Is it Japanese? Is it French? Japanese and French have a lot in common. It’s easy for French to learn Japanese pronunciation because French pronunciation is very close to Japanese. Most letters are pronounced the same way. And French language tends to copy the Japanese rhythm in spoken French. Let me explain.
1. The five vowels
The Japanese language has only five vowels.
- The letter “a” always represents a sound close to the American “a” in “father”. (like in French)
- The letter “i” almost always represents a sound quite like the American “ee” in “feet”, not “i” in “fit”. (always the case in French)
- The letter “o” always represents a sound quite like the initial portion of the American “o” in “so”. In English, the vowel of “so” is diphthong: when you pronounce it, your jaw, lips, and tongue move. The Japanese “o” corresponds to the initial position of the American “o” in “so”. (so does French, whereas it’s open and closed, “o” is not diphthong)
- The letter “u” in Japanese almost always represents a sound not unlike the “oo” in “fool”, not “u” in “full”. (in French it always sounds like an english “ee” rounded)
- The letter “e” always represents a sound quite like the “e” in “pet”. (the “e” sound in French has different sounds)
2. Each syllable has the same length and strength.
This rule is the simplest but the most important. There are differences but the distinction between stressed and unstressed syllables is much smaller than in English. In French it’s the same. You must focus on slicing the sentence and say each syllable at the same rhythm (same duration and same flow).
Japanese/French structure is based on alternative consonant/vowels. It means the most common pattern will be consonant/vowel/consonant/vowel etc…(or CV/CV/CV…).
“Arigato” is a very good example. You can divide this in “A/RI/GA/TO” and you get “V/CV/CV/CV”.
“hajimemashite” : “HA/JI/ME/MA/SHI/TE” (CV/CV/CV/CV/CV/CV).
“Korewa ikura desuka” : KO/RE/WA/ I/KU/RA/ DE/SU/KA (CV/CV/CV/V/CV/CV/CV/CV/CV) That’s even simpler because almost all written sounds are pronounced in Japanese. Contrary to French where written “E’s” are often dropped. In fact, when it’s spoken french we tend to re-organize the syllabication to stick to the Japanese style. You start with: C’est avec Alain qu’il étudie le français. And you get: Cè/ta/vè/ca/lain/qui/lé/tu/di/le/fran/çais. As you can see, thanks to the liaison (c’est_à) and the consonant link’s (avec_Alain, qu’il_étudie), you have the alternative consonant/vowels even though you can’t see it in written French. That’s why speaking from day one is very important when you learn French.
An effective method of practicing this rule is to clap your hands while you pronounce Japanese/French words. For example, say “j’habite à Paris” (I live in Paris). This word consists of five syllables: j’ha-bi-ta-pa-ri. So, clap your hands five times: clap-clap-clap-clap-clap, keeping the same interval between the claps. Do it again and say j’ha-bi-ta-pa-ri at the same time so that each clap coincides with one syllable. Also, try to say all the syllables evenly with equal strength. This is the big secret to sound French even if you are a beginner.
3. There are no diphthongs in Japanese or in French.
A diphthong is a slide from one vowel to another as in the English word “rain”. The vowel in this word is written as [ei] in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This [ei] is considered a single vowel, a slide from an e-vowel to an i-vowel. Therefore “rain” has only one syllable although it has two vowel letters. The Japanese language doesn’t have any diphthongs. In French most of the time you will have no diphthong vowels too. So Yamamoto Kaderate isn’t Japanese at all, it’s French words. Neither is Takase Tamoto. This relation between Japanese and French language allows to make little puns, very famous in France, starting with:
How to say “J’ai eu un accident de moto” in Japanese?
Answer: “Yamamoto Kaderate” (il y a ma moto qui a dératé)
The same with:
– Moto accidentée / Takase tamoto (t’as cassé ta moto)
– Déshabille-toi / Takatoukité (t’as qu’à tout quitter)
– Ta femme te trompe / Tekoku (t’es cocu)
– Ta femme t’a largué / Tanana takité (ta nana t’a quitté)
The same with real Japanese words. The famous boat tour in Tokyo is called Yakatabune and it really sounds like “Il y a qu’à t’abonner” in French…Visit Japan and you will see many other funny examples 🙂
If you want to know more about French pronunciation, have a look to this post about How to improve your French by speaking a bad English.