A reconsideration of teaching Japanese intonation (and a useful tool to examine intonations)

By | December 15, 2023

Japanese intonation, in a nutshell, consists of a series of high and low pitches, where each word has a characteristic pattern of these high and low pitches. There are words where the pitch rises, words where the pitch falls, as well as where the pitch both rises and falls. When a word is said in isolation, generally there will always be some pitch change.

To give a simple example, here are two words with different pitch characteristics

  • 呼ぶ (yobu) => rising pitch (yoBU)
  • 読む (yomu) => falling pitch (YOmu)

This contrasts with the English emphasis accent, which is more about the loudness of a vowel than its pitch. In fact, in Japanese sometimes there can be an emphasis on a syllable that is of a lower pitch, for example “naNI?!” (“what?!”) where the “na” is low pitch but emphasized, and the “NI” is high pitched but non-emphasized. If you say it with emphasis on the “NI” it sounds very odd.

This may sound relatively simple, but it is complicated by a few things. First, some words have multiple valid pitches. Second, a word’s pitch can affect the pitch of one or more subsequent words in a phrase. Finally, common intonation patterns often change based on region. 

For example, the pitch for a word in Tokyo dialect might be the opposite of the same word in Kansai dialect. Taking the word “namari”(訛り, meaning “accent”) as an example, it is pronounced “naMARI” in Tokyo dialect, but “naMAri” in Kansai dialect. By the way, in the Tokyo dialect, the pitch in “naMARI” falls after the word, but the word for “lead” (鉛) is pronounced the same way, except that the pitch stays high for at least the first syllable of the subsequent word. Here are two example sentences to show how the pitches work out:

  • 訛りがある (naMARI ga Aru)
  • 鉛がある    (naMARI GA Aru)

Here, in the first sentence the “ga” is low pitch, whereas in the second the “GA” is high pitch.

(These are some of the reasons that in a recent episode of my new Japanese podcast I talked about how Japanese intonation is one of the most difficult parts of learning the language.)

Some time ago there was a thread on Twitter where I mentioned that intonation was a very under-emphasized aspect of Japanese teaching, and several people agreed with me. Though I have long ago stopped using rudimental Japanese learning materials, for those that I did use years ago I rarely, if ever, saw any mention of intonation. 

The fact of regional differences does potentially serve as a reason against learning intonations, because if you spend years learning Tokyo dialect and then went to live in Osaka, your intonation knowledge might be counter-productive. Furthermore, many people can pick up on proper intonation naturally without having to think about it.

But even given all of this, I think there should be a bigger emphasis on learning the basic intonation rules and the patterns for a few words, so students can keep that in the back of their mind. This will help them understand how the intonation system works, and start to pick up intonational patterns in their listening practice, regardless of what region of Japanese they are exposed to.

I’ve seen old textbooks that have intonation markings on all the words, and while that is a step in the right direction, I think (at least for beginner students) it’s a little too much information that can easily overwhelm them. Instead, just making students aware of the basics of how intonation works will kick-start them to pay more attention to this when they listen or speak. You can parallel this to learning grammar. While some students will pick up proper grammar just by listening, others will benefit from being explicitly taught things like word order and common ways of connecting words together. 

When learning intonations, while there are dictionaries that have this information, and even sites to show you the patterns in a specific phrase, it’s often hard to use these tools and make a natural result. This is complicated by the fact that in reality there is a bit more than simple pitch rises and falls, in fact pitches can (and do) gradually decrease across several syllables. After thinking about this, I realized a really great tool is Japanese text-to-speech technologies (音声合成), which have improved significantly in the last decade or so.

One tool that I discovered to be especially nice is Narakeet, a site that takes an arbitrary block of text and creates an MP3/WAV audio file for you, and even allows you to select from a list of different voices. I’m sure a native could pick out minor discrepancies here and there, but to me the pronunciation in these audio files sounds fairly accurate, even the intonation. While I don’t recommend you rely exclusively on a tool like this (asking a native speaker is always best if you have the opportunity), I think it’s a great supplemental tool. There is a limitation for free accounts, but it is enough to give you a taste of what a tool like this can offer.

To be honest, even after many years of studying and speaking Japanese, I don’t have confidence that my intonations are all 100% correct (though from speaking with many people it is clear my pronunciation is clear enough to be understood). Had I lived in Japan for several years, perhaps I would be able to improve my intonation to near-perfect levels. Nevertheless, especially in the last few years I have been focusing on intonation, and I feel there has been a gradual but definite improvement. Sometimes I wonder though: had I been taught the basics of intonation when I first started learning Japanese, would it have helped me learn intonation more quickly?

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