How can I learn to hear the difference between て and で, た and だ, か and が, etc.?

For example, when I people say "わたし", it sounds to me like "wa da shi" instead of "wa ta shi". The same things happens in case of か行 and た行. Sometimes it's really hard to distinguish them.

  • 2
    What's your background? E.g. do you speak a language like Chinese, which doesn't have voiced consonants like /b/ /d/ /g/ at all?
    – Yang Muye
    May 6 '14 at 5:34
  • 3
    Chinese treats Japanese medial /t/ and /d/ and /p/ and /b/ as the same sound. That is, say, "哇大西" is either /watasji/ or /wadasji/ depending on speed/speaker/etc: Chinese doesn't care. (FYI Pinyin "t" is actually /tʰ/)
    – ithisa
    May 6 '14 at 6:32
  • 4
    On the other hand, /t/ and /d/ are distinct in Japanese, but /t/ and /tʰ/ (pinyin t and d) are not distinct, while they are distinct in Chinese. So わだし and わたし sound obviously distinct for Japanese speakers, while "哇大西" /watasi/ and "哇他西" /watʰasi/ are not distinct and are both わたし.
    – ithisa
    May 6 '14 at 6:37

Because Chinese doesn't have voiced consonants. In Chinese, voiced /b/d/g/ are just variants of their voiceless counterparts. So you can't hear the difference between voiced sounds and voiceless sounds.

It's hard to explain and learn by text. Instead, I recommend you practice it by listening and imitating.

The site 首都大学東京 mic-J 日本語教育 AV リソース may be helpful. (AV stands for Audio Visual I think.)

This tutorial is specially designed for Chinese speaker who can't hear voiced and voiceless sounds. This is the old version. (5 years old, I think.)

This tutorial contains video explanations and 100+ exercises. Try and see how many you can hear correctly.

For Korean speakers who have the same problems, there is a Korean version, too.

If you don't speak Chinese or Korean, you probably need to learn Chinese or Korean first to be able to use it. )-: Anyway, try out Google Translator.

TIPS: The voiced consonant at the beginning of a sentence is not always fully voiced. There is a big chance it's devoiced. Instead, the voiceless sound at the same position becomes aspirated. In this case, Chinese speakers often have no problems hearing it.

  • This answer is correct. As a Chinese speaker, I find it rather difficult to distinguish unaspirated /p/ with /b/, since they are in free variation in Chinese. That is, /p/ and /b/ are treated in the brain as the same sound, so when it gets to the brain's "understanding" phase they are already the same.
    – ithisa
    May 6 '14 at 6:30
  • This is actually not a problem for English, since English strongly aspirates stops (/p/ sounds like /ph/, and /p/ and /b/ vs /ph/ is the distinction in Chinese), except after /s/. OP, if you think you speak English well, try distinguishing "spa" from "sba" (though sba isn't a word); if you can do that you have no problem with Japanese.
    – ithisa
    May 6 '14 at 6:32
  • 1
    English speakers typically have trouble distinguishing [p˭ t˭ k˭] from [pʰ tʰ kʰ] since it's not a phonemic contrast. Fortunately it's not necessary in Japanese either, so being able to distinguish "spa" from "sba" doesn't matter. (In any case, the contrast between /p/ and /b/ is neutralized in English after /s/.)
    – user1478
    May 6 '14 at 6:59
  • Distinguishing "spa" from "sba" requires distinguishing [p˭] and [b], which most Chinese people cannot.
    – ithisa
    May 6 '14 at 8:22
  • @user54609, well, the two phonemes /b/ and /p/ are realized in different ways in different languages. e.g. Even in English and Japanese, /b/d/g/ are not always voiced. I'm afraid distinguishing a nonexistent contrast won't help too much...
    – Yang Muye
    May 6 '14 at 8:43

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