Remember when you had to learn the many English A-E-I-O-U vowel sounds?
In Japanese, there are only 5 sounds, and they never change! What a relief!
Let's take a look at Japan’s A-I-U-E-O vowel sounds. (Ah-Ee-Ooh-Eh-Oh)
HOW TO SAY "A"
Looking at a, do you see an Ay sound or an Ah sound?
Say ahhh! Aha! A is always an Ah sound. It’s a “soft” a sound. Here’s a fun a word: Takadanobaba!
Remember, speaking new words in a monotone is the safest choice while learning. You can practice forever with this word!
The next time you chat with a friend from Tokyo, say Takadanobaba and you’re bound to get a giggle. Many students go to Takadanobaba Station to change trains each day.
Another word that’s fun to keep in mind is kaba (hippo). It’s a bit handier than Takadanobaba!
GIVE ME AN "I"
Not I, I said: It’s Ee, as in easy peasy! Say sushi! 1-2-3! 1-2-3! is ichi-ni-san! ichi-ni-san! (eechee-nee-sahn.) It’s a soft i sound.
LET’S LOOK AT ”U”
No, not you. It’s Ooh, as in Pooh-san. Or say sushi again! Inu means dog (ee-n-ooh). The u is a hard sounding u. So, so far, we’ve got Ah, Ee, and Ooh (A, I, and U).
“E”, WHAT’S THAT YOU SAID?
Eh? Not Ay, but Eh, as in, “Get ten pens from the desk, she said.” Do you know karate? Not ka-ra-tee or ka-ra-tay, but ka-ra-teh. E is always Eh, and soft, like a pet!
AN O IS AN “O”
Oh, that’s easy! And it’s always an Oh sound. Don’t let your cereal get soggy or you’ll have bloated oaties, oh no!
In Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nagano, o is a hard sounding o, indeed.
PRACTICE THE 5 VOWELS
Now you can say Ah-Ee-Ooh-Eh-Oh. Congratulations! A-I-U-E-O! That’s how it’s done in Japanese. If you go to Tokyo and sit next to someone at a sushi bar and say a-i-u-e-o, you may hear them reply, “Joh-zu!” (very good!).
Now that you can look at Japanese words through wise eyes, pick any word and pronounce it using the 5 never-changing vowels. Try hatsuon. Ha-tsu-on (ha-tsoo-ohn) means pronunciation!
Remember, speaking new words in a monotone is the safest choice. For example, Yamada-san is a common name. English natives tend to stress the second to last syllable: yaMAda. It’s not wrong, but it’s a good habit to try to break, and knowing this will help your listening comprehension as well. Each syllable is pretty much equal: ya-ma-da-san.
If there are even more syllables in a word—for example, Takahashi-san (another common name)—and you notice that you’re stressing that second-to-last syllable (TakaHAshi-san), try stressing the syllable just before it instead. Somehow, it helps even things out and remind you to generally speak in a monotone while learning.
Later, you’ll learn some words that need a syllable stressed here or there, such as ha-shi (bridge) and ha-shi (chopsticks). Japanese language has many subtleties to enjoy! It is one of the world’s easiest languages to pronounce.
USE YOUR VOWELS WISELY
For English natives, many Japanese words are not pronounced exactly as written. Most are actually easier than they look. Using our new knowledge of the five vowels, how would you pronounce the name Takeshita (a former Japanese prime minister)? Tah-keh-shee-tah? Almost, but not quite. Here's a trick that can put you on the right track with many Japanese words: When you see the common phrase shita, in your mind cross out the i and make it shta.
Similarly, sometimes the u can also be dropped for more effective and speedy speech, as with ice cream. In Japanese, it's spelled (phonetically) eye-su-ku-ree-mu, but if you minimize the u sound when speaking, it sounds more like the English ice cream.
“Eye-su-kreem o tabetai?” (Ice cream to eat want?)
“Hai! Takusan tabetai!” (Yes! A lot eat want!)
Introducing yourself, hajimemashite, is also easier when you remember the shta trick, because it’s the same with shite: It’s shte. Just drop the i in shita and shite and say shta and shte instead. Later you’ll notice many words that have these very brief i and u sounds, called vowel devoicing. (Devoicing is common in standard Japanese, but some dialects, such as Kansai, are exceptions.)
Even so-called “perfect Japanese” never completely drops these sounds; there’s still a hint of an i or u sound. In fact, in very formal situations, every vowel will be pronounced precisely, but that’s only inside Japan’s culture and certainly not a worry for beginning language students.
It’s good to know that most Japanese people will give you lots of room for error, and be delighted to hear that you’re learning to pronounce Japanese!