Getting Started with Pitch Accent (longer)


I think there’s a huge misunderstanding among Japanese learners when it comes to pitch accent and it’s often source of heated debates because a lot of people seem to have issues dealing with non-absolute statements.

I do strongly believe that being aware of pitch accent (what it is, and more importantly, what to listen for) is very important and it’s also one of those skills that should be taught almost before anything else because it’s the one trick you can benefit from the most if you haven’t learned any word yet. Learning to recognize and hear a word well the first time you learn it, means you’ll have less chances of getting its accent wrong later when you need to use it. If your ears aren’t aware that pitch is even a thing (which is the case for the majority of people learning Japanese coming from the west), your brain will just ignore it and you will only memorize the word with incomplete/partial information.

If you wait until you are advanced/intermediate/advanced-beginner/whatever before you dip your feet in pitch accent, you’ll already have 1000+ words in your vocabulary that you possibly learned “wrong”. Is it a big deal? No, it absolutely is not. Could this have been avoided? Absolutely, and with very minimal effort.

All it takes to become aware of pitch accent is:

  1. Watch this 10 minute video from Dogen giving a quick rundown, just so you’re not totally lost.

  2. Go on this amazing website and take the Minimal Pairs pitch accent test. If you can score more than 80% correct guesses, then you can hear pitch accent well enough. If you can’t, no problem! Just repeat the test every couple of days and try to train your ears for it. You can do ear training exercises like this one or these ones. Just do like 10 minutes every day, that’s all it takes.

It sounds like a lot, because I wrote a lot, but really it’s one of the simplest things you could do with the least amount of investment, it’s less investment than learning kana. Anyone could do it. Intentionally avoiding this for later is something that a lot of people regret doing, just speaking both from personal experience and that of most of my peers in a similar situation.

Just to be clear, nobody is saying that you should consciously memorize every single pitch accent of every single word you learn. Because that’d be crazy. As long as you know you are able to hear pitch accent, then you won’t have to worry later on and you can just repeat words just like you hear them from audio recordings (like you would for any other non-pitch language).