Module 1: Japanese Basics

Module Overview

Different languages have different sets of consonants and vowels. Japanese has fewer consonants and vowels than many other languages of the world (e.g., English has at least 14 vowels, while Japanese has only 5 vowels). There is a basic diagram used to represent the 46 characters used in writing system (called Gojūon, or fifty sounds) that has been traditionally used for children to learn the correspondence between characters and sounds in Japanese. Most of the characters in this diagram consist of a combination of a consonant and a vowel, with exceptions of あ、い、う、え、お (only vowels), and ん (only a consonant). All characters in the diagram correspond to one beat in speech. Haiku, or Japanese traditional poetry, uses the notion of ‘beat’, to create the unique rhythm of haiku: 5 beats + 7 beats + 5 beats (e.g., ふるいけや かわずとびこむ みずのおと). When we segment those words and phrases into kana characters and read it slowly, one beat corresponds to one kana character. The notion of ‘beat’ is referred to in linguistics as a ‘syllable’ (or more precisely a ‘mora’ in Japanese; see for details), and these are combined to create uniquely Japanese rhythms in song, poetry, haiku, as well as formal and casual speech. Bear in mind that Japanese speech has a different rhythm than English speech, because they use different components of syllables in segmentation of speech.

Oftentimes, pronunciation teaching consists of students being asked to repeat after a model speaker, after hearing their pronunciations. In other words, the learners receive auditory stimuli. Departing from this method, this site allows you to enhance your learning by presenting a series of visual stimuli. The visual stimuli consists of both animations of the vocal tract and ultrasound movies showing a real tongue producing the target sounds. Since learners need to know how and where in the mouth the tongue moves to produce different sounds, basic phonetic terminology describing tongue articulations is introduced.

Module Objectives

This module is designed to help students whose native language is not Japanese to gain an understanding of the relation between Japanese orthography (i.e., character sets used in writing) and sounds, and of the basic terminology of phonetics, which is necessary to learn the sounds of Japanese.

Students will be trained to

  • enhance awareness of how the 46 basic sounds of Japanese are organized in the basic diagram used to represent the characters and where and how some of the consonants are pronounced differently
  • articulate the Japanese 5 vowels correctly
  • interpret tongue surface shown in ultrasound imagings, and learn basic terminology associated with describing the vocal tract.

Course Content