I've enrolled in Japanese I at the University of Maryland (there's a satellite branch on base) and tonight was my first class. We learned about making introductions and started learning Hiragana characters.
We worked on the Japanese vowels, which are the same ones as in English but the pronunciations are: (a) as in father, (e) bed, (i) see, (o) old, (u) tool. Many Japanese words are spelled the same, but actually have different vowel lengths when pronounced, which changes the meaning of the word. I have absolutely no idea how to explain this more clearly, so I'll just give you some examples: biru (hold the i sound for one beat) means building, but biru (hold the i for two beats) is beer. Both are pronounced "beeroo", you just hold the i longer in the second word. Chizu is map, chizu with the longer i is cheese. On a stupidly funny note: husband is shijun, prisoner is shijun with the longer i !!! When writting these words in romaji (basically writting with the English alphabet) the long vowel is either written as double letters: biiru or more commonly as a vowel with the little line (macron) over the top, the way we usually signify a long vowel in English.