Japanese language, on its own terms, isn’t that difficult a language to learn I believe, but it does have some things that are pretty different from English, and require re-learning. One of them, surprisingly, is rhythm and lack of stress accents. I’ve talked about the “flat” sound of Japanese, but I haven’t really talked about its rhythm before.
Since Japanese is usually written using hiragana syllabary, it’s important to note that each kana “letter” is actually a self-contained syllable, and represents one “beat”. So, if you take a word like the city of Yokohama, it has four beats:
Once you grasp this concept, and get familiar with hiragana, Japanese is fairly easy to spell. However, there is one wrinkle that’s really important to pay attention to.
In Japanese the letters ō and o are not the same. They both sound like “oh”, but one of them is two beats, and the other is a single beat. In Romanization, the sound ō is actually two beats, comprising of o, followed by u “ooh”. Many words in Japanese use this combination. For example, the city of Tokyo, is actually Tōkyō. If pronounced correctly, it actually has 4 beats, not 2:
It really helps if you clap to the beat to help you adjust to this. For a native English speaker, it’s really hard to tell the difference between ō and o in conversation, but a native Japanese speaker can and does. A good example is the word ryokō (旅行, “travel”) which has both:
The “ryo” is pronounced as a single beat (not 2, as in English), while the kō is pronounced as two beats.
In Japanese, the ū and u, both pronounced as “ooh” as in “soup” similarly are distinguished by two beats vs. one. The word for shumi (趣味, “hobby”) has only two beats:
But compare with shūmatsu (週末, “weekend”) which has two beats for shū (4 total):
This is also why relying on Romanization of Japanese is a bad idea: it’s hard to convey this. IF you can read hiragana, then the pronunciation is super obvious because it’s a WYSIWYG writing system: what you see is what you get. Take this book cover for example (which I talk about in my other blog):
I’ve highlighted in green the interesting characters. The word 百 is pronounced as ひゃく which is two beats:
And the word 道 in this context is pronounced as しゅ (shu) which is a single beat, like English “shoe”. Romanization can convey this, but if you can read hiragana, it is just so much easier.
Slight tangent, but Korean Hangeul works much the same way: Romanization doesn’t convey the sounds very well, but like Japanese hiragana, native Hangeul is also a WYSIWYG system. My wife and I have a children’s book in Korean from a friend:
I’ve highlighted each Hangeul syllable, but as you can see, Hangeul neatly divides each syllable by blocks anyway. Thus, you can easily tell who to read each one:
If you try to write the title in Romanized Korean: seonraedonghwa, it’s hard to distinguish syllables. Is “seon” actually “se” and “on”, or is it one syllable? If you write with spaces in between words, it’s still hard to tell what’s what.
Also, this need to learn the native script isn’t limited to Asian languages. Ukrainian is much easier to read and learn once you grasp the Cyrillic alphabet. It is a pain upfront due to overlap with English, but it also makes it much easier to read words like the surname of the current president: Зеленський. In Ukrainian, there is only one way to read/pronounce Зеленський, but in Romanized Ukrainian it is written as Zelenskyy, Zelensky or Zelenskiy. Close, but not quite. The same goes with reading Greek (both modern and ancient), and so on.
Think of learning Hiragana, Hangeul, Cyrillic, Devanagari, or Greek as a one-time investment. It seems like a hassle upfront, but once you get past that barrier, a whole new world opens up.
Anyhow, back to the original point of this post. When it comes to learning Japanese, it’s important to pay attention to rhythm, because your pronunciation will sound much better, and you’re likely to reduce your foreign “stress” accent in the process. It’s perfectly fine to have some lingering accent (that’s life as a foreigner in any country), but your ability to clearly convey what you want to say to native speakers will go a lot smoother, and be less tiring to the listener.