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Learning to speak a foreign language isn’t always about learning how to pronounce new sounds. Sometimes, sounds that we make in one language are used in unfamiliar ways or positions. For many English speakers, the Japanese “ts” sound is an example of this.

How is the Japanese “ts” sound made? The Japanese “ts” sound is made by placing the blade of the tongue on the ridge behind the upper teeth, creating a seal to block the flow of air, building up air pressure behind the blockage, and releasing it by moving the tongue down slightly. It should not sound like the English “t” sound.

You’re probably thinking that there is no way anyone could learn to make a sound from description like that. Most speakers would not be able to produce a sound based on a description alone. That’s because most people “know” how to make the speech sounds of their primary languages. How? It’s been automated and internalized through long practice and trial and error. In other words, they learned how to tune their mouths to the sounds of their primary language. So, when faced with unfamiliar sounds of a second or foreign language, we begin the process of tuning. This is where the IPA alphabet provides a useful starting point.

What is the IPA Alphabet?

The International Phonetic Association (IPA) alphabet offers a systematic approach to representing individual speech sounds, groups of speech sounds, and the features associated with them. Creating a one-to-one relationship between unique symbols and individual speech sounds is its greatest benefit. 

You don’t have to look far in English to see the difference. For example, how many sounds are represent the letters“ough” in English? Let’s see.

LetterSound TranscriptionSample Words
ough“uff”tough, rough
ough“a”thoroughfare (in some dialects)

We were able to find six different ways to pronounce the same sequence of letters. You can find more examples of this behavior, especially in English. It’s confusing for a learner when there are many ways to represent the same sound with different letters. The IPA alphabet tries to alleviate that issue.

We will now examine how the “ts” is made by describing what each term in its IPA descriptor means and how that translates into tangible actions by the parts involved.

The Voiceless Lingu-Alveolar Affricate

The Japanese “ts” sound is defined as a voiceless lingua-alveolar affricate in IPA terminology. The following table shows a few words that feature this sound.

Japanese WordDefinition
tsunamitidal wave
tsurucrane (bird)
tsumenail (e.g., fingernail), claw, talon

You may have noticed that in each word above, “ts” is followed by “u.” In Japanese, the “ts” sound is found preceding the “u” vowel. It does not precede the vowel sounds “a, i, e, o” in standard Japanese.

We will go through the terms in reverse order to show how this sound is made.

What is an Affricate?

An affricate is a consonant sound that features three distinctive features in its production. First, a blockage is created in the mouth. Then, air pressure builds up behind that blockage. The sound itself is made when air is released through a narrow gap between the mouth parts that created the blockage. 

English has two affricates, the “ch” sound as in “chip” and the “j” sound as in “jet.”

What Does “Lingua-Alveolar” Mean?

The second term in an IPA description refers to the parts of the mouth, or articulators, that are involved in manipulating the flow of air. In the case of affricates, they are the parts that create the blockage. “Lingua” refers to the tongue and “alveolar” refers to the alveolar ridge, a shelf-like structure located behind the upper teeth.

The blade of the tongue rests on that shelf with the tip right behind the upper teeth. The edges of the tongue make contact with the upper surface of the mouth to form a blockage. This is the same as the set-up for making the English “t” sound. If you can hold back the flow of air, you have completed the first two steps of the process.

It’s All in the Release

If this sound is set up like the English “t” sound, how do we get a different sound. This involves the third step of the process: the release. We will see the difference by comparing two English sounds: the “t” sound and the “ch” sound.

However, before we begin, set up your mouth to make the “t” sound. Notice where the blade and tip of the tongue are located and how the sides of the tongue make contact with the upper surface of the mouth.

As mentioned earlier, English has two affricates in its sound palette, the “ch” sound and the “j” sound. Set up your mouth to make the “ch” sound. Make sure not to release your tongue. Hold it so that you can feel some air pressure build up behind the blockage.

Now, notice where your tongue is located. The blade and tip of the tongue is somewhere other than where they were located when you set up for the “t” sound. For the “ch” sound, the tip of the tongue is probably located further back in the mouth. For some, it may touch the back edge of the alveolar ridge, before the upper surface begins to slope up toward the roof of the mouth. For others, it may be located somewhere on that slope. 

However, this positioning is not the key point here.

Now, reset your mouth to make the “t” sound. Notice the motion of your tongue when you release it to make the sound.

Do the same with the “ch” sound. Focus on the motion of the tongue when you release to make the sound.

Did you notice a difference? With the “t” sound, it may feel like a trap door suddenly dropping open. Whereas with the “ch” sound, that motion is much less, like a door being cracked open rather than being flung open wide. This creates a narrow gap through which the air is forced out.

When air is forced through a narrowing, it creates frication, or turbulence. 

Now, we are ready to form the “ts” sound using an English sound as a starting point.

The “t” Sound

Set up your mouth to make the “t” sound. The blade of the tongue should be reseting on the alveolar ridge with the tip located just behind the upper teeth. The sides of the tongue should be in contact with the upper surface of the mouth to create a seal. You may feel the side touch some of the molars near the rear of your mouth. Build up some air pressure behind that blockage.

Start by lowering the blade of your tongue slightly. If the tongue is dropping down suddenly, then you are probably forming the “t” sound. Remember the sensation of your tongue moving when you made the “ch” sound and keep practicing.

The English “ts” Sound

As you practice this sound, you may have thought that it sounds familiar. That is not your ears tricking you as this sound is found in English. It is found in many words that end with “ts,” such as “cats, bets, hits, pots, and huts.” However, it is not found at the beginning of words in English.

In Japanese, this sound can be found at the beginning of words and syllables, as in “tsuku” (=to arrive) or “natsu” (=summer). Because it is not found at the beginning of words in English, English speakers typically replace the “ts” sound with the “s” when pronouncing Japanese words that being with the sound. So, “tsunami” becomes “sue NAH me.”

No Voicing

The final term, voiceless, refers to what the cords are doing as air flows out the mouth. The vocal cords are folded back, allowing air to flow freely through the voice box during the production of the sound.

You can check this by putting two fingers to the side of your throat. If you hiss like a snake and make the “s” sound, you’ll feel nothing. The vocal cords aren’t vibrating. But, if you buzz like a bee and make the “z” sound., you’ll feel something. That are your vocal cords vibrating. Although very brief, the vocal cords will vibrate when you make the Japanese “ts” sound correctly.

Related Questions

Why do English speakers have difficulty with the Japanese “ts” sound? Although English speakers make the “ts” sound in speaking English, they are not used to making it in locations found in Japanese, namely at the beginning of words and syllables. Although English and Japanese share many speech sounds, many of them are organized in different ways.

How do you write the Japanese “ts”? Japanese does not use an alphabetic writing system; so, there is no symbol for the “r” sound by itself. Japanese uses a phonetic writing system where symbols represent syllables. The “ts” sound combines with the “u” vowel to form a symbol that represent the “tsu” syllable.

If you have any questions about the Japanese “r” sound or other questions about how language works, leave a comment in the form below.