There are many learning resources for Japanese that glaze over the language’s pitch accent, which differs greatly from English where emphasis (not using pitch) on a single syllable is used instead. For example, one of the first textbooks I studied from mentioned that the accent differs from region to region (this is true), so there isn’t much use in trying to learn it. As a result, I pretty much ignored this important part of the language for far too long.
Having not taken any formal languages classes, I cannot speak on how it is emphasized in academia, but as someone who wants to take pride in my Japanese and continually strive to speak like a native speaker (ネイティブ並み – native level), I always try to have the pitch accent in the back of mind when speaking or listening.
Ignoring pitch accent is equivalent to saying “all non-native speakers of Japanese must have an accent”. But with this kind of thinking you’ll never even approach native-level pronunciation. Just like you notice the accent of non-native English speakers, Japanese people will do the same of your accent. I’ve been corrected several times on my accent or intonation (イントネーション）by native speakers, and in some cases it took some explaining on my part to convey what I was trying to say. That’s because even in standard Tokyo Dialect（東京弁）certain words change intonation depending on their meaning. Here is a commonly used example that is easy to remember, with the relative pitches listed to the right of each word:
- Japan （日本、にほん）ー Low / High / Low
- Two long objects [when counting] (二本、にほん) – High / Low/ Low
I wasn’t planning on giving a thorough overview of the different types of pitch accent (for that, see wikipedia or the “Japanese The Spoken Language” series), but since I just gave two of the four accent types (accent on the first mora, or syllable, and accent on one more middle syllables, I’ll give the other two.
- Car（車、くるま）- Low / High / High [stays high for certain words that follow such as particles]
- Shoe (靴、くつ) – Low / High [words following keep normal pitch]
The former of these is known as “accentless” or “flat” (平板), though this nomenclature is confusing since it isn’t really flat. Some words that follow accentless words will maintain a high pitch, which would normally be low when said in isolation.
I’ll use an example where I was specifically corrected by a native speaker, and abbreviate “L = Low” and “H = High” to conserve space.
行ったことある (Have went before)
L … H H H H L
Here the second high pitch in bold (corresponding to the こ), would normally be pronounced as low when in isolation. However, the 行った (went) in front lifts its pitch to high. The pitch doesn’t fall until the final る.
Keep in mind that the binary low/high separation of pitches is an over simplification, and there is a little more to it that I won’t go into here. See the same wikipedia page for details.
I think the most natural way to learn pitch accent is just pay close attention to the intonation of the words you hear, especially when listening to those speaking Tokyo dialect. However, for those who want to spend the extra time perfecting certain words or find it hard to catch the intonation changes in real time, there are a variety of resources available. I own one such paper book which is contains a detailed account of the accents for all common words, but frankly I never use it. Instead, here are two links to sites that contain visual representations of pitch accent. They are in Japanese, but if you know basic hiragana you can probably figure out how to use them. The first one is simple and easy to use, but the second one has a more advanced engine with more words.
Remember that not only does the type of accent differ between English and Japanese (emphasis vs pitch), but also is the placement. In English, words with two syllables typically have an accent on the first syllable. So if you tried to say 東京（とうきょう）you might end up with H / H / L / L. However this word is actually a “unaccented” word, so the proper pronunciation is “L / H / H / H”. [Note: Tokyo has two syllables in English because the ‘o’ sounds are shortened. In Japanese there is a full four syllables as these ‘o’ sounds are lengthened to something like a ‘ou’.]
For the advanced learners with several years of experience, you may begin to learn to differentiate between Tokyo dialect and others. One such accent is Osaka dialect (大阪弁) which is used by many Japanese comedians. In many cases the intonation pattern between Osaka and Tokyo dialects are completely opposite, such as in the word 今（いま). Of course, intonation is only aspect of dialects, there are also difference in vocabulary, particles, and how sentences are ended. I enjoy listening to Osaka dialect native speakers, though I try to put heaver emphasis on listening to Tokyo dialect speakers so I can further refine my own intonation.