Main Hiragana Pronunciation
This is where the fun starts. Take a moment to go back and review the first column (a, i, u, e, o) and solidify the pronunciation of those first kana before moving on. We’re about to take a look at the pronunciation of all the rest of the kana, and it’ll be important that you still have those first five down nicely.
Before you move on and practice the pronunciation of all of these, let’s take note of a couple things:
- You don’t have to be able to read anything.
- Keep thinking about “the pattern” as you go through everything. Most important thing is that you make the connection between kana that are a part of the pattern (most of them are).
- Go through each video at least three times, unless specified otherwise.
- Pay real close attention to the pronunciation of each kana and try to copy / replicate them. Anything that’s difficult (at least when it comes to native English speakers) will get extra explanation.
We’re going to start at the beginning and go through all the hiragana pronunciation, starting with the “a-column” and ending with “n.” Other things (such as dakuten and combo-hiragana will be covered in the next couple of pages), so don’t worry about them right now. Let’s get started!
Column 1: あいうえお Pronunciation
Column 2: かきくけこ Pronunciation
Column 3: さしすせそ Pronunciation
This video contains exception し (shi) in it. Instead of saying “si,” we add an “h” to it and pronounce it “shi” like “she went to the store.” Make sure you practice this column until you feel comfortable with “shi” instead of “si.”
Column 4: たちつてと Pronunciation
This video contains two exceptions in it: ち (chi) and つ (tsu). “Chi” is a pretty easy one to handle, but “tsu” sometimes gives people issues. It’s almost like saying “su” but you add a little “t” sound right at the beginning. Repeat the video until you feel comfortable with this sound. If you feel like you’ve plateaued, take a break and come back a little bit later, when you’re feeling fresh (and are actually physically able to improve). Just make sure you can replicate this sound before moving on to the next chapter.
Column 5: なにぬねの Pronunciation
Whew, okay, take a break now. There’s only so much muscle memory you can develop at one time! While you’re waiting, check this kid out and relax a bit.
Now that your mind has been rested… nay, serenaded…
Can you replicate the “a-column”?
a, i, u, e, o
Can you replicate the sa-column?
sa, shi, su, se, so
Can you replicate the ka-column?
ka, ki, ku, ke, ko
Can you replicate the ta-column?
ta, chi, tsu, te, to
After you’ve practiced those a little, and after you’ve rested your mind with child-ukulele skills, you can move on to the next column.
Column 6: はひふへほ Pronunciation
The only strange thing about this column is ふ (hu). It can be pronounced two ways (in the above video I do a breathy combo-hu/fu sound), “hu” and “fu.” Most of the time you’ll hear it as “fu,” though with foreign words (remember katakana?) it can really go either way. If you only want to learn one right now (and just keep in mind it could be both), then go with “fu” since that’s going to be more common.
Column 7: まみむめも Pronunciation
Column 8: やゆよ Pronunciation
If you remember from the exceptions page, this is the first column with only three kana. They’re pretty straight forward in terms of how the pronunciation goes, just remember that there is no yi or ye.
Column 9: らりるれろ Pronunciation
This is the hardest one for most people. It’s really important that you pay real close attention, because the difference is very small to the untrained ear, but fairly big to the trained one. Make sure you don’t make the mistake of just thinking you have it down when in actuality you’re not pronouncing it correctly. Go through the steps and practice, trying to get closer and closer to the correct pronunciation. I’ve even broken it up into steps for you so that you can be perfect.
- Make the English “da” sound. Do this approximately ten times, and pay attention to how your tongue is shaped and where it ends up as you’re saying it. Your tongue should be pretty flat against the top of your mouth, with the tip of your tongue pushing against your top front teeth. Your teeth should be lightly touching both the top and bottom of your tongue. Say “da” ten times.
- Now, make the English “la” sound. Continue to pay attention to your tongue placement and mouth shape. Really exaggerate this sound and curl your tongue back so the bottom of it is touching the roof of your mouth. Notice how your tongue flicks forward when you say “la.” Do this ten times as well, taking note of everything as you do it.
- Both “la” and “da” should have been nice and easy for you. Now, I want you to go back and forth between the two, saying “la da la da la da la da” twenty times. Really exaggerate and enunciate both sounds.
- Now, you’re going to do a combination of the two. You should have a really good idea where you put your tongue for both “la” and “da.” You’re going to make an “R” sound by putting your tongue in a spot right between the “la” and “da” locations. This is the magic sweet spot for pronouncing the Japanese “R.” With all this in mind, and with your new knowledge of “R” placement, let’s practice “ra, ri, ru, re, ro.”
The Japanese “ra, ri, ru, re, ro” is kind of a mystery for a lot of people, and here’s why. The Ra-column is made up of multiple sounds. It’s part R (I’d say around 75%), part L (I’d say about 20%) and strangely enough, part D (I’d give this about 5%). Combine these together and you have the “Japanese R.” By doing the exercises above, you should be able to get the R & L sounds. The subtle “D” sound should come naturally with those things, though it’s not as important as the R & L.
Go through the video above, and think about your tongue placement with each one. Listen to the video and try to copy the sounds. You don’t want to be too R or too L. Something right in between is pretty good.
If you’ve ever had any experience talking with Japanese people, you’ll notice they have a really hard time distinguishing L’s and R’s. This totally makes sense, since their “R-sound” is a combination of the two.
Column 10: わをん Pronunciation
わ (wa) is fairly standard. を (wo) is a bit weird, though. Instead of pronouncing it with a “w” sound, you drop the “w” and pronounce it like “oh/o.” ん (n) is the only consonant-only kana, and it’s placed after any other kana. For example, あ (a) + ん (n) is あん (an), ら (ra) + ん (n) is らん (ran), etc. We’ll get more into that in the next chapter, though.