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Do you Really Need to Study Pitch Accent? — 16 Comments

  1. I’m no expert but I met a Japanese girl once that never lived overseas but practiced shadowing English while standing in front of a mirror and her English pronunciation was great. She lost all of the famous Japanese English pronunciation and if you heard her voice only you wouldn’t be able to guess she wasn’t a native speaker. Shadowing is much easier to study (and funner) for me anyway. Not that I do it enough, but I’ve seen the results and it seems effective.

    Also, when Japanese people themselves can’t decide on the pitch of 橋 and 箸, it begs the question how many other words there are out there where the pitch changes based on where the person is from.

      • I even heard a podcast where they kept correcting the Japanese guys pitch accent. But just through listening and shadowing I think you can get to where Japanese people mistake your for being Japanese on the phone.

  2. I think for me, at least learning the basics, totally changed the way I heard Japanese. I just wasn’t able to hear any difference. I’m not sure if I would have come to the same point through sheer immersion.

    Motivation is of course most important. If I want to give it some attention, I do. At the moment though I don’t, so I don’t give it so much focus. (I have an Anki deck of the dogen example words/sentences that I come back to from time to time)

    • So I guess my thoughts are that I feel it’s worth studying until you can hear the difference, and can repeat a word/phrase correctly directly after hearing it (shadowing, being corrected etc). From there immersion and shadowing will fill in the rest.

      That is unless it’s draining your motivation. Then it’s not worth it at all!

    • I agree that knowing about the basics can help. This just doesn’t have to happen as a beginner and can be saved for later.

  3. I’ve been wondering a lot about this recently so I was really happy to see you wrote an article about this topic. I love that, as always, you have a very balanced approach, letting the reader decide whether it’s worth it to them to study pitch accent or not. I agree 100% that imperfectly moving forward is always going to be better than ideal-to-failure. It’s overwhelming if I tell myself that I have to be perfect.
    Also, I watched some introduction videos for pitch accents and was pleasantly surprised to see that I already was aware of many of the pitch accents for the words they produced as examples because of all the time I’d spent focusing on shadowing and immersion. I had known to say them in a certain way without being aware of why. Moving forward I think I’ll check out those introductory courses but probably stop there unless I find it interesting enough to continue. I’d rather continue to focus on shadowing and mimicking.

  4. I haven’t run into this in Japanese, but I remember having a discussion with a bunch of people in Sweden a few years ago where this came up (Swedish is also a language with a pitch accent). I was talking about my trip to a town called Gävle, and at this table with 10 people, the only person who didn’t know what I was talking about was the native Swedish speaker, because I got the pitch wrong for the word Gävle. We all had a good laugh, but it showed how important the pitch was for the language.

    In Japanese, I think getting used to the distinction between long and short vowels is actually a lot harder than pitch, though. The two things may go hand in hand, though. We English speakers have it pretty easy that words don’t necessarily have to be pronounced exactly right to be understood.

    That said, I think the pitch accent could probably be picked up by listening or trying to shadow, rather than making it something that you explicitly study. I know studying it would drive me up the wall!

  5. It’s funny you mention the dialect difference. After I took the Waseda course, I was talking to a friend in Osaka about it and he was totally baffled by some of the distinctions they made (like 来て vs 着て – to him they’re the same pronunciation).

    That said I agree with some other comments here that it’s totally worth spending a few hours learning the basics of pitch accent, just so you can more easily recognize and pick it up through the immersion & shadowing you would’ve already been doing. I felt like the Waseda course was a good use of my time, but didn’t feel compelled to go much further down the rabbit hole.

    • I fully agree. Spending those few hours sometime in your studies to become aware of what pitch accent is can pay off with minimal effort.

  6. Pitch accent is one of those things I really wish I had been aware of when I was first staring to study Japanese. But I think probably just a little bit of awareness would go a long way: being aware that it’s something that exists and that you should listen for. I agree that it doesn’t need to be something people obsess over, though, or that needs to be another category people feel they have to specifically study along with “grammar” and “kanji.”

    Also, anyone who is doing shadowing probably will not be very far off on pitch accent, especially if they’re aware that it exists and pay attention to pitch within a sentence.

  7. (1)
    I’m curious to hear your Japanese — is there a sample on YouTube or something?

    That way, I can differentiate between someone who focused on pitch accent (Dogen) vs. someone who did not (you), and then decide for myself which path to take. I believe you and Dogen have roughly the same amount of years learning Japanese.

    (2)
    “…and have never had a communication problem in a conversation.”

    When I went to America, I felt the same way about my English. I never had to correct myself in a conversation. But I later heard (behind my back) that my American colleagues find my accent slightly hard to understand. From then on, I started to take accent seriously.

    • Yes, there are videos of Adam speaking on youtube. Also, his Patreon has similar content, and some off it is unscripted with another person.

      From what I’ve learned about pitch accent, it does affect how you are understood in some instances, but it’s not required.

      I feel that if you wish to sound like a native, pitch accent is a must, but that it is for those who are always aiming for perfection. Another aspect of it is, if you learn and become used to using pitch accent, natives will really easily notice any mistakes you make, which may be more jarring to them than if you didn’t use it at all.

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