How many of you have been told that Asian languages are the hardest to learn because they are all tonal languages? What exactly does that mean? And since it’s from Asia, is Japanese a tonal language too?
Well the short answer is that, yes Japanese is a tonal language, but not in the way that most people think.
Let’s take a look at what people mean when they describe a language as “tonal” so that you can see how it applies and doesn’t apply to Japanese.
What is a “Tonal” Language?
When people describe a language as “tonal” they generally mean it in the way that Mandarin Chinese is tonal. That is, one word can have completely different meanings if you change the pitch while saying it.
Here’s a chart that shows the different ways that you would pronounce the same word in order to change the meaning →
You can also check it out over on the Wiki-Commons page here.
If the word were “ma” you could say it with a straight tone, a rising tone, a falling tone, or a tone that falls a little and then flattens out.
Mandarin (Chinese) is said to have four basic tones like this, and then a fifth neutral tone.
Cantonese (Chinese) has six tones! And so does Vietnamese too!
Does that sound like it would be hard to learn a language when you have to focus on both the tone, and which word it is? Well, a lot of people certainly think so.
That’s one of the reasons that people tell you to learn a language that is a lot closer to English like Spanish or French, because then you don’t have to worry about all that extra work.
I don’t know that it’s actually harder work, to me it just seems like different work. I’m sure that the people who speak those languages fluently don’t really think about it all that much.
But I’m certainly not an expert on them.
How is Japanese Tonal?
So is Japanese tonal in this same way?
Well it actually is!
Here’s a list of words that have the same pronunciation, but change depending on if you say them from low-to-high pitch, or from high-to-low:
はし (hashi) = Chopsticks when said from high-to-low.
はし (hashi) = Bridge when said from low-to-high.
いま (ima) = Now when said from high-to-low.
いま (ima) = Living room when said from low-to-high.
にほん (nihon) =Two sticks when said from high-to-low.
にほん (nihon) = Japan when said from low-to-high.
And there are more as well.
One of the reasons why this occurs in Japanese is because the language is pretty limited on different sounds when compared to other languages. So the tones (in this case, two of them) really help the language out.
But there is also another way that Japanese is tonal. Well, it really has to do with what we typically call pitch or intonation.
It is the alternate ways that people end their sentences when talking to one another. Here is a sentence that changes meaning just by changing the pitch at the end of it:
biiru o nomanai
If ended with a flat tone, it would mean “I don’t drink beer.”
But if you end it on a raising tone, then (just like in English) it actually turns the whole sentence into a question:
biiru o nomanai
The question would be “won’t you have a beer?” or even “would you like a beer?”
Change the pitch – change the meaning!
How Can You Tell Which is Which?
You’ve got several ways that you can easily tell words apart when you don’t know the correct intonation to use.
First off, there is the written language. Of course it doesn’t have tone at all, so how does it deal with these two types of situations?
Simple: different kanji for the different words, and ending grammar for the final tone types of sentences.
はし (hashi) is spelled with the kanji 箸 when it means chopsticks and 橋 when it means bridge. So there’s absolutely no confusion when you come across it in a manga or in a book.
Actually, this is one of the greatest things that kanji does for Japanese in a positive way – it clearly identifies homophones from one another!
And when it comes to the end of a phrase, just look for the question mark ? to see if it is a question (rising tone). Anything else will almost always be some sort of statement (。or ! and so on.)
But what about the spoken language? That is within the realm of tones, after all.
Even there you’ve got two options that are both pretty simple:
- Learn the tones
- Figure out the context
As for the first one, Japanese only has the two different ways of dealing with tones. This means that it’s not all that much work to just learn what the meaning is for the high-to-low version and vise-versa.
But the other way, and perhaps better way when you are first starting out, is to just pay attention to the context of the situation and make an educated guess from there.
Here’s what I mean by that:
If you’re eating at a Japanese restaurant with a friend and they ask you はしは使えますか？ (hashi wa tsukaemasu ka?) you will pretty much know that they are asking if you can use chopsticks.
I mean, it would be pretty fricken’ weird if they asked you if you could use a bridge right then and there!
But I’m not here to judge… 😉
On the other hand, if you’re in a traditional Japanese garden with someone and you say to them あんなはしは見たことがありません！ (anna hashi wa mita koto ga arimasen!), even if you mess up the tonality of はし for bridge, there’s pretty much a 100% chance that they will know exactly what you mean.
So while it’s best to know and use the correct tones for the correct words, it doesn’t really matter as long as people understand what’s going on.
How to Improve Your Tonality
But just because you don’t have to use the correct pitches, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t!
How can you best learn the correct tones of the Japanese language? There’s three ways that I recommend:
(1) Study the different tones side by side. Just like I showed with the groups of two above, you can get a list of the words that share the same pronunciation (but have different pitch paths) and study them one after the other to learn which goes up, and which comes down.
I would recommend coming up with a mnemonic (memory trick) to help yourself remember which is which. Let me give an example:
はし (hashi) = Chopsticks when said from high-to-low. The mnemonic is that when you get the chopsticks in your hand, you have to lower them (high-to-low) in order to pick up the food.
はし (hashi) = Bridge when said from low-to-high. The mnemonic is that a (draw)bridge has to raise up (low-to-high) in order for boats to pass underneath.
By using little tricks like this to remember the direction the tone goes, you should have a pretty easy time remembering them.
(2) Listen to a lot of natives speaking. You should (in my opinion) by using some form of immersion alongside your normal study time each day in order to take in enough of the language to get used to it and start picking it up intuitively.
It’s also a great way to learn the natural rhythm and rhyme of the language!
You see, when you listen to songs in Japanese, the words are modified into a musical form so that it sounds good.
And when you take most Japanese courses, the natives are speaking at a speed that is slow enough and clear enough for beginners and people at an intermediate level to follow along alright.
Unfortunately, that’s not really the way that natives speak to each other.
But when you listen to a lot of natives speaking normally, you eventually get use to it and start mimicking them – and that of course includes the correct tones for both sentences, and individual words.
So, find some good anime, or a nice podcast that you can download, and listen – Listen – LISTEN!
(3) Practice The Shadowing Technique whenever you can. This is actually an advanced technique that will accelerate your results by an incredible amount, when compared to the time and effort put into it.
At its heart, The Shadowing Technique is simply “repeating what you hear, as close to 100% as possible.”
So you hear a phrase in Japanese, and you repeat it as if you were practicing to be that person’s personal double.
This can be a little hard to do at first since you’ll be both listening and repeating it at the same time. You own voice can sometimes block out what the other person is saying. 🙁
But stick with it and you should get over the hump pretty quickly.
If I could only give you one technique to use in order to improve your Japanese intonation, it would be this one. Stick with it for at least a week in order to give it a fair shot at leveling up your skills!
And Always Practice Kaizen!
When it comes time to study, remember the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen, also known as “continuous improvement.”
Now that you know about Japanese’s tones, start working on getting better at them each and every day.
There’s no need to master it all in one day (what’s the rush?), just get a little better each day and eventually you will have mastered it.
Do you believe that you can get 1% better today than you were yesterday?
So just focus on getting a little better each day, and never stop.
Before you know it, you will learn to speak Japanese like a native.
I’d love to hear from you guys now!
What do you think about tonal languages in general? Are they cool? What do you think about Japanese’s tonality in particular?
Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: