Do you Really Need to Study Pitch Accent?
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.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
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.
There was an episode of the Jdrama TRICK that hinged upon mistaking the pronunciation of はし
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.
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.
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.
Shadowing makes everything good :)
Watching a few introductory courses videos sounds good.
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!
Yes, long and short vowels, and the small っ are really important for good sounding Japanese. I talked about this a long time ago (https://japaneselevelup.com/6-bad-habits-that-make-your-japanese-sound-unnatural/), and it is definitely something people need to practice and work hard on.
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.
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.
I think that sums it up really well: awareness goes a long way.
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.
“…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.
I kept seeing this lately, and I’m wondering too, i see alot of people studying Japanese who are so into pitch accents and how they’re not too great at it, and I’m learning Japanese too but my way is same with mimicking and shadowing. I feel like i should worry more about my grammar than if i sound better but by learning words, surely you’ll know how it is said. Also, when said in a sentence, i doubt people can pinpoint subtle pitch changes.