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I have hit a wall in my study of Japanese: I am unable to hear differences in pitch accent. None of the other languages I am familiar with use it (those being Hungarian(native), English and French), and I didn't even have any idea it existed until it was explicitly pointed out to me. Obviously, this also means that I am unable to use the correct accent when pronouncing phrases, or sometimes any pitch accent at all, as I default to ways of speaking I am used to.

I have tried an online course that dealt with the subject specifically, and while in some example sentences I thought I could hear it, my choices in the practice exercises might have been better off random.

I have brought up the problem with native speakers I know (one of whom has experience tutoring people), and they are just baffled, as they have always been able to clearly hear it. Even when they list different variations of homophones one right after the other, so that I have the best chance at picking up the difference, I simply hear the same sounds in all instances.

I was wondering if anyone else has faced the same problem and has overcome it. If so, was there a particular activity or exercise that created a breakthrough?

To me it seems that pitch accent is relatively subtle in Japanese. Maybe exposure to another language with a more pronounced use of pitch accent would help?

Clarification in response to comment: When a word is pronounced separately, with care, for presentation purposes, I sometimes can hear that there is a difference, but nothing beyond this fact. Could not tell which one is rising or falling. If later one of two words is replayed, I have great trouble telling which one it was. My brain simply refuses to register it properly. Even this is mostly lost when the word is part of a phrase, and I have absolutely no clue when hearing normal speech.

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    This is an interesting question, but might be off topic here. Anyway, out of interest, can you hear the difference between the audio clips here and here (scroll down and click one of the speaker icons)? Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 19:21
  • @user19642323 I do hear that there is a difference, but if you asked me to tell which one is rising and which is falling, I have no clue. If you played one and asked me which one it was, I would have great trouble answering. I also could not replicate/pronounce a particular one when asked (tried just that with my tutor). These are also pronounced with care, for presentation purposes. Might have to revise my phrasing...
    – Szega
    Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 19:34
  • @user19642323 Also, could you tell me what makes it off topic? I made sure to phrase my question so that it is not a discussion seed, and we do have a "learning" tag...
    – Szega
    Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 19:35
  • Sorry, what I meant was that I don't know myself whether it's off topic or not, just that it might turn out to be because it's not the sort of question that has a definite answer. But I for one am certainly interested to hear what others have to say about your situation... Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 19:40
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    Ok, maybe a weird question, but can you sing? Play a musical instrument? Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 19:44
  • @user19642323 I have basic training with the harmonica, but that is it. (Had music class in HS, but that was useless.) When I was actively practicing with the harmonica, my singing has improved somewhat, but I am not great at it.
    – Szega
    Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 19:54
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    @user19642323 It does have a definite answer, that being: "I did it and this is what helped me: ... ", or possibly "my student did it and this is what they did: ... ". While whether a particular way works or not might be subjective, I am asking for experience, not opinion.
    – Szega
    Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 20:00
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    You could try asking a Japanese friend who is living in a different part of the country from where they grew up because apparently pitch accent varies sufficiently from region to region that there exist pitch accent dictionaries for Japanese people striving to acquire a Tokyo accent. Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 6:24

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You said you've already tried an online course, and it might've even been Dogen's specifically, but I'm still going to link you this Dogen vid to make sure you've got a bare minimum knowledge of the subject at hand.

Could not tell which one is rising or falling.

If you can't even tell the difference between a rise and a fall, you might wanna try musical ear training exercises like these two or the first two here.

Once you've got that down (or you don't but you're tired of it), watch this excellent video on unlocking your perception of and acquiring pitch accent.

Remember, what you mostly care about here is learning to identify the downstep (i.e. the sudden drop in pitch); the downstep is the accent of a word in Japanese (and it renders the preceding mora accented). This entails learning to differentiate an actual downstep/accent from mere falling intonation (see e.g. the third bullet point here — this is a PA perception test that's recommended in the vid above, by the way).

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  • I appreciate your effort, but have these methods worked for you or someone else you know who had a similar problem? I am aware that there are resources on the subject, it is just that none of them were of much help to me yet.
    – Szega
    Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 22:38
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    I never needed to do musical ear training as basic as what I linked you; I could always tell a rise from a drop in pitch. That said, I'm not sure what else you can do to get over this first hurdle, and I don't see how giving it a shot can hurt. Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 3:22
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    Before I got started with PA I was in a similar — though probably not as bad — boat as you, yes. I hadn't picked up on the existence of PA or its inner workings and had to see them get explicitly mentioned to become fully aware of them (unconsciously thought accents worked the same way as in my native lang, Greek), and I hadn't acquired the correct pitch pattern for probably most of the words I knew (e.g. I thought 食べる、できる、ある all had an accent on る — it's actually on べ、き、あ). Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 3:22
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    I wanna point out that I started studying PA just a couple of months or so ago, but I've known about it and some of its basics for well over a year. Yet in that span of time (from when I learnt about it to when I properly begun studying it) I still managed not to realise that a word as common as f'ing ある isn't actually pronounced the way I thought it was, and had to be corrected on it to notice. Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 3:23
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    My approach has been similar-ish to what the vid suggests, yes. I started by doing the Minimal Pair test on kotu.io for about a week (I wanna say at least 30min a day), during which I raised my score from, what, 60%? 70% at best? to 96%, so there are some tangible stats on how much this specific tool helped. Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 3:23
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    After that it gets a little chaotic — it was mostly a combo of taking the Word+Particle and Question tests, and especially the Sentence test, over and over, as well as listening to audio where the "solution" is provided (mainly here and here), guessing the accents, checking with the answers, and then trying listen for my mistakes (now I can correctly feel the PA in both of those clips — and yes, I actually feel it, I don't just have it memorised). Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 3:24
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    After a couple weeks of that I kinda got tired and gave up (plus the Sentence test broke and is still broken, hahaha), so for the past, like, month and a half, I've just been casually paying attention to PA from time to time when watching anime (sometimes I notice/feel it even without focusing, especially if it's a word whose accent I've already learnt), and looking up the odd word in the dictionary to see how it's pronounced and/or confirm I heard it correctly. Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 3:24
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    So, yeah. I'm still far, far from a perfect ear (I very often can't tell what I'm hearing in real speech), and I probably still don't know how to pronounce most words, but at the same time I've definitely made significant progress. Although, that progress has also been slow and steady, and I've never felt like I had an insurmountable wall in front of me, or any sort of big, dramatic breakthrough. Also, sorry for the essay. Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 3:24
  • "e.g. I thought 食べる、できる、ある all had an accent on る — it's actually on べ、き、あ" A pitch accent is formed by a difference in pitch - it's between the morae, not "on" them. In English, when pitch is incorporated into the realization of a stress accent, it typically goes up only for that syllable and then down again. In Japanese, the pitch generally remains high for arbitrarily many morae before the downstep. Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 1:46
  • @KarlKnechtel Actually, the accent kernel (アクセント格; the mora before the downstep) generally has an additional rise in pitch, and it’s perfectly fine to consider it to be “the accent” of the word, even though the upstep comes earlier. Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 9:21
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I would not worry too much about this. The pitch accent varies all over Japan, and there are said to be three ken with no pitch accent at all -- Tochigi, where I live, is one of them. Personally, if I listen to NHK "properese", of course I can hear the sing-song drops, but no-one around here talks like that. My family, who are all native speakers, start umming and ahhing if you ask which hashi goes up and which goes down. So it cannot be crucial to normal communication...

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  • "Enter at least 15 characters." Right, that bit's done. Actually I meant this to be a "comment" rather than an "answer", but I see it has become an answer. Hope it helps, anyway. Commented Jan 26, 2023 at 8:19
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    Pitch accent is pretty crucial when trying to clearly communicate with other speakers of the standard dialect, which is the large majority of people, especially among the younger generation (due to the effects of mass media and internet). You can be comprehensible without good pitch accent, but it will cause an extra cognitive load on the part of the listener to disambiguate or repair your pronunciation using context, and in the case the topic is complex or low-context enough, it can cause real confusion. Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 9:25
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    Of course “being very easy to understand even when talking about complex things” is an advanced-level goal and is not relevant for everyone. But simultaneously, pitch accent is notorious for being difficult to fix after the fact, which is why a certain amount of up-front investment is recommended to beginners, simply to cover their bases depending on how their goals may evolve in the future. Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 9:28

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