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The Melodious Style of the Japanese Language

Updated on June 7, 2020
Nolan Johnson profile image

A 28-year-old nerd who loves writing, history and just learning as much as possible Works part-time as an SAT-Prep Teacher at Huntington

Do-Re-Mi

A bit of background before we get started; I've been obsessed with Japanese culture since I was around four or five years old. I've been attempting to self-study since I was fourteen until I was able to find enough time to take Japanese classes in the summer of my upcoming senior year of college two years ago. Now, while I can say that I excelled in the classes due to having a love of languages, or the failed attempts at self-studying, one thing that I quickly learned when trying to read out long sentences and string together the Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji was this feeling like I was, well, reading music.

Needless to say my classmates and my teacher didn't pick up on this, but even they couldn't argue that I was on to something.

The two languages I probably have the best shot at learning, for two completely different reasons
The two languages I probably have the best shot at learning, for two completely different reasons

Now, I'm not a musician outside of playing trumpet in 4th grade, but I do LOVE Music. I love art in its many forms in general; music, poetry, prose, drawing, painting, the list goes on. I love it so much, that my love of language and music intertwined and my nerdy self would memorize lyrics to Japanese songs that Spotify would bless me with.

I promise this is for language learning purposes!

But in all seriousness, when I was fourteen and being an absolute otaku, I would look up the lyrics online to my favorite anime of the time, and just butcher the lyrics, because I didn't fully grasp the pronunciation of the Japanese words; especially too because Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji was so foreign to me that I refused to put in the effort to at least memorize the first of the three, relying on the romaji (romanized Japanese), which I learned over the years, were sometimes mistranslated. It was only when I was 25 and taking my classes, that I realized that Hiragana was the superior form of reading Japanese, and then Kanji when I eventually learned some.

That being said, its when we got to all of these, as I mentioned before, that I realized what was so different as compared to learning Spanish and Italian, in High School and College respectively, or speaking English as a native.

Learning Spanish and Italian, we obviously use roman characters, and at least with the latin-based languages they follow similar structures when it comes to stressing syllables, conjugation rules and the like. A combination of letters make a distinct sound, and sometimes the orders of the same letters change the pitch and accent of the letters. Japanese on the other hand, doesn't do any of that. Japanese, wants you to read it at face value--you read exactly what you see; no stressing, no tonal shifts, just read it.



Source

Fun fact, did you know that 10% of Japanese words are borrowed from English? words like "Taxi", "Computer", "TV?" Let's take TV as an example. In English, TV is short for Television; Te-le-vi-sion. TV, Tee-Vee. Thats how it sounds when English speakers pronounce it.

In Japanese, it's テレビ/ terebi. Te-Re-Bi.

In English, our way of pronunciation doesn't separate every syllable in the word, because sometimes, syllables just turn into a mixture into one sound, ie P and H making Ph which makes an F sound. Japanese in comparison needs you to sound out every syllable in the word. I've learned that while studying in class, trying to think of words in Japanese becomes difficult because with 46 syllables, trying to string together a cohesive sentence becomes less of remembering a word, and more so making sure you're putting the right syllable in its place.

Literally it's like you're playing the piano and one wrong note disrupts the whole rhythm.

BUT, at the same time it's this simple outlook that made getting a grasp of it easier.

Source

"Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do" is basically the same as "ドレミファソラチド" (Well technically the latter is the literal transcription but you get the point)

Reading Japanese is literally like playing these notes on an instrument. Watashi/わたし/私/I is read: wa-ta-shi. Watashi wa neko ga imasu/わたしはねこがいます/私は猫がいます/ I have a cat, is read wa-ta-shi wa ne-ko ga i-ma-su

There can be some subtle exceptions, like how the U in "Su" is almost silent but more often than not, when either speaking or listening to the language, if you treat each sound like a literal beat, then you will be able to differentiate between words and your overall pronunciation will become less stiff and more fluent.

At the very least this is how I explained it to my teacher when she noted how fluent I tend to sound when I speak, as well to my classmates when we'd find ourselves struggling on how to speak out loud.


Helpful tip to adopt a sense of fluency

I think a problem some English speakers have with Japanese is the subconscious urge to stress and combine familiar syllables as opposed to maintaining one central tone. That said, as a real-life exercise, take an easy children's song like the above, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and practice reciting the lyrics provided. Each Hiragana in the song matches the beat of the song itself, without the stress changes English has normally, so by memorizing the beats along with the unstressed syllables, the flow of connecting the words will become fluid as time goes on.

And if you want more of a challenge, listen to J-Pop, J-Rock, J-Rap, or any kind of Japanese music you'd fancy, and follow the lyrics along with it if obtainable. Start with the romaji, then move on to the kana, and see your brain make the connections to the melody and ergo the lyrics as you try to match the pace.

Before you know it, your mouth will be trained to recite words in a quicker, more fluid fashion in the same way fingers jump from key to key on a piano.

Conclusion

That's enough talking from me. Thanks for reading, and if anyone else has helpful tips to help a semi-bilingualist like myself and others, feel free to comment, that way all of us can benefit as we pursue our love of the Japanese Language and Culture!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Nolan Johnson

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