When I hear non-Japanese talking in Japanese I sometimes think “wow, it sounds like Japanese!” and sometimes not. The difference is not the level of Japanese spoken, not the vocabulary, not the grammar employed, it is the intonation. Unfortunately, I feel that intonation is often neglected when learning Japanese. We have so much work to do to get familiar with a completely new sentence structure and way of expressing oneself…
Can it be that most of books and materials to self-study Japanese don’t encourage to work thoroughly on Japanese intonation? I don’t know every material of course, but I have the popular method “Genki”, and new words come without explanations about how to pronounce them, I mean by that, which syllabus should be higher.
I found indications on how to pronounce new words in several Korean resources to learn Japanese. Japanese grammar and Korean grammar are so similar that books aiming at Korean can go fast on basic grammar and focus on pronunciation instead. To give you one or two examples of how words are introduced:
This comes from a Korean series called “The cakewalk series”, which has great resources for beginners. This series is mainly focused on pronunciation, and the beginner’s books introduce very little vocabulary and grammar. Instead, it asks you to listen and repeat again and again to get the right Japanese pronunciation from the beginning.
This comes from a booklet accompanying a radio program in Korean to learn Japanese. Here again, they focus a lot on how words are supposed to be pronounced to sound Japanese. The Korean host actually insists a lot on which syllabus should be higher and which low.
But of course, even if being aware of these particularities is important, nobody actually learns a word like this. The best way to get the intonation right is to listen to a lot of Japanese. But here again, just listening is not enough. I know it because I hear English all the time and believe me, the results are not there… 😢
As I said in a previous post, immersion is not enough. Getting the right intonation requires a lot of conscious work. Just listening will improve your listening skills and your speaking skills too, but if your intonation is wrong, I don’t think that it can be fixed by just listening.
To me, the best way to work on intonation is as follows:
- First, find a dialogue in Japanese slightly under your level, or something that is easy to you regarding vocabulary and grammar. You have to have both the audio and the script.
- Listen to each phrase and repeat several times. Ideally, repeat without looking at the script.
- Record both the dialogue and yourself repeating each sentence after the native speaker.
- Listen to your recording and try to see the differences. I suggest that you mark on your script the parts that sound different when you pronounce them.
- Work on these parts by repeating, recording and listening several times.
- Save your recordings somewhere to listen to them again later and compare them with your future recordings. It is the best way to see if you have made progress and to become aware of where and why your intonation was not right.
It may sound laborious but recording oneself is vital. Sometimes we are simply not aware that our intonation is not right. Or we feel that it sounds strange but can’t say what exactly is wrong. Listening to one’s own voice is really the best way to correct oneself.
I think that intonation is too often neglected. We mainly focus on using the right word, using the grammar correctly and being able to finish our sentence. When it comes to pronunciation, the main focus is to get the sounds correctly. But we often stay unaware that some syllabus must be higher than others, and when we speak Japanese it does not quite sound Japanese, and we don’t know why.
I personally will try to make the above exercise from time to time, once a week would be a good start I think. When I speak English, I have such a sordid French accent that I want to dig a hole in the ground, hide in there and never go out again. Learning English has always been accompanied by a persistent feeling of shame. The reason was that I knew that my pronunciation was not even close to what it should be, but I didn’t know how to fix it.
As I learn Japanese for pleasure, I don’t want any bad feeling to be associated with it, and certainly not a feeling of shame because of my French accent. But one cannot control what one feels. The only way is to get to the source of the problem and work hard to reproduce the beautiful Japanese intonation that makes the language so sweet-sounding.