Learn to Speak Japanese - Basic Conversational Japanese Lessons for Business/Pleasure Applications

by Cameron Switzer



Welcome to my Japanese Lessons.

Have you ever watched an old Japanese samurai movie on the late show? Chances are you thought that everyone was always angry at everyone else and spent a lot of time yelling in monotonous staccato tones. I felt the same way. It was all unintelligible blabber, not a real language. Well, guess what? It is actually possible to make some sense out of the nonsensical language that you hear on Japanese movies, etc. With a little understanding of how the language works, you will be on your way to sounding just like those yelling, sword-swinging samurai of yore.

What I would like to do is provide you with a basic understanding of the Japanese language. It is not meant to replace formal study at an institute of higher learning. Not everything can be covered, but I will do my best to provide language tips that will help you develop your Japanese language skills.

I will be working mainly with "conversational" Japanese in nature; something that you can use right away in certain situations. Learning to read and write can take years.

Of course in order to truly become fluent in any foreign language it is always desirable, if at all possible, to immerse oneself in the language and culture (like what I did - threw away a life in biotechnology for a brave new world). Coming to Japan will do wonders for your language ability if you ever have the chance. I understand that this is not feasible for most people, so I will strive to do my best to provide you with current lessons and examples for study.

Pronunciation in Japanese

Maybe you have recently had a phrase translated for you with the corresponding pronunciation written in roman characters. Or how about a tattoo in kanji (Japanese characters)? That is rather popular these days. But how do you pronounce it so it sounds close to natural? Fear not for help is on the way! In this lesson you will learn a bit about the history of the language and how the language sounds. So sit back, take out your notebook and enjoy the first lesson Japanese Lesson series.

Let's get down to business.

In Japanese there is no clear stress on syllables in words as there is in English. A non-Japanese speaker would pronounce the city of Yokohama as "Yoko-HAA-ma" and the family name Yoshida as "Yo-SHEE-da". In English, stress tends to be placed on the second last syllable of longer words. Not so in Japanese. All syllables are spoken with equal strength and length. A Japanese speaker would say "Yo-ko-ha-ma" and "Yo-shi-da" without stressing any parts.

Try saying the following words without putting any extra strength or stress on any of the syllables:

  1. Yokohama
  2. Kawasaki
  3. Nagasaki
  4. Hiroshima
  5. Amerika
  6. Osutoraria
  7. koohii
  8. Nippon
  9. beesubooru
  10. koppu

Some texts say that there are long and short syllables in the Japanese language. I disagree. In most cases the longer sound of a syllable is due simply to an extra vowel placed after the previous syllable. For example Tokyo is actually pronounced like To-u-kyo-u and Kyoto is Kyo-u-to (note here that the final to in Kyoto sounds shorter than the middle to but it is just because it lacks the additional u which makes the sound appear to be longer. Pronounced carefully, the "long" syllable takes twice as long to pronounce as the "short" syllable.

Practice these sounds:

  1. biiru
  2. biru
  3. konpyuuta
  4. konpyuutaa
  5. koka koora
  6. Toukyou
  7. Kyouto
  8. suteeki
  9. ginkou
  10. waapuro

There are five vowels in the Japanese language: A, I, U, E, O. These vowels have one sound apiece. Unlike the English "a" which can have the sounds found in cat, crawl, cape, the Japanese A sounds like the vowel found in the word cup. And as a matter of fact, all of the syllables in Japanese are very short and clipped (Suzuki sounds more like S'z'ki). Remember that whenever you see a vowel in a Japanese word it will always have the following sound:

Vowel: a i u e o Sound: up heat soup left slope

Most consonants sound as they do in English with a few exceptions worth noting: K, G, S, Z, D, T, P, B do not have the puff of air that is associated with same consonants in English. The N is also a very unusual sound as it can actually take on four different sounds, depending on where it is found in the word.

If it precedes a vowel (as in no) it has the normal N sound found in English. Before t, ts, d, n, ch, j it also posses the normal n sound.

If it is found before p, b, m it takes on an m sound.

If it is found before k and g it sounds like ng as in finger.

If it is found at the end of a word, or before all other sounds, it has a nasal sound, similar to the French n as in pain (bread).

There is one other sound that we need to discuss. It is the most difficult sound for foreigners to pronounce correctly. It is the R sound. This sound is not found in the English language. It is a somewhere between the English L, D, R and is a rather short, chopped sound. In this case the tongue quickly flicks the roof of the mouth just in front of the soft upper pallette. This sound takes a lot of practice to get right and in order to pronounce it correctly you need to hear it to be able to reproduce it.

The following chart shows all the possible combinations of consonants and vowels in the Japanese Language. Note that in almost every case (except for n by itself) all consonants are followed by a vowel. This makes the language very easy to pronounce.

a ka sa ta na ha ma ya ra wa wo n

i ki shi chi ni hi mi - ri - - -

u ku su tsu nu fu mu yu ru - -

e ke se te ne he me - re - - -

o ko so to no ho mo yo ro - - -

There are some other sounds which are not quite as common, but are actually a slight variation of the main sounds.

They are the Secondary Sounds:

ga za da ba pa

gi ji - bi pi

gu zu - bu pu

ge ze de be pe

go zo do bo po

There are situations where two consonants are together with a vowel.

They produce the following Tertiary Sounds:

kya gya sha ja cha nya hya pya bya mya rya

kyu gyu shu ju chu nyu hyu pyu byu myu ryu

kyo gyo sho jo cho nyo hyo pyo byo myo ryo

Now that you are armed with the correct sounds for the language, why don't you pull out your Japanese Name or Phrase and give the pronunciation a try? with a bit of practice you should be able to get the sounds just right.

One last thing to mention that I found really helps with getting the pronunciation right. Almost all of the sounds can be said without the use of the lips. Think of yourself as a ventriloquist, speaking from a puppet. Don't move your lips, and keep them relaxed. It should help. And practice.

Here are a few simple sentences that you can use for pronunciation practice and begin to memorize for your future use:

Practice Sentences:

  1. Watashi no namae wa Ken desu. (My name is Ken.)
  2. Kono biiru wa ikura desu ka? (How much is this beer?)
  3. Toire wa doko desuka? (Where is the toilet?)
  4. Mata ne! (See you later!)
  5. Ohisashiburi desu ne. (Long time no see.)
  6. Ohayou gozaimasu. (Good morning.)
  7. Konnichi wa. (Hello.)
  8. Konban wa. (Good evening.)
  9. Oyasumi nasai. (Good night.)
  10. Koko wa doko desu ka? (Where am I now?)

The Culture Pocket: A Brief History of the Japanese Written Language

Most scholars believe that prior to the introduction of Kanji from China, there was no formal written language. No one is certain when the script first came to the islands but some believe that it could have been around the first century AD. In the early third century, artifacts have been recovered that depict some form of writing.

Kanji was first used as a system of writing sometime in the late 5th century or early 6th century. It is difficult to set an exact date because of the writings being based on the Chinese calendar which is difficult to interpret. More than likely, Chinese or Koreans who came to the islands to live began using the characters.

In the beginning kanji was more than likely used to represent sounds (phonetics) for loan words from other cultures. Also, the introduction of Buddhism into China and eventually Japan prompted translations of the scripts using the script. Buddhism probably had the greatest influence on the development of the language due to the huge influx of people from the mainland to build temples, translate documents, make statues, tiles, copy sutras, etc.

Around the seventh century it seems that the Japanese people began mastering the language themselves and started to do some work of their own. The language began to make some changes as it took on more than just a phonetic reproduction of foreign words (KUN reading). Eventually it began to be used to represent ideas and concepts.

Chinese and Japanese are completely different. In terms of structure, Chinese is actually closer to English than it is to Japanese. And yet, the Japanese, in their amazing ability to adapt things to their own ideas, were able to take the Chinese and add marks so that it would conform to the Japanese word order. Then the kanji began to take on a second reading, known as the ON reading, as mentioned above. It may be that the Korean language had influenced the development of the Japanese language as both have similar word orders and also use honorific auxiliaries.

In the Nara period (710-784) there was an explosion of Japanese literature. It seems that much of the oral tradition of passing on history was translated into script for the future generations. The language began to become more and more complex.

Hiragana began to be developed around the Nara period as well. It has its roots in the simplification of a cursive-style of writing kanji. This cursive style was mainly used privately among individuals to make notes, letters and other personal documents. For about 1400 years the hiragana had a very large set of letters. In 1900 it was standardized in brushwritten and woodblock-printed forms, mainly for artistic purposes. Because of this, hiragana tends to have a roundish, flowing style and shape.

Officials and scholars continued to use classical Chinese for their work for many hundred years. As the language developed, it became necessary to add notes next to the text to aid in the reading of the texts. This began in the Heian period (794-1192). Because space was limited, scholars began using a shorthand version of the kanji used for pronunciation. This was the beginning of Katakana. In the beginning it was not entirely different from hiragana but over time developed a more square appearance, more scholarly. Eventually the katakana script evolved such that it began to be used solely for writing foreign loan words, or concepts that did not exist in the native Japanese language.

Reference: Japanese Correspondence Course for JET Participants, 1993

- Cameron Switzer, Fukui, Japan

Cameron Switzer has lived and worked in Japan for over 15 years. He is fluent in the language, the culture and business.

To visit his personal site, please go to http://www.japanippon.com/ where you can learn a lot about life in Japan and have a great time while doing it!

If you would like to continue studying the Free! Japanese Lessons, please visit: http://www.japanippon.com/japanese/classroom.htm/ today.

For assistance regarding business related to Japan, please visit Cameron's business site, Intrmarket Solutions, at: http://www.intrmarketsolutions.com/ today.

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