When I started learning to speak Japanese, my teacher told me to stay fairly monotone. English, she said, is like a song. Japanese? That’s more like a machine gun.

While Japanese may seem rather “flat,” listen carefully and you’ll hear some fluctuation thanks to what is known as pitch-accent.

Pitch-accent, known as 高低アクセント (kōtei akusento) in Japanese, is the term used to describe when a language prominently sounds syllables or words by changing the pitch, rather than the volume. For example, あめ (ame) can mean “rain” (雨) or “candy” (飴) depending on whether the pitch goes high-low (rain) or low-high (candy). In fact, there are four pitch-accent patterns in Japanese: 頭高 (atamadaka), which goes high-low; 中高 (nakadaka), which goes low-high-low; 尾高 (odaka), which goes low-high; and 平板 (heiban), which means flat. More on these later.

English, on the other hand, is a stress-accent language. This means the syllables are sounded by changing the volume or vowel length in part of the word. Have friends at home ever pronounced カラオケ (karaoke) as “ka-rii-OH-kee,” stressing the “o”? That’s thanks to stress-accent.

In Japanese, stressing syllables by changing the volume can sound strange, and changing the length of the vowel can potentially change the meaning of the word, such as with おじさん (ojisan, uncle) and おじいさん (ojiisan, grandad). It can be hard for some non-native Japanese speakers to make themselves understood if they have a very strong stress-accent when speaking.

Still, many Japanese teachers do not emphasize pitch-accent training and major textbooks barely touch on the subject. There are a number of books on pitch-accent training, but these are for native Japanese speakers and are inaccessible to those just starting out with the language. The reason? Many experts feel it’s unnecessary to concentrate on pitch-accent if your goal is to first understand the language and be understood.

In the past five years or so, there has been an increase in learners wanting to tackle pitch-accent and, with that, more study materials available to them. This isn’t because publishers and companies are making a push on pitch-accent training, however. These new resources are instead being generated and shared by the Japanese language-learning community online. This recent interest may have been sparked by a YouTuber named Kevin O’Donnell, who is better known to his 426,000 subscribers as Dogen.

When he began to post videos on studying Japanese phonetics in 2016, Dogen said his personal goal with the language was to achieve native-level accent and fluency when speaking. He began to share the tools and tricks he used to teach himself and soon other YouTubers such as Matt vs Japan, Japanese Ammo with Misa and That Japanese Man Yuta had all shared videos on how to study pitch-accent.

It’s not just YouTubers who are preaching the pitch-accent gospel, either. Anri Ikenaga, a teacher on language-learning platform iTalki, decided to focus on pitch-accent training for her students after studying it during her teacher training program. However, due to the lack of official materials available she had to create her own study and practice materials.

“I started providing PDF files of word lists and dialogues with colored lines to show the pitch-accent to the learners,” she says.

Steven Phan is an engineer who studies Japanese and is in the middle of developing an online tool called Japanese Pitch Accent Diagnostics (JPAD), which is currently in its beta phase. The tool aims to identify whether a speaker is hitting the correct pitch or not.

“The thought of building a website or app never really occurred to me when my friend and I started going down the rabbit hole of pitch-accents on Reddit, YouTube, Google … and more Reddit,” Phan says. They tried practicing with the Online Japanese Accent Dictionary (OJAD), which attempts to visually illustrate pitch-accent.

“The problem was either one of us, or both, were slightly tone deaf,” he says. “Even with the audio tool that OJAD provides, we weren’t 100% sure that the pitch we were producing was rising or falling. The lack of feedback … is what started (our) project initially, because we couldn’t improve if we didn’t know where we were going wrong.”

If your goal is to improve your spoken Japanese, then it’s best to tackle pitch-accent as soon as possible. Beginners can, of course, use YouTube videos to study the basics of pitch-accent and apply this knowledge to their own studies right from the start.

Given the need to hear the language being spoken, explaining it here might prove difficult. However, let’s take a shot using four Japanese words: 私 (watashi, I), はし (hashi, chopsticks), 橋 (hashi, bridge) and 妹 (imōto, younger sister). Let’s use them in a sentence: 私の妹のパートナーはカナダ人だから、「はし」と「橋」のイントネーションの違いがわからないそうだ (Watashi no imōto no pātonā wa Kanada-jin dakara, “hashi” to “hashi” no intonēshon no chigai ga wakaranai sō da, My younger sister’s partner is a Canadian, so he can’t understand the difference in the intonation of “chopsticks” and “bridge”).

The four types of pitch-accent, to remind you, are 平板, 頭高, 中高 and 尾高. You’ll note that the final kanji, “高,” in the last three terms is preceded by different kanji meaning “head” (頭, atama), “middle” (中, naka) and “tail” (尾, o), respectively. We can find examples of all of these (including their corresponding particles) in the sentence above.

“はし” and its corresponding particle, “と,” illustrate 頭高. There’s a high pitch at the head of the word, on the first “mora” (a term in linguistics for a unit of measure that’s somewhat similar to a syllable). That drops and then levels out: は↓しが (hashi ga).

For 中高, let’s look at “橋の,” where the pitch rises on the second mora before going back down: は↑し↓の (hashino). You can hear the middle rise even more clearly in a word like “日本の” (Nihon no, Japan’s): に↑ほ↓んの (Nihon no).

The 尾高 can be heard in “妹が,” where the pitch rises for the last mora: い↑もうと↓が (imōtoga). However (and much thanks to Matt vs. Japan for pointing this out after publication), when 妹 is followed by the particle の (as it does in our example) it switches to 平板 (heiban) pitch. Apparently, this is something that happens only with the の particle.

平板 is described as “flat” or “monotone,” but it still features a slight change. The pitch rises from a low starting point then stays flat, such as with “私の”: わ↑たしの (watashi no) or “妹の”: い↑もうとの (imōto no), as we see in the example.

The area of pitch-accent is made even more complex when factoring the different accents heard across Japan, but most Japanese learners tend to focus on the pitch used in standard 標準語 (hyōjungo) pronunciation.

Whether you pick up pitch-accent easily may ultimately depend on whether you have the ear for it, similar to those who learn musical instruments. One way to practice is by recording yourself speaking and then making a note of where the pitch isn’t right, then trying again. Practice makes perfect, after all. Some people claim everyone can pick up the basics naturally through immersive learning, but don’t worry if you need extra instruction and training.

“Even if a learner’s vocabulary, grammar, etc. are still at a basic level,” Ikenaga says, “it sounds more advanced just by having a beautiful accent.”

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