Keep Japanese Pronunciation Flat
The Japanese language is flat, without intonation changes. If you talk like a robot, you will have more natural pronunciation. When you first heard this, you probably gave a puzzled and disbelieving look. You’ve watched TV and movies, and the pitch, intonation, and levels of Japanese are all over the place. All you are trying to do is match what the Japanese do, yet you constantly get told that to sound more natural, you should do something different from everything you’ve seen or heard.
Compared to English, Japanese is a flatter language. However, this is only a base concept. In reality it is often not flat, but the intonation and levels build off of the flatness in ways very different than English.
I wish I could fully explain the proper ways to speak with proper intonation in one neatly packaged blog post. While this is beyond my means, I can help you focus on a big problem area that most native English speakers have. There is a tendency to raise the second syllable of a word.
This is a common mistake that taints the Japanese of many foreigners of all levels. The problem is worsened when what is spoken involves foreign loan words.
Here are a few examples of how many foreigners mispronounce the following words. The bold part is where the intonation is improperly raised:
These should all be flat.
What confuses you when you are watching TV is that native speakers stray from flatness in native ways. You can’t stray from flatness in non-native ways if you want to sound native. This will be a challenge that you will have to work with throughout your studies, but trust me, it will continually be important.
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 learned about Japanese being a robotic language from the very beginning (from All Japanese All The Time). This is very good advice. When I entered my first Japanese class, I starkly noticed the difference between the way my classmates spoke (and they were the advanced class, it shocked me) and the way Japanese people speak. I wish all classes gave out advice like the advice I find on this blog. That is why as an English teacher myself, I’m trying to incorporate these methods into the classroom.
Something I used to have trouble with was saying “私 は …….” instead of “私は ……”. It’s because I had to think about the は. Though, it also routes back to how in English, we say “I …… am” not “I am” (though we kind of do with “I’m”). We say the subject, and pause before saying the verb. I never realized I was doing it until a Japanese friend told me so, which gave me the chance to work on it.
What I love about the Japanese language is in words like “こんにちは” and “おはよう”, the wa and you are extended like a wave ~. Perhaps that’s just when girls speak. But until you start toning down your American intonations, you don’t really notice the true intonation of Japanese.
(sorry for the long comment (>_<) )
It’s great that you have focused on this from the beginning. I was not as fortunate and had to work my way out of bad habits!
And Japanese girls definitely do very different things with intonation on Japanese words.
Interestingly, if you hear a Japanese person who doesn’t speak English try to speak English they will often add the は onto a word automatically. It’s almost part of the word for them.
To anyone else struggling with this I would suggest just trying to think of は as something that exists in the subject part of any sentence. Think of whatever word you are using as the “extra” part that needs to be added onto the は. It helped me when I was first learning, maybe it will help someone else.
Do you know this podcast?
A girls podcast. They have quite peculiar intonations, speacially the main host Ogura Yuuko. I’ve been listening to this podcast since past November, my speaking/listening skills have increased a lot, and my intonation is getting like Ogura yuuko’s, which kinda scares me lol.
I just checked it out. Yea she has very “exaggerated girly” Japanese intonation. I wouldn’t choose her as the best model for your Japanese, unless that is what you want to sound like. But it definitely sounds like a fun podcast. And it’s definitely good to get experience listening to these non-standard standard accents, which you hear on TV quite often.
Here is my two cents in the matter. Granted my Japanese is just above beginner at best, here is my take on intonation in Japanese. While not as crazy as Mandarin, I would argue there is a slight deep and rise in some words in order to distinguish meanings from each other. Even in English (and German) pitch changes are used indicate feelings and what now. I would say don’t try to sound like a “robot” when you speak Japanese because then you will just sound like a “robot” speaking Japanese. Instead I would recommend learn the hiragana song. The great thing about Japanese is each character’s sound doesn’t change like English. Like tomb and bomb, the “o” sound is different right? Now in Japanese か is か and つ is つ. Now I am not sure whether this is pitch or a change of stress (and even if those are two separate things) but there is a change in how some words are pronounced. かき comes to mind right off the bat. Said one way it means “oyster” while the other means “persimmons”. I just now heard one of teacher asking how to pronounce the name of a city. There were two different pitch/stresses used. Now this should not be blown out of proportion. This is just an observation and what I have been told by my Japanese buddies. Don’t take my word for it, go out and ask. And keep up the good work.
I forgot to add this little nudget of knowledge…(sounded better in my head)
Intonation, as far as English, is the rise and fall of pitch to convey a range of meanings, emotions, or situations. I believe all languages have their monotones and dynamic speech patterns. Just need to listen to them and see them in action (context all the way baby). Hope this helps.
and that should be dip not deep
Just a quick update on this discussion.
So I did some digging and found some interesting things to consider while trying to get one’s pronunciation more up to snuff. Remember pronunciation is an important part in being understood. Get as close to native as you can. If it is not perfect, don’t sweat it. They say close is only good for horse shoes and hand grenades…I would put pronunciation in there, too. And here-we-go…
Remember that each “syllable” gets the same length of time. Each one gets a beat if you will. There is a pretty good video on youtube about this.
Give it a quick watch. It may change your life…and hopefully the way you use your mouth. Hope this helps everyone.
The electronic dictionary I use (Casio Ex-word Dataplus8 XD-U6500) has a digital version of the NHK日本語発音アクセント辞典, which includes voice sounds and pronunciation notation.
If anyone is thinking of buying an electronic dictionary (you should 100% get one), check if it has a similar function. And if you own an electronic dictionary already, it’s worth checking to see if you have an accent dictionary built in! Or you could buy the paper version…
My Anki deck now contains several thousand cards with bolded kana as an intonation guide in the answer. I’ve had to manually look up every word and bold the correct kana when making my cards, but I now have a decent framework of patterns for Japanese intonation.
May I know, from the list of examples you have brought up, what do you mean that the bold parts have been improperly raised? Can I clarify in what way(s) are they improperly raised?
It’s hard to show it by text (you have to hear it to get a better idea). But think of the way you hear a foreigner say KoNEeechewa.
I always thought my intonation in Japanese was fine as I practiced speaking in a flat tone and I don’t raise the second syllable of words, but recently I was told by my language exchange partner that I tend to raise the intonation at the end of a sentence. I wasn’t aware of this myself and I can’t hear myself doing it when I speak so I don’t know how I should go about correcting this. Do you have any advice?
Shadow/mimicking exactly how someone on TV sounds can help. You can also record yourself shadowing and compare it to the original. The more you shadow (even if just intermittently, 10-15 minutes every day), the more your pronunciation gets replaced with the correct pronunciation.
You can also get a few cheap private lessons with the specific goal of working on intonation.