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Getting Started with the Japanese Language


Contents

Introduction

Vowel Pronunciation Guide

Consonants

Alphabets

Sentence Structure

What's Next?


Introduction

As the title suggests, this is not an in-depth look at all the complexities of the Japanese language, but simply provides a brief look at the language in order to introduce some of the fun and quirks that budding students of Japanese can look forward to. This is meant to be just the very, very beginning for beginners.


Vowel Pronunciation Guide

Japanese vowels are easy. If you have taken Spanish, you will quickly see that they are pretty much the same. There are only five. Unlike crazy English, vowels in Japanese are pronounced only one way, and always the same way, so once you've got them down you'll be well on your way to correct-sounding Japanese. (And then you can attack the consonants.)

Here are the five basic Japanese vowels, in Japanese alphabetical order:

  • a - pronounced "ah"
  • i - pronounced "ee"
  • u - pronounced "oo"
  • e - pronounced "eh"
  • o - pronounced "oh"

Let's look at the word "house." In Japanese it's ie. Just say "ee-eh." Now a little faster. That's all there is to it.

The next important thing you must remember about vowels is to elongate double vowels, giving each one its own "time." Again, "house" in Japanese is ie. The word for "no" is iie. It's not as hard as it looks. Said slowly, "house" is "ee-eh," and "no" is "ee-ee-eh." Said at natural speed, the "ee" in iie should sound about twice as long as the "ee" in ie.

While we're at it, let's look at two more that foreign speakers seem to have a tough time with: obasan and obaasan. Obasan (aunt) is pronounced "oh-bah-san," and obaasan (grandmother) is "oh-bah-ah-san." Just remember to give each vowel equal time.


Consonants

The consonants used in Japanese are k, g, s, z, t, d, n, h, f, b, p, m, y, r, and w; and they are pronounced the same as you would in English, except for the following:

  • r - this is like the Spanish r, so ri should sound like a lightly pronounced dee
  • d - because r sounds like a light d, d has a more distinct d sound

Japanese consonants are not thought of as having their own individual sound, except for n. All of the others always appear combined with a vowel, with the vowel coming after the consonant, like ka, for example. This combination of one consonant and one vowel makes only one "letter" in the Japanese alphabet, and to the Japanese mind represents only one sound. This is a very important point to remember when studying Japanese.

There are also a few letters which have combined consonants like shi, chi, and tsu. Again, each of these look like 3 letters to us, but they are each viewed as only one in Japanese.

As with vowels, consonants also have doubles. Doubled consonants are found in compound words like ippun, which means "one minute." The difficulty in pronouncing the double consonant is that there is nothing to pronounce; it's just the trick of "holding" the pronunciation so that the "time value" of the double is recognized, just like with the vowels. When pronouncing ippun, you should be giving equal time to the 4 syllables: i-p-pu-n, with the second syllable being just a silent rest and preparation to pronounce the third. This will be barely noticed during normal speech, but it is important. Doubles not pronounced correctly will be noticed by native listeners. When said correctly, ippun will be heard as "eep-poon," not "ee-poon."


Alphabets

There are 4 “alphabets” used in Japanese today: hiragana, katakana, kanji, and romaji. Here they are in a nutshell:

Hiragana

Hiragana is the first system you want to learn, as they are phonetic symbols or "pronunciation guides" for kanji, and have an extensive role in Japanese grammar. Hiragana is the first alphabet that children learn, and, at any age, is the "default" alphabet used when a particular kanji is unknown or forgotten.

Here are the basic 46 hiragana with their readings:

hiragana table 1

The nice thing about Japanese is that once you can read and say these, you can read and say longer words, which are simply combinations of the individual letters. Let's try some:

hiragana table 2

Easy, right? Now let's move on to the modified hiragana.

There are 4 groups of hiragana that are modified by two small quote-like marks added just above and/or to the right of the hiragana. They are the ka, sa, ta, and ha groups. The ha group alone has an additional mode of modification which is made by adding a small degree-like circle. Here are the modified hiragana with their readings:

hiragana table 3

It will be noticed that two ji's and two zu's are created, but the ones in the sa group are used most of the time. Accurate knowledge concerning differentiation and use of these is not important until the student is well into the study of kanji.

Let's try these:

hiragana table 4

Next up are the combined hiragana, which are made by adding a small ya, yu, or yo to hiragana in the second line of the hiragana table, namely ki through ri, including the modified ones mentioned above. For example, ki + ya = kya, chi + yu = chu, and so on. Here they all are:

hiragana table 5

The ri group is usually the hardest for foreign speakers to master, but that's because they are still trying to pronounce the r like the English r. If you just pronounce them dya, dyu, dyo, with just a very light d, they will sound fine.

Try these:

hiragana table 6

The last thing that needs to be mentioned about hiragana at this time is the small tsu, which indicates double consonants. This becomes easier to understand as one becomes familiar with kanji. Here are some good examples. Remember to hold the double as mentioned in the section about consonants above.

hiragana table 7

This should be enough about hiragana for the time being. All the examples used here are words that are usually written in kanji, but are shown in hiragana to show what they look like and how they work together.

Hiragana also play an important role in Japanese grammar as subject and object indicators, prepositions, and other particles.

Katakana

For every hiragana there is a corresponding katakana, which are more angular. Here they all are:

katakana table 1

Katakana are used to write foreign words and names, and the names of some Japanese companies. They are also often seen expressing the sounds of various noises in comic books.

Most of the rules that apply to hiragana also apply to katakana. One exception is when a vowel sound is elongated: katakana vowels are not doubled, but use a dash (—) to show an extended vowel sound.

Here are a few that are often seen:

katakana table 2

The worst thing about katakana is that it is sometimes used as a phonetic guide for pronouncing English words. Tiny katakana can sometimes be seen running above or below English sentences in textbooks — books that I would never recommend. While it is true that katakana will give Japanese students of English an idea of how a word is pronounced, those who rely on katakana to learn English form bad habits in pronunciation that become very difficult to overcome in the future. Katakana-based English is incomprehensible to native speakers of English, unless of course they are already familiar with it.

Kanji

Kanji are characters which were originally adopted from the Chinese. Though similarities still exist, Japanese kanji have evolved and changed differently than their Chinese counterparts, and now have forms and readings all their own. Kanji are used for the core parts of a sentence: nouns and the root forms of verbs and adjectives. Hiragana are used as the "cement" between the kanji to indicate their relationship to each other, and to conjugate verbs.

You need to know around 2,200 kanji to read a Japanese newspaper; specialized topics require more, sometimes many, many more. The study of kanji can be fascinating, however, and the more you study them the more sense they make (excepting the exceptions), making it easier to learn more.

This just barely, barely scratches the surface, but here are a few of the easiest kanji of the 76 taught to first graders in elementary school:

kanji table

Romaji

Romaji are simply the ABC's we all know and love, but the Japanese like to use them, too. Large, international companies usually have logos and emblems with their names written in the Roman letters. Internationally known organizations and other names and titles like OPEC, FBI, NASA, AIDS, and VIP are left as-is.

Finally, there is a certain "fashion appeal" in using foreign words on products and product packaging, and it is practically impossible to buy something here that doesn't have some silly message written in English. It may be in poor English but comprehensible, or it may have no clear meaning at all. It's for "fashion only," I've been told. English letters, words and phrases may be combined just as an artist doing an abstract will combine colors together. In this way, romaji become an enemy to the serious student of English in pretty much the same way that katakana do, as mentioned above. The successful student will always keep "fashion English" and correct English completely separate.


Sentence Structure

Standard Japanese starts with the subject and ends with the verb:

  • Watashi wa gakusei desu. (I am a student.)

Watashi means "I"; wa only indicates the subject, which is watashi (I); and after wa comes information about the subject. Gakusei means "student." Desu is the verb here, and this is the polite present form which shows a state of being, like am, are, and is do in English.

  • Watashi wa honya ni iku. (I am going to go to the bookstore.)

Honya means "bookstore"; ni indicates direction, like to does in English, but it comes after the place (person or thing) it directs to; iku is the plain form of the verb meaning "to go."

  • Watashi wa jisho o kau. (I am going to buy a dictionary.)

Jisho means "dictionary"; o indicates the direct object — the object receiving the action of the verb — and comes after it; kau is the plain form of the verb meaning "to buy."

  • Watashi wa atarashii jisho o kau. (I am going to buy a new dictionary.)

Atarashii means "new"; adjectives come before the nouns they modify, like in English.

  • Watashi wa atarashii jisho o katte, mainichi nihongo o benkyou suru. (I am going to buy a new dictionary and study Japanese every day.)

Katte is still the verb "to buy," but changed here so that the sentence does not stop, but continues on. Mainichi means "every day," nihongo is "Japanese," and benkyou suru means "to study."

These are just a few of the most basic types of sentences. A very important point to remember is that the verb is modified to show the tense, mood, and gravity of the whole sentence.


What's Next?

This page was written to give those curious about Japanese just a peek into the language, and hopefully encourage them to go ahead and study it. So, what's next?

Any book or tutorial that introduces Japanese sentence structure in a logical way and is interesting to the learner will do, and a good dictionary will be needed. Among my own online lessons, I would suggest starting with the one on Japanese verbs because it systematically introduces various useful words and expressions, and because verbs form the anchor of Japanese expression. After the first eight or ten lessons I would then add "side studies" of adjectives and their various forms, particles, and memorize the hiragana and katakana. After a month or two kanji studies can be added, learning and practicing a few a day, starting with the most elementary ones. And then go on from there.

Due to the popularity of manga (Japanese comics) and anime, some people wish to learn that form of Japanese, but that is not at all advisable simply because it's not very useful. (Imagine a Japanese student of the English language who always spoke and behaved like Bugs Bunny or SpongeBob SquarePants — amusing for a few minutes, but soon tiresome, silly, and weird, and not practical at all.) The smart way is to learn proper, natural, and useful Japanese first.

Good luck!

Links to further studies:

Japanese Verbs

Japanese Adjectives

Japanese Particles


© Tim R. Matheson

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