Caption: My own well-used copy of the NHK Japanese Language Pronunciation and Accent Dictionary.
After 10 years of studying Japanese, the aspect of the language that continues to captivate me the most is pitch accent. Although it may seem intimidating at first, pitch accent is a rich and fascinating component of the Japanese language, and learning about it can be extremely rewarding.
In this article, I’m going to explain what Japanese pitch accent is, why it matters, and how I recommend going about tackling it.
What is Pitch Accent?
Caption: The different pitch accent patterns found in Standard Japanese. Source
Pitch accent is a phonetic feature of certain languages in which specific rises and falls in pitch comprise a fundamental component of the pronunciation of words.
In the case of Standard Japanese, nearly every word in the language is consistently pronounced with one of four main pitch accent “patterns”. You can think of these patterns as different “melodies”.
In some cases, pronouncing a word with the wrong pattern can completely change the meaning.
Here’s a quick overview of the four main pitch accent patterns found in Standard Japanese:
Pitch Accent vs. Stress Accent
English has a phonetic feature similar to pitch accent known as “stress accent”.
In English, whenever a word consists of multiple syllables, one of the syllables is pronounced more prominently than the others. For example, in the word “tomorrow”, the stress is on the second syllable, “mo”: toMOrrow. If “tomorrow” was pronounced with stress on the third syllable, “row” (“tomorROW”), it would sound quite odd to the ear of a native speaker.
There are even some cases where changing the stress alters the meaning of the word. One example of this is the word “present”. When stress is placed on the first syllable (“PREsent”), we have a noun meaning “gift”. When stress is placed on the second syllable (“preSENT”), we have a verb meaning “to give a presentation”.
In this way, stress accent has to do with pronouncing certain parts of words more strongly, whereas pitch accent has to do with pronouncing certain parts of words with a higher or lower pitch.
Pitch Accent vs. Tones
Some languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, have a phonetic feature similar to pitch accent known as “tones”.
Pitch accent and tones are similar in that they both deal with how rises and falls in pitch affect the meaning of words. The difference is that tones play out on the level of individual syllables, whereas pitch accent plays out on the level of entire words. For example, a three-syllable word in Mandarin Chinese will consist of three independent tones, whereas a three-syllable word in Japanese will have a single accent which plays out across the entire word.
Pitch Accent vs. Intonation
Intonation is a universal feature of spoken language in which changes in pitch alter the meaning or nuance of spoken sentences.
For example, consider the difference between the neutral statement, “He’s not home”, and the inquisitive statement, “He’s not home?”. Although both sentences consist of the same words in the same order, they each express distinct ideas. Which idea the statement will express depends upon the intonation pattern it’s pronounced with.
Although intonation and pitch accent are similar in that they both play out within the domain of changes in pitch, they’re fundamentally different in that intonation never changes the lexical meaning of words. In other words, intonation will never alter what words are being communicated; it will only change the nuance of how words are interpreted within the context of the rest of the sentence.
On the other hand, both pitch accent and stress accent do determine what words are actually being communicated. For example, “now” vs. “living room” in Japanese (pitch accent), or “PREsent” (gift) vs. “preSENT (give a presentation)” in English (stress accent).
Is Japanese Pitch Accent Important?
My personal opinion is that some amount of pitch accent study is crucial for any Japanese learner who’s serious about reaching a high level of Japanese fluency. However, at the present moment, the belief that pitch accent isn’t important seems to be fairly wide-spread throughout the Japanese learning community.
There are two main arguments I usually hear in support of this idea.
Argument One: Natives Will Still Understand You
The first common argument is that pitch accent is not important because Japanese native speakers will still be able to understand you even if you make many pitch accent mistakes while speaking. This is indeed true. Even if you pronounce words with the incorrect pitch, context will usually make clear what you were intending to say.
That said, just because native speakers will understand you, that doesn’t mean they’ll find your Japanese pleasant to listen to. Unnatural pitch accent errors will make your Japanese sound strange and sometimes even off-putting to native speakers. They may have to concentrate more than usual to understand what you’re saying, and misunderstandings will occasionally arise as well.
Imagine listening to someone speak English with foreign-sounding stress accent. “TomorROW I will viSIT the docTOR”. You would be able to understand them, but the stress accent errors would be distracting and unpleasant to listen to. For Japanese natives, listening to speech filled with pitch accent errors is a similar experience.
Argument Two: Different Dialects Have Different Pitch Accent
Caption: Map of the different pitch accent systems found across Japan. Source
The second main argument I hear is that pitch accent isn’t important because different regional dialects of Japanese have different systems of pitch accent. This is also true. For example, the Kansai Dialect of Japanese has a completely different pitch accent system than Standard Japanese.
That said, it doesn’t make sense to use this as a defense for speaking Japanese with foreign-sounding pitch accent mistakes. This would be similar to a French person learning English, and then arguing that because English is spoken with different accents across the United States, there’s no point in trying to reduce their thick French accent.
Although it’s true that there are different pitch accent systems across Japan, each of these systems has their own internal logic and structure. Additionally, Japanese people are used to hearing the various regional dialects that exist throughout Japan, just as Americans are used to hearing English spoken with the various accents used across the United States.
On the other hand, the pitch accent mistakes learners tend to make are generally chaotic and inconsistent, which make them sound distinctly foreign. This is why pitch accent mistakes can make your Japanese sound off-putting to natives, as I explained above.
Can’t I Just Pick Up Pitch Accent Naturally?
Another common belief found within the Japanese learning community is that you can pick up pitch accent naturally simply by listening to Japanese and actively mimicking it. In other words, because it’s possible to acquire pitch accent subconsciously, there is no reason to consciously study it.
The main argument in support of this idea is that native Japanese speakers are never taught about pitch accent as a child or in school, yet they all grow up speaking with perfect pitch accent. So, in theory, adult learners of Japanese should be able to do the same.
The problem with this idea is that it ignores the possibility of second language acquisition being fundamentally different from first language acquisition. Just because something is true for infants, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true for adults as well.
Indeed, in actuality, the hypothesis doesn’t hold up under reality testing. In the following section I’ll use my own experience with pitch accent to explain how I arrived at this conclusion.
My Personal Experience with Pitch Accent
When I initially began studying Japanese, pitch accent was not on my radar. Other learners hardly ever talked about it, so I assumed it wasn’t something I needed to worry about.
After around 4 years of intensive Japanese study, I had reached a point where I was quite fluent in the language. I could understand virtually any Japanese movie, TV show, or book without any issues, and could comfortably express myself when speaking about most topics.
Around that time, I asked some Japanese friends if there was anything that sounded “off” about my Japanese; anything obvious that gave away that I wasn’t a native speaker. Every Japanese person I asked consistently answered that my “intonation” was off. At first, I had no idea what they were talking about. When I listened back to recordings of myself speaking Japanese, I thought I sounded completely natural.
After looking into things more deeply, I eventually realized that what was actually happening was that I was regularly pronouncing words with the wrong pitch accent. As it turns out, because Japanese people aren’t taught about pitch accent in school, they generally end up referring to both pitch accent and intonation simply as “intonation” (イントネーション).
Even after reaching a relatively high level of Japanese fluency, I was still so oblivious to pitch accent that my pitch-mistake-ridden speech sounded perfectly fine to my own ears. It was at this point that I was forced to face the reality that I hadn’t acquired pitch accent, and likely wasn’t going to any time soon. It was only then that I started to actively study pitch accent.
Studying pitch accent caused me to naturally pay more attention to pitch while listening to Japanese. Through doing this, my ability to perceive pitch accent began to develop. Now, close to 4 years since initially starting pitch accent study, the way I hear Japanese has completely changed. To my ears today, pitch accent is clearly such a prominent feature of Japanese pronunciation that it’s hard to believe there was ever a time I was oblivious to it.
Looking around at other high-level foreign speakers of Japanese, it’s clear I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t able to pick up pitch accent “naturally”. Some Japanese learners who natively speak a tonal language, such as Chinese, do seem to be able to acquire pitch accent naturally. However, virtually every non-native Japanese speaker that doesn’t come from a tonal background (and hasn’t actively studied pitch accent) seems to regularly make pitch accent mistakes when speaking.
I created the following video to demonstrate this fact:
How the Misconceptions Are Perpetuated
Once I began realizing how crucial pitch accent is to Japanese pronunciation, and how consistently foreign-speakers fail to acquire it, I started to wonder how such a significant truth could have been, for the most part, kept secret from the bulk of the Japanese learning community. Here’s my personal theory as to why misconceptions surrounding pitch accent continue to be perpetuated.
Like I explained above, until I started actively studying pitch accent, I was completely oblivious to how pitch-mistake-ridden my own spoken Japanese was. Due to this lack of pitch awareness, to my own ears, my Japanese sounded perfectly fine. In other words, I wasn’t aware that there was a problem. Assuming others in the Japanese learning community are in a similar situation, it’s understandable that they generally aren’t interested in pitch accent: why be interested in a solution to a problem you don’t have?
The other side of the equation is that Japanese people are generally exceeding polite. Even if your Japanese isn’t that great, most Japanese people will compliment you for what ability you do have rather than point out where you still have room to improve. Thus, because native speakers tend to refrain from pointing out errors in foreign-speakers’ speech, many Japanese learners never get the opportunity to become aware of their lack of pitch awareness.
These Japanese learners then go on to educate the next generation of learners, proliferating the idea that pitch accent is either unimportant or something to be picked up naturally.
How to Study Pitch Accent
Studying pitch accent is by no means an all-or-nothing endeavor. Even if all you do is spend 30 minutes learning the very basics of pitch accent, that alone may have a huge positive impact on your Japanese pronunciation in the long term. In light of this, regardless of what your specific goals are, I would strongly urge anyone studying Japanese to at least learn the basics, and decide how far they want to take pitch accent study from there.
Getting Started with Pitch Accent
At the present moment, the best English-language resource available for learning Japanese pitch accent is Dogen’s Japanese Phonetics lecture series, which you can access through his Patreon. Although the series covers a wide range of phonetic topics, the beginning of the series is entirely focused on pitch accent. You can gain a solid understanding of pitch accent basics simply through watching the first group of episodes.
The first few episodes are viewable for free on YouTube:
Later on in the series, Dogen also goes into more advanced pitch accent concepts such as how pitch is affected when verbs conjugate and what happens when nouns combine with one another. He also gives some great advice for how to go about training pitch accent perception, as well as how to integrate pitch accent into your speech habits.
Other Pitch Accent Resources
If you’re an Anki user, the MIA Japanese add-on allows you to add pitch accent information to all the words in a card’s field with the press of a button. It also allows you to color-code words based on what pitch accent pattern they’re pronounced as, which can greatly reduce the effort required to memorize the pitch accent of words.
The OJAD website also provides a series of tools for helping Japanese learners understand pitch accent, including an online pitch accent dictionary (complete with native audio for each word), a pitch accent simulator, and more.
Pitch Accent: Challenging but Rewarding
If you’re still on the fence about jumping onto the pitch accent train, I recommend giving the basics a shot and seeing where that takes you. Even if you decide that 30 minutes of pitch accent study is enough for you, I guarantee that in the long term, you’ll find that those 30 minutes were well spent.
For those motivated to take things further, training in pitch accent may be the key to making your Japanese sound as close to native-like as possible. Speaking with natural pitch accent will make your Japanese more pleasant for natives to listen to, and this in turn will help you build stronger connections more quickly. More than anything, the knowledge that you’re pronouncing the language correctly can give rise to a new found confidence in your speaking ability.
Written by Matt Bonder
Matt Bonder has been studying Japanese for nearly ten years, five of which were spent in near full-time immersive study. Having only lived in Japan for 6 months, Matt learned Japanese primarily through using the internet to immerse himself in the language while living in the United States. Along with his co-founder, Yoga, Matt currently runs the Mass Immersion Approach (MIA), a structured approach to using immersion-based learning to reach high levels of mastery in foreign languages. You can also find a variety of informative language learning content on his “Matt vs. Japan” YouTube channel.