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Intervocalic ん -- a Silent Letter in Japanese


Now that the course is up and running, I thought it may be helpful to share with the Duolingo Japanese community a challenge I had with Japanese pronunciation -- a particular issue not often discussed in language courses but which can make a difference in everyday communication.

The issue is the pronunciation of ん when followed by a vowel. I was a high school teacher in Japan, and encountered the problem most often with the word 範囲 (はんい), which basically means "the material to be covered on a test" (from my students' perspective, a very important word).

You can't say "Hani" (はに) or "Hanni" (はんに)...you won't be understood (I learnt this the hard way). I would try saying "Han....pause....i" and get blank stares. I would say "Ha...pause....n...pause....i" and get blank stares.

I eventually learned that the " ん” is SILENT and the previous vowel is nasalised (kind of like in French). You also need to pause briefly where the "ん" appears, so that "はんい" takes 50% longer to say than ”はい" and actually sounds quite different.

The sound also comes up, for example, in Shin'ichi or Shin'ichiro, which are common men's names, or in 前衛 (ぜんえい), which means "avant-garde". There are many other examples, although I am not sure if any come up in the Duolingo course.


September 15, 2017



This is so complicated. Is there a way to tell which words have the silent letter, or do I have to memorize them?


There really isn't anything to memorise; it applies if the ん is followed by a vowel sound (so あ、い、う、え or お) in the same word (typically a two-kanji word like 範囲).


So... instead of pronouncing the ん, turn it into a brief pause inside the word. And nasalize the preceding character. Is that correct?


Pretty much. By "brief pause", I mean extend the previous vowel (the one that's nasalised) so that it lasts two syllables, not one.


Nice interesting post! I have a pretty similar understanding but not completely the same conclusion. (I'm only a learner though.)

I really like the "Japanese phonology" page on Wikipedia. It has some helpful explanations for each of the allophones of the "moraic nasal" ん kana, but the whole page is definitely worth a read:


I'm not a linguist nor had any education of that sort (in fact I've never been to university and am actually just a van driver!)... I can relate if people think that wiki page looks utterly unreadable at first, but it really does explain so much after spending time managing to figure out exactly what it's saying. ^^


Is it pronounced like はーい or はーあい?


Neither exactly....that's the trick. It will be closer to はーい, but the "は” is nasalised. Hold you nose when you way "は" and you'll see what I mean.


Actually, the ん sound doesn't change, except before な、に、ぬ、ね、の. It's like the French n after a vowel (Un bon vin blanc.) It's also similar to the English n before g. As in sing, song, and sang, except, you don't say the g.

If you say "tango" slowly, notice what your tongue is doing. Now say "tan". Notice the difference? The n in tango is made with the back of the tongue. The n in tan is made with the tip of the tongue.

So when you say はんい, the front of your mouth should not move. All three sounds are made in the back of the mouth. The ん is never silent -- it is always pronounced.


Hmmm. I'm trying to think of an example in English so people will understand the noise. It's not quite silent... I have some Japanese friends who pronounce the noise. It's very much like the "ng" in "ringer" (unless you're from Yorkshire!). I can understand how Michael has described it, but the nasalisation of the previous vowel... um... it IS the letter being pronounced, if that makes sense.

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