As a beginner Japanese learner, it can be hard sometimes to get all the different pronunciation rules right. Especially challenging for beginner learners is the double consonant and long vs short vowels, which – when pronounced wrong – can completely change the meaning of words.
So how do you know when words in Japanese are using double consonants or long vowels? Read on to find out.
Sokuon 促音 (double consonants)
Sokuon involves the use of a small “tsu, つ” to double a consonant in a word. Called gemination in phonetics, this results in a clipped sound, or slight pause, when pronouncing the word in Japanese. It’s not the easiest pronunciation point to get at first, but you will get the hang of it the more familiar you become with the language.
When writing in romaji, you use a double consonant, while in kana you will use the small “tsu” (っ for hiragana and ッ for katakana) in place of the repeated consonant.
Some examples of words that have sokuon:
As expected, likewise, nonetheless, still
*For comparison, ita 板, which means board or plank, or ita 痛, meaning “ouch!” are pronounced without the double consonant.
*Compared with nishi 西, which means west
Chouon 長音 (long vowels)
These are words that have long sounds, resulting in a lengthened pronunciation in Japanese.
When writing, there are some rules that come into play:
Long vowels ending in a あ, i い, u う are written with an extra vowel of the same sound. For example, long vowels ending in あ add on an extra あ.
→ E.g. okaasan お母さん・おかあさん(mother).
Long e え sounds are followed by an extra い or え.
→ For example, eiga 映画 ・えいが(movie) or oneesan お姉さん・おねえさん (older sister).
Long vowels ending in o お are followed by an extra う.
→ For example, ohayou おはよう (good morning).
An exception to this is some words are written with a double お, such as in ooki 大き・おおき (big).
Sometimes you might see the extra vowel omitted and instead, the word will be written with a macron over the long vowel. For example: okāsan, ohayō. There is no real rule around that and much of it comes down to preference.
In katakana, the long vowel is represented by a dash instead. For example: koohii コーヒー (coffee), suupaa スーパー (supermarket).
It’s important to know that there are many words that look the same, where the only difference is that one has a long vowel and the other doesn’t. Using the wrong pronunciation can change the meaning of a word entirely.
Obasan おばさん (aunt) vs obaasan おばあさん (grandmother)
Ningyo にんぎょ (mermaid) vs ningyou にんぎょう (doll)
Biru ビル (multi-storey building) vs biiru ビール (beer)
Kado かど (corner) vs kaado カード (card)
Kutsu くつ (shoes) vs kutsuu くつう (pain, agony)
How to master double consonants and long vowels in Japanese
If you’re struggling with double consonants and long vowels in Japanese, know that you’re not alone!
As you become more accustomed to hearing Japanese and as you improve your own language abilities, you’ll notice that differentiating between long vs short vowels and recognising double consonants will come much more naturally.
Listen to more Japanese-learning podcasts, watch Japanese-learning videos, follow your favourite accounts on Tiktok. Do what you can to immerse yourself in the language so that you can start to recognise all the different pronunciation patterns.
This is why we recommend students learn Japanese in Japan, where you will be surrounded by Japanese every day. Full immersion has proven benefits for language learning and you’ll gain so much more by learning with context. Read more in our article about why immersive learning is so important.
If you’re interested in learning Japanese in Japan, don’t hesitate to contact us so we can help you on your journey.