Pitch Accent? Should Learners of Japanese master it?

I have two friends who are keen on learning Japanese. We sometimes talk with each other in Japanese via Skype. The other day one of them said to me that he was told to work on his pitch in Japanese. I don’t know who told him to do so, however I had never heard of pitch accent even though I am Japanese. (Note: I am a 31-year-old Japanese male, just an ordinary native speaker of Japanese, not a teacher of the Japanese language. Now I live in Fukuoka, Kyushu that is far from Tokyo where standard Japanese is spoken, however I lived in Tokyo for three years so that I know what standard Japanese is like. )

A few moments ago I read about pitch accent in other thread and I searched what pitch accent in Japanese is like on the Internet, because I always think that I’d like to be useful for my friends to improve their Japanese.

I found the following page.

On the above page, there is a recording of a few examples of various words whose pitches are different.

Now I understand what pitch accent in Japanese is, however, to be honest I think we Japanese can understand the meaning of the word when it is put in the context even when it is said by foreigners and the pitches are all the same. So if learners of Japanese want to pronounce a single Japanese word to be heard like native Japanese or they want to be like native speakers of Japanese they might as well focus on pitch accent.

Of course if my friends want to do so I would help him to be able to.

As I wrote above I am just an ordinary Japanese who does not have any knowledge at all on linguistic terms or something like that, so please let me know if anyone knows the example that learners must master pitch accent.

Thanks in advance.

As a non native speaker (learner) of Japanese, I would say that the pitch accent is not irrelevant, but neither is it something that needs concious effort. In my experience of almost ten years in Tokyo, it has presented itself as an issue about twice, and both times my wife was just being obtuse.

In Kyshu the pitch accent is very weak, in Kansai it’s even stringer than Kanto. This regional difference is a big enough indicator that pitch is not a lexical indicator in Japanese, as it is in Mandarin, for example. There are words where pitch distinguishes homophones such as 端, 橋 and 箸, but as you say, context is usually a good enough indicator. Most homophones are not distinguished in this manner, though.

Pitch is used in much the same was as stress is in English, which is to give hints as to when words begin and end. That is why it is easier to understand somebody who speaks with an accent you are used to, as you can tell where one word ends and another begins by the pattern of their speech.

It is good to know what the pitch accent is and how it manifests itself in Japanese, but rarely is it possible to predict a word’s pitch pattern. In addition, the pitch changes depending on the intonation of the sentence.


The intonation when making the single word sound like a question is different for both of these words, and it is not matched exactly by the pitch pattern when saying the words alone. In a longer sentence the pitch pattern and intonation come together to form the natural undulating sound of Japanese.

Therefore, the question here is not about ‘pitch accent’, but about improving accent in general. This is common for all language learners, and the best way is to imitate native speakers without concentrating on individual aspects of their speech.

Thank you very much for your comment.
I understand what you mean because I am Japanese despite I have never been aware of what pitch accent and homophones in Japanese are.

I didn’t know that the pitch accent in Kyushu is weaker than those in Kansai and Kanto. I appreciate various information and advice about pitch pattern, intonation and accent in general. My knowledge about Japanese, my mother tongue, has increased since I joined LingQ because I have read several threads about Japanese from some keen learners of Japanese on this forum. I am very glad to know that quite a few people are learning our language enthusiastically.

I would like to respond to those threads as much as possible as a native speaker if I can.

Anyway, when it comes to conversation with my friends who are learning Japanese I think I will not point out the issue of pitch pattern, intonation and accent in general as long as we can communicate without misunderstanding. I think that the most important thing is the feeling of enjoyment of being able to communicate during the conversation among friends in order to improve the language skills. If we listen to the natives speaking carefully and try to notice the difference, our accent in the target language will gradually improve no matter how long it might takes, I believe.

Some say that even Japanese speakers don’t know what pitch accent is, but they obviously do: they may not know what the technical words refer to (as was hirohide’s case), but all Japanese people I’ve ever spoken to knew what 「高低あくせんと」was. Inevitably, they are faced with pitch differences on a constant basis because of the large number of dialects in the country. Of course, as native speakers, they have a limited understanding of the system, just like most English native speakers can’t tell you much about stress.

Whenever someone brings up the question of pitch, it always turns into a debate, with most people ending up saying it’s useless. There is no question that Japanese people can understand foreigners even if they haven’t the faintest clue about pitch, and while misunderstandings do arise because of it (Ippai vs. iPPAI, etc.), I think most – if not all – of us agree that it’s not that common or disruptive. I’d also agree that pitch is not as critical as stress is in English; nevertheless, you’ll never find anyone saying that learning English stress is useless.

There are a fair number of learners who do care about their pronunciation beyond just being understood, and who want to improve it. Yet, they are told it’s a waste of time. Lots of things are a waste of time when you only want to get by, that doesn’t mean no one should strive for more.

The problem, however, is that relevant information is extremely scarce and superficial, even more so in English. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why threads asking about pitch always turn into a debate and no one actually answers the question. I have yet to meet someone in person or in a forum who can present any valuable information about pitch other than link the same few superficial websites.

Since people can’t explain pitch, they are usually pretty quick to say “just listen and repeat”. However, there are countless students who do just that and who still have no idea that there is such as thing as pitch. You can copy what you don’t know exists. Having a clear explanation of the system could really help students who care enough to learn to speak better.

While my knowledge of pitch is far from satisfactory, I decided to compensate for this lack of information, and to write an overview of the system myself (FAQ - Japanese Pitch Accent (Specific Languages) Language Learning Forum). It’s still in its infancy and I will continue to update it as I find the time.

Your link doesn’t work.

You also seem to have a bit of a thing for the pitch accent.
There’s a lot of information available, mostly in Japanese. But it is there.

It’s good to be aware of the pitch accent, and even to be semi-conscious of it, but ultimately the best way is to copy if you want to improve your accent.

Actually, the pitch is quite close to stress, in that in a stress accent the pitch and vowel quality can change, but so can loudness. In a pitch accent loudness does not change, usually. Therefore if you pronounce with a stress accent it actually sounds pretty close to the native pronunciation.

There are a limited number of permissible patterns in the Tokyo accent, but it’s not obvious that the other patterns are not allowed unless you are very familiar with the way people speak. Also, these patterns are completely different in different parts of the country.

Before pitch, though, learners need to master vowel length, and correct vowel and consonant pronunciation. Even then, intonation is more important than pitch. If you’re in a position to worry about pitch then you should already be aware of pitch in the way you speak Japanese and be able to hear the pitch in Japanese people’s speech. If you can’t identify and copy the pitch naturally, you really need more listening practice.

"Lots of things are a waste of time when you only want to get by, that doesn’t mean no one should strive for more. "

You want to be mistaken for a native speaker of Japanese?

Sorry about the mangled link: FAQ - Japanese Pitch Accent (Specific Languages) Language Learning Forum

I had a look at your page.

"The -te suffix is a -3/0 suffix, meaning that on a pitch verb, the downfall will occur on the 3rd mora from the end, and that on a pitchless verb, there will be no downfall. "

If you can put that information into practical use, without reference to native pronunciation, and whilst speaking at a normal pace, then congratulations! you’re autistic.

@roan Learners of English also “need to master vowel length, and correct vowel and consonant pronunciation”, as you say. And yet, English vowels change depending on the dialect. And learners also need to learn stress. Why would this suddenly become useless in Japanese?

A lot of people speak a language for years and years, even to the point of fluency, and yet get the vowels, the consonants or the stress/pitch all wrong. It’s obvious that, despite what you suggest, “listening practice” is not enough for most people. But yes, they still get by.

@dooo I want to speak Japanese as well as possible. Don’t you?

Where did I say it was useless? I didn’t. I said that there are other aspects of pronunciation that are more important. Also, that you do need to reference the way that native people pronounce words. You will not get the pitch accent right by thinking about whether the third mora from the end of a pitched verb is high or low.

You’re clearly into learning the pitch accent, and good luck to you.

Personally I think that time would be better spent in other areas. But the theory is interesting, even if not particularly practical.

@roan I do put it in practical use and I assure you I’m not autistic.

I presented a rule people can refer to. It’s similar to any other grammatical rule. Thanks to that rule, I can now correctly derive and pronounce any verb in the -te form, as long as I know the dictionary form, even if I’ve never heard it – something I simply couldn’t do before. To me, that’s a step in the right direction. You are free to ignore it, but to anyone who wants to understand it, it’s valuable. I fail to understand why you want to diminish this effort.

Of course, a rule is just a rule and it has no practical application until you start applying and internalizing it. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. I realize this is a forum where a lot of people discard grammatical rules as useless, and I most certainly don’t want to enter that debate, but I for one find grammatical rules really useful and it has never impeded me from reaching fluency.

I suspect that most foreigners who learn to speak Japanese with very good pronunciation, and I know a lot of such people, have never heard of pitch, or at least blissfully ignore it, as they naturally imitate what they hear.

However, whatever helps us notice what is happening in the language is a good thing. So for those who benefit from this “pitch” concept, fine. I doubt though that it is important to achieving good pronunciation.

@roan, alexandrec
Both of you seem very professional about Japanese. I am surprised to read your responses and the link alexandrec introduced. Having read them, even for me, a native speaker of Japanese, Japanese seems to be getting more difficult to speak and to learn.

Anyway different people have different goals and the degree of mastery to which they want to get to regarding the target language. And the better learners get at the target language the more you want to improve, right?

Incidentally the comments from both of you motivate me to learn English, my target language, more. Thank you very much.

If you want to be an NHK presenter, you’ll be expected to learn standard pitch accent. NHK even publishes a dictionary of it, the name of which escapes me.

I think it’s certainly helpful to know what pitch accent is and how it works. I’m sure there are some rules which can be consciously learned and which will be helpful.

However, in my opinion, the most useful advice I ever got was just to try to speak with even pitch, and concentrate on not using volume and length to emphasize sounds like we normally do in English.

It’s like the stress system in English. There are some “rules” you can learn in English that may be useful, eg. a REcord, and to reCORD, but you can’t learn the whole system that way.

If you know that pitch is important in Japanese, as it is, then you can try to listen to it when you do your listening practice. I tend to think that all you can do is be aware of it and hope it sinks in. It’s too complex a system to consciously learn.

Personally, I don’t recall having any real problems due to my inability to speak with proper pitch accent.

this thread pretty much confirms what I suspected- try to imitate what you hear and don’t worry and enjoy (unless you want to become a gaijin NHK presenter in which case STUDY24/7/365!!!)

ad Hirohide: (…) The other day one of them said to me that he was told to work on his pitch in Japanese. (…)

Am I right to assume that the guy you are talking about is me or is there another one trying to get the pitch right even though he never had any idea what that was before he was told his pitch was not correct? :wink:

Well, to be honest, I actually read about two paragraphs dealing with Japanese pitches in one of my Japanese textbooks and it was right at the beginning. I either must have overlooked that or forgotten about it when I first read the book about 3 years ago. In that book it says that your pitch accent will give away that you are a foreigner or that you come from a specific area in Japan and that you should try to listen to native speakers instead of learning the correct pitch accent by heart for every single word. In my case, I guess the pitch accent is not the only thing that tells people that Japanese is not my mother tongue. Maybe the day will come when only my face will tell :slight_smile:

I guess, in the future I’ll try to pay more attention to the way Japanese native speakers speak, but I don’t think I’ll get into all that scientific background of the pitch. I’m not striving to be perfect (in any language), even though it’s kind of nice to speak in a way that’s at least somewhat pleasant to the ears of a native speaker. This, however, may also include speaking with a slight accent (or supposedly incorrect pitch for that matter). Actually, one of my Chinese friends speaks fabulous German and I really mean fabulous. His German is so clear and his vocabulary so rich that it is a pleasure talking to him, every time. I still can’t believe that he managed talking like this in about 2 years only. He does have a slight accent but I would not even be able to tell you what accent it is and, honestly, I just don’t care. I look forward to every single conversation with him because of the things he has to say and the way he says them (and, yes, he would easily survive in any professional setting I can think of with his mastery of the German language).

I fear that focusing too much on grammatical correctness, right pitch, proper accent (and I doubt that in all these cases the concept of “correctness” can be as easily determined as in the case of grammar) may take away a lot of enjoyment of the learning process. This is not to say that you should simply ignore rules of grammar, pronuncation etc. No, but I try to achieve the goals I have set myself by getting a basic grasp of the theoretical framework (I mean, I’ve always studied some grammar rules, of course) and then try to build on that by imitating.

I clearly understand that there are people out there who have a much more scientific or “purist” approach to language learning and I certainly won’t question the usefulness of their approach when it comes to their own learning experience. Of course, it is great if anybody manages to speak like a native speaker and if they have found a way to achieve that goal, so much the better. As for myself, I’ve come to realize that I enjoy learning languages in a different way and I’m not unhappy with my results either (even though there is always room for improvement). Besides, despite all the things I still have to learn in Japanese and all the mistakes I’ve made (and believe me I’ve made plenty) I don’t recall a single situation where I was misunderstood because of incorrect usage of pitch. Vowel lengths, however, are a completely different matter.


I doubt though that it is important to achieving good pronunciation.

Yes, I totally agree with you. As you and Robert said in your conversation the other day I also consider more important the content itself, the variety of words and how accurate the way they use the target language rather than pronunciation and pitch or something like that when it comes to conversation with the people who use non-mother tongue. I always enjoy and am satisfied when we can communicate and enjoy the conversation itself. Of course I know that professional people including translators and interpreters are expected to be better at every aspect of the target languages. As you know I am just an amateur English learner who lives in Japan and don’t use English much in everyday life but who want to enjoy communicating with people all over the world. As I said to you in Japan when we meet I’m a big fan of you and follower of the way of learning languages you recommend and I FEEL my English skill has improved since I joined LingQ. Of course it is not advanced yet let alone perfect, however I don’t care. The feeling of BEING improving itself is always important for learners, I think.


I tend to think that all you can do is be aware of it and hope it sinks in. It’s too complex a system to consciously learn.

Yes, I think so too. Some aspects of the target language are complicated to learn. They take time for non-natives. There is no shortcut. For example, something like stress, intonation and cadence the difference of which I don’t know and I don’t care is very difficult for me. I hope just being aware of the existence and listening to the natives carefully and trying to imitate them improve our language skill. In my case too much conscious deliberate process of LEARNING English demotivates me but just USING English improves my English skill, of course it is very gradual though.

Yes, I cannot be like an NHK announcer either. My goal of learning English is also just enjoying communication, so I don’t worry about my mistakes too much.

Yes, Robert. One of my friends who is a keen learner of Japanese and whom I’d like to be helpful for is you. We know that we enjoyed our conversation in Japanese and English the other day. In fact we laughed out loud together many times. As you say we both have much room for improvement regarding Japanese for you and English for me, however that’s why we cannot stop learning the target language! We can continue enjoy learning languages forever because there is no finish line and room for improvement never disappears.

Perhaps this thread inspired me, I don’t know, but I’ve just started a Japanese pronunciation course. Only one lesson so far, but it’s very, very interesting, and I’ve got a lot of bad habits.

The teacher is fantastic, although he has a strong view that pitch accent should not be taught at an early stage of Japanese, as students may be inclined to believe that they mishear when Japanese people do not follow this pattern. In fact, the pitch accent changes completely depending on context. He said it’s much more important to master the devoicing of vowels, which apparently is an unusual phenomenon in human language (but not unique to Japanese). If vowels are not devoiced correctly then the natural pitch accent does not follow.

“devoicing of vowels”

EG the Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka tells Americans his name is pronounced “Dice-K” not “Die SU Kay”

I noticed that a lot when I was in Japan. I think it is pretty easy to pick up if you listen to how people talk rather than follow the average pedagogical material.

It is interesting how some non-native speakers will immediately hear Kinosh’ta and say it right, whereas others will live in Japan for years and say Kinosheeta. I wonder why.