Talk of “Pitch Accent” has been growing these days. There wasn’t much discussion about it up until a few years ago, but now you can’t escape hearing about it and why you need to study it. New courses like the Waseda Japanese Pronunciation Course EdX continue to pop up, and the ridiculous popularity of Dogen’s Pitch Accent & Pronunciation course clearly show that people are interested.
Should you start changing everything you’ve been doing up until now and join the Pitch Wave?
What is pitch accent?
Pitch accent is the Japanese phenomenon where each mora (rhythmic unit) of a word can have either high or low pitch.
If you didn’t understand this, don’t worry. More simply, pitch accent affects how Japanese is spoken. You learn basic pronunciation when you learn the kana. Then you listen to Japanese people speak full words and sentences and it sounds different. Pitch accent is what makes it sound different. It is often the cause of you saying a word you think sounds right, but a Japanese person telling you otherwise.
Why is studying pitch accent gaining popularity?
The bar for “good Japanese” is continually getting higher. What was “good” Japanese pronunciation to foreigners 10 years ago is not the case today, regardless of how a Japanese person may compliment you. People want to sound even more native and pitch-accent is a tool to get there.
Should you study pitch accent?
This is big question I’ve been asked a lot recently, and I have a mixed opinion.
Pitch-Accenters (people who rave about studying pitch-accent) will firmly say “yes it is a must if you want amazing sounding Japanese.” But as with all things in studying Japanese, I don’t think it is so simple. Pitch-accent is a massive task that can take a long time to master. It’s not just like learning “kana pronunciation, part 2.”
Studying Japanese is failure-prone. This is why everyone isn’t fluent and why it’s still special to speak Japanese. The long list of things to complete to succeed can be daunting: kana, 2,000+ kanji, headache-inducing grammar, further headache-inducing sentence structure, listening, conversations, writing, and more. What happens when you add in another giant to this list?
Pitch-Accenters escalate the issue further because they push that you should study it right from the beginning. This thought is fully sound. The sooner you learn it, the easier it will be, the less problems you will create for yourself in the long run, and the overall “better-sounding Japanese” you will have.
But just like trying to tackle all 2,000+ kanji before even starting to learn Japanese can lead you down a bad path, dancing with pitch accent from day 1 can increase your chance of giving up. Your first task is to self-assess how you study, your motivation, and how much you value the end results.
Remember: you can always come back to studying pitch-accent later, when you are better equipped to determine whether it is worth it to you. It may not create that ideal Japanese learner you originally wanted. But in the world of Moving Forward Imperfectly vs Ideal-to-Failure, I always would choose the former.
How will your Japanese sound without ever Studying Pitch Accent?
When you first start learning Japanese, regardless of how you study, you are going to sound bad. You accept this and you work towards getting better. The more listening practice and the more you shadow and mimic, the more your pronunciation will shine. Eventually you will blow away Japanese people. This is all without directly studying pitch accent. And just because you don’t study it, doesn’t mean you won’t pick some of it up naturally.
What if you had studied pitch-accent?
It’s a tough comparison to make. Assuming you make it to an extremely high level of Japanese, maybe something like:
100%: Japanese person.
98%: studied pitch accent
93%: didn’t study pitch accent but did everything else right
With this small gap, you need to consider the effort vs reward ratio. These numbers are debatable (and hard to prove), but the gap is definitely not something like 98% vs 80%.
It’s also important to note that pitch accent can vary between dialects. Even within the same dialect, native Japanese people occasionally make mistakes on pitch accent (just like you make mistakes on English pronunciation/intonation). This is not a reason to say “then I don’t need it!” but it is a factor to consider.
My experience with pitch
I sort-of first heard of pitch accent when I was teaching English in Japan in 2005. I noticed 0.5% of my English students were adding in strange marks in their English textbooks. These accent marks were supposed to help them gain “proper pronunciation.” I didn’t know that this was a thing so I asked them about it. They told me about how something similar exists in the Japanese language as well and is how to sound more native.
I brushed it off because the students that did this for English didn’t usually speak English that well despite spending all this time marking up their textbooks. This is just an anecdotal story, but influenced me later on.
It wasn’t until a few years ago when I observed the “Pitch Accent Boom.” I took a look at Dogen (who does an excellent job with the work he is doing) and the Waseda Pronunciation course. It was an interesting learning experience, allowing me to see the Japanese language in a bit of a different way, despite having already studied for 12 years. However, I didn’t feel the need to look beyond the basics. If I could go back in time, I probably wouldn’t warn myself to study it. I had enough on my Japanese plate at the time.
I’m pretty proud of my Japanese pronunciation and have never had a communication problem in a conversation. While I’m sure I could go slightly further, and pitch-accent would take me there, the effort vs. reward doesn’t align, so I don’t see it as important enough for me.
To pitch or not to pitch
Just like everything with Japanese, you have to make the decision based on your own game settings and what you actually want.