of weird characters and whatnot. Because of this fear, they don’t even take the first few steps.

If you are also afraid about learning the Japanese language in spite of being a fan of Japanese culture or pop culture, don’t be.

Let me tell you – IT’S NOT AS DIFFICULT AS YOU THINK IT MIGHT BE!!!

Sit in my car and let me take you on the journey of the structure of the Japanese Language!

Sounds of Japanese

You see, every language in this world has its own unique sound. Even if you don’t know the language in its entirety and just know how it sounds, you can distinguish that language whenever you hear someone speaking it.

Vowels

You have a reason to say “Yaay!”. Japanese only has 5 vowels

Japanese has:

A – あ

I – い

U – う

E – え

O – お

I know you will come to me and say that, “Deep, don’t make us fool. Even English has 5 vowels, namely a, e, i, o, u.”

Now here lies the difference. In English, the pronunciation of the vowels differs depending upon the words. Unlike English, Japanese vowels have only ONE way to pronounce them, no matter where the vowel lies in the words. 

This makes Japanese words easier to pronounce compared to English words. This means that if a person does not know both English and Japanese, he will be able to learn to pronounce the Japanese words faster than English, because of the simplicity of the Japanese vowels. 

Consider these following English words and read them out loud:

cAt

cAught

mAil

Alter

Noticed anything? The same vowel ‘A’ is pronounced differently in all these words! 

Now see these Japanese words and try to speak them loud from the romanized readings:

まい   aa mai    “Sweet”

つい   aa tsui    “Hot”

りがとう   aa rigaatou   “Thank you”

んぜん   aa nzen   “Safe”

Now noticed? They are pronounced EXACTLY THE SAME in all these words.

Seems easy, right? 😉

Vowel-Consonant Combination

Now, this is a unique characteristic of the Japanese language hardly any other language in the world might have.

In English or Hindi, let’s say, we have consonant sounds like ‘k’ or ‘kh’, such as in ‘park’. 

In Japanese, the consonant is always paired with a vowel sound. So, Japanese does not have ‘k’ sound alone. 

They have something like ‘ka, ki, ku, ke, ko’. 

So, no word in Japanese ends or begins with a pure consonant sound, except the ‘n’ or ‘m’ sound. 

This makes Japanese 100 times easier to pronounce compared to other East Asian languages like Chinese or Korean. 

Following are some Japanese words:

かばん kaa baa n   “Bag”

Here, except for the ‘n’ sound, both the ‘k’ and ‘b’ consonants are partnered with the ‘a’ vowel. 

かんこく   kaa n ko Ku   “South Korea”

Here, the same consonant ‘k’ is paired with different vowels ‘a’, ‘u’, and ‘o’; while ‘n’ consonant being independent.

たてもの   taa te mo no   “Building”

Here too, all the consonants ‘t’, ‘m’, and ‘n’ are paired with vowel sounds ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘o’ respectively. 

You might have got an idea how the Japanese consonants are pronounced – pair them with vowels!

Speaking Out Loud English Words in Japanese

Remember earlier we wrote the word ‘Park’?! Now this word can never be pronounced as Park in Japanese, because ‘r’ and ‘k’ in this word act as independent consonants while only ‘p’ is paired with the ‘a’ vowel.

So Park in Japanese will be……….. something like “Paa ru ku” or “Paa ku”.

This is a very funny and interesting topic. 

So basically like every other language in the world, Japanese has also borrowed tons of English words into its vocabulary list. 

But when saying the English loanwords in Japanese, the pronunciation is changed a little (and sometimes a lot :p).

This is because, just like native Japanese words, the consonants in those English words are changed into a combination of consonant and a vowel. 

This makes it difficult for the native English speakers to understand these English words even though it has derived from their own language.

Some of the English loanwords are as below:

アイスクリーム   aa i su ku ri mu   “Ice Cream”

テーブル   te bu ru   “Table”

クリスマス   ku ri su maa su   “Christmas”

Here, the words are indeed English words, but their consonant pronunciation is changed to suit the sound of the Japanese language.

This is also one of the reasons why Japanese people find it comparatively difficult to learn English.

There is a wonderful video made by NameWee about the pronunciation of English loanwords by the Japanese people. He calls this “Japanglish”, meaning English spoken in the Japanese way. The song is also so catchy that I’m sure you won’t be able to stop yourself singing all day long. Here’s the video:

One interesting thing to notice in the sounds of the Japanese language is that, the Japanese language does not have the “L” sound, but rather a combination of “L” and “R”. 

Thus, “Light” and “Right” are both pronounced as “raaito ライト” in Japanese. 

Yes, the teacher is always light! Oops, right. XD

Vox has posted a nice video explaining this:

Overall, when it comes to sounds and pronunciation in Japanese, I would say it is pretty pretty easy, considering the few amounts of vowels and their unchanging pronunciation, as well as the absence of the consonant mess. 

Having conversed with many language enthusiasts, they always say to me that Japanese is way easier to speak than Chinese, Korean, or even French!!

Thus, just remove the fear from your mind that learning Japanese is next to impossible. It’s not that difficult, especially when it comes to speaking Japanese. 

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