Learning Japanese isn’t something that can be achieved overnight, as the road to fluency is filled with many obstacles and challenges. But with dedication and sufficient practice, you can achieve your dream of speaking Japanese like a native speaker.
However, there is an area that many students have often struggled with – and that is the Japanese pitch accent. The misconceptions surrounding this feature certainly does not help. Many members of the Japanese learning community often dismiss its importance, making it challenging for those interested to find a suitable partner to practise with. Allow us to share what these common misconceptions are.
A brief overview of the Japanese pitch accent
Pitch accent refers to a phonetic feature that certain languages possess, in which there are distinct rises and falls in the pitch of words to differentiate their meanings. In Japanese, this feature is fundamental to expressing yourself clearly in a verbal medium.
For example, take the words ima (今), meaning now, and ima (居間), meaning living room. These two words are easy to differentiate in the written form due to their respective kanji, but things get much more complicated when they are used in a verbal setting. Pitch accent acts as the differentiator in these circumstances through the rise, fall, or evenness of one’s pitch.
So if you wish to say ‘now’ in Japanese, you need to start with a higher pitch when pronouncing the ‘I’ portion of ima before dropping it back down when uttering ‘ma’. If you are referring to the living room, simply do the reverse.
As you can see, utilising the wrong pitch accent can completely change the meaning of your words. So if you are serious about attaining a high level of fluency in the Japanese language, you need to dedicate time and effort to learn this feature.
3 common misconceptions about pitch accents
Misconception #1: Natives will understand you regardless of your pitch accent
While it is true that most native Japanese speakers can still understand you even when you are committing several mistakes, they typically rely on context to know what you are trying to say.
However, if you are mispronouncing the words constantly, your conversation partner has to pay attention to every word you are saying, which can be tiring. Moreover, they may fail to understand you if you are speaking too quickly.
Additionally, utilising an unnatural and incorrect pitch accent will also make your Japanese off-putting to most natives. This will also inevitably lead to misunderstandings when context alone is insufficient for native speakers to discern what you are saying.
Misconception #2: Regional dialects have their own pitch accents, so it is not worth taking the time to study them
It is a fact that different regions in Japan have their own unique pitch accent systems. A good example is the Kansai Dialect, which differs significantly from the Standard Japanese you are studying. Given the various pitch accents available and the time it takes to study just one of them, some students think it is not worth the effort to learn the proper pitch accent.
However, we believe that is not a good reason to overlook the Japanese pitch accent. Native Japanese speakers are accustomed to hearing varying regional dialects in their country. Therefore, being acquainted with even the standard Japanese pitch accent system will guarantee that you will be understood regardless of the region your conversation partner hails from.
Misconception #3: You will naturally pick up the correct pitch accent over time
This statement is only applicable to native speakers since Japanese is their first language. Because they are exposed to the language from birth, they are able to pick up the nuances in the language over time.
However, it can be a whole different story for students who are taking up Japanese as a second language. Most students who take up Japanese as a second language do so during their teen to adult years, likely due to their interest in Japanese culture.
Studies have shown that it is easier to learn a new language during your formative years since you have fewer inhibitions, more time to learn, and a brain designed for language learning. Crucially, a child’s mind is developed to absorb new information unconsciously, allowing them to quickly pick up on the correct pitch accent when they are exposed to the Japanese language over an extended period of time. Therefore, it is unlikely you can pick up the correct pitch accent without due diligence.
There is no getting around the fact that pitch accent is a core part of Japanese pronunciation, and you should never neglect it even if you have attained a high level of fluency in the language. To master this feature and ensure you are pronouncing the words correctly, we suggest signing up for Japanese lessons if you have not done so already.
At Japanese Explorer, our native Japanese instructors utilise effective teaching methodologies tailored to your learning style. If a group setting isn’t an ideal learning environment for you, we also offer private courses that maximise one-on-one interaction so that you can accelerate your Japanese learning journey.