Sound it Out: Japanese sound system

japanese ipa i guessWhen you start working through a new language, the first concern usually is grammar or vocabulary. While these are definitely major parts of the learning process, languages are more than just that.

If you know how to speak a language then you know a little bit about that language’s sound system. Today we will start with the smallest part of any language: sounds.

Every language has a phonetic inventory, or a set of all the sounds that are possible in it. These are made up of vowels and consonants.

Japanese has 5 vowels and 26 consonants. The vowels, in particular, are (almost) identical to some of English’s vowels. There is ‘a’, ‘i’, ‘e’, ‘o’, which are the same across both languages. The only minor difference is the Japanese ‘u’.  The English ‘u’ sound like in the word ‘fool’ is rounded, meaning the lips are in a little circle when it’s pronounced. With the Japanese ‘u’, the lips are unrounded.

Here’s what it sounds like:

Consonants in Japanese are a little more interesting. Japanese shares many consonants with English, but there are a few of them that are special:


This symbol, “phi” sounds like ‘f’ to English speakers. It shows up in words like “fuji”. The difference between this and English ‘f’ is ‘ɸ’ is in ‘ɸ’ the lips are rounded. To make this sound, try saying “foot” while keeping your lips from touching your teeth.


This c with a hook sounds like ‘h’ to English speakers. It shows up in words like “hito”. It is different from English ‘h’ because the air is more constricted. Essentially, it’s just a more noisy ‘h’.


This sound the initial consonant of “Tsunami”. It is an ‘s’,  but it starts off as a ‘t’. To make the sound, try making an ‘s’ and then put the tip of your tongue on the little ridge behind your teeth.


Japanese ‘r’ is not really an ‘r’. It’s called a ‘flap’. This sound is very similar to the English ‘l’ sound. In fact, there’s a common stereotype that Japanese people mix up the two sounds. To make this sound, pretend to be making an ‘l’, but instead of keeping your tongue where it is, just tap the roof of your mouth.

Learning a language is a long journey, and getting accustomed to the other language’s sounds is the first step. Good luck fellow intrepid language learners!

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