Tactics

Is Japanese a Tonal Language? Yes – But Not the Way You Think!

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:

  • ビールを飲まない
    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:

  • ビールを飲まない
    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  when it means chopsticks and  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:

  1. Learn the tones
  2. 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?

You can.

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!

28 Comments

  • kenuetrecht

    Wow I had no idea how subtle the spoken language was in japanese. That the exact same sentence can mean completely opposite things just on how you pronounce it. It seems much harder to learn than the written language but I learned so many things from reading this! The way you explained everything though I have a better understanding and your tips for learning better will be useful!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, that’s one of the HUGE advantages of Learning How to Read Kanji, since all of these homonyms can clearly be identified from one another when they sound the same, but are written differently.

      I think that for non-native Japanese people, learning how to read Japanese is actually easier than learning how to speak it, but there is certainly merit in learning them both together as it’s great for reinforcement.

  • Matt's Mom

    I had never known what tonal means, but boy Japanese sounds so very hard to learn. Especially if you can say a word different ways and it means something totally different. I can see myself saying a word incorrectly, only to have it taken a totally different way! I could see myself asking for a “bridge” at a restaurant, thinking I am wanting chopsticks ! 😀

    • Nick Hoyt

      Haha, yeah I can certainly appreciate having the fear of being misunderstood when you make a little slip up in the pitch accent of a word.

      Fortunately conversations involve more than one person, and the chances are high that the other person will figure out what you really meant to say rather easily. 

      It happens in English all the time, you’re listening to a person talking and then they use a word and you think to yourself “that word doesn’t really apply here… oh they must have meant this other word that sounds similar and would make perfect sense within this context.”

      The same thing is going to happen when you’re speaking Japanese to someone. If you ask for a bridge in a restaurant, chances are the staff is going to bring you chopsticks. 

      If they do bring you a bridge, I would pick a different place to eat, LOL!!!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Frank, thanks I’m really glad you enjoyed it! I love engaging with others in the comments and talking about the Japanese language and culture and such. I look forward to seeing you around!  

  • Excelle

    After reading this post I now know that, learning to speak Japanese would be a drag for me.

    With harshi meaning chopsticks an at the same time it means bridge and the difference being how they are pronounced, then it’s gonna be a long way yet for me.

    Do you think, I have a chance being fluent in Japanese in a month?

    Best.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hmm, I guess it kind of depends on where you’re currently at level-wise with Japanese. If you’re already at an intermediate point in the language, then getting to fluency where you can easily have and understand conversations in Japanese without slowing it down is definitely possible.

      But if you’re a beginner, then I think it will (unfortunately) take a little more time than a single month. 

      One of the reasons is because when you learn a new language, your brain literally grows new “gray matter” which is where the second language is stored. This process of “neural plasticity” starts when you do, and can take about six months before you “get it” and the language finally “clicks” for you depending on the quality and quantity of the input you receive.

      It’s the same way with learning a new instrument too. I finally “got it” at the 6-month mark of learning guitar and then everything accelerated from that point.

      If you’re in a situation where you need to seriously ramp up you Japanese in a very short amount of time, I would recommend that you pick up a good Japanese phrasebook, and use the hell out of it. Here’s what I recommend:

      What Is The Best Japanese Phrasebook?

      Try The Scripting Technique I mention in the article where you learn the basic phrases and words from the phrasebook and then you create real life-like scenarios that allow you to hold conversations with yourself in Japanese with what you’ve learned.

      I think you will be pleasantly surprised with just how much progress you can make by doing this. Good luck!

  • Alejandra

    Wow, what a great article you have here!

    I’ve always thought Japanese is a hard language to learn, but I never knew it’s a tonal language, it makes it quite interesting.

    As I’m learning my third language (French) I understand by now every language has it’s own method and techniques.

    Your site is amazing and I’m sure whoever is interested in learning Japanese will love to find it.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Alejandra, thanks for the comment! I’m sure you can appreciate this since you speak several languages yourself, but as you get better skilled at Japanese you begin to notice things that you completely missed when you were a beginner!

      One of those things is tone, and even though you don’t need to master it in order to be understood, I think it’s an important aspect of the language. The truth is that we basically do the same thing in English, but since it’s mostly unconscious, almost no one is aware of it!

      I do what I can to help, but for anyone who is looking to absolutely master Japanese phonetics, I actually think that Dogen is the master. He’s got a great video on YouTube that you can check out where he goes into depth on it and gives some great examples. 

      Here is the link: Dogen’s YouTube Video on Japanese Phonetics

      Enjoy!

  • Amy

    Never knew that Japanese is a tonal language and I love the idea of the shadowing technique as a way to learn the nuances of the language. Pretty interesting that changing the pitch changes the meaning, and studying side by side is a great idea. — I’ve always loved the Japanese language and now want to learn it…!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I don’t think that it is “officially” a tonal language since there are only a handful of words who’s meaning changes when you speak it with a different pitch path, as compared to a language like Chinese where ALL the words change meaning when the tone changes, but I think the post made my point on the topic.

      And changing the tone right at the end to turn a statement into a question, probably falls more into the category of “intonation” rather than the “tonal language” kind of thing, but…

      I don’t want to get pedantic about it, you know? 

  • Prachi

    Great Article! Reading your article took me few years back when I was in China for few months and I know how hard it was to get there tone. I always felt that I am saying the same thing as they are but they don’t understand me, then a friend explained me how the meanings change with change in tone. Thanks for writing so much in detail about it, not just for Japanese but all languages.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      Yeah, my sister actually knows some Chinese and she said the same thing. Mainly that she can say the words without any problem, but if the tone is a little off, then the natives are super confused.

      I think that if you’re used to non-natives speaking your language, then you get pretty good and understanding heavy accents (mom’s are also really great at understanding what their kids say when nobody else can, lol!), but when you live in a country that is homogeneous for the most part, then you’re not used to hearing foreigners speaking your first language and you tend to have a hard time understanding them when they are off even by a little.

      At least, that’s my thoughts on the matter.

  • Rob

    Great point. I’ve never really been good at learning another language (besides French, for some reason). But I always thought English was the hardest language to learn, I’m sure many Japanese people would think so anyway. But your right with the tonal languages, pretty much every language uses them at least in some way. It is just a different way in learning it.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I’ve heard many times from my non-American friends that learning the English language is really hard. I think it’s because we have all these rules for how you are supposed to pronounce words and such, but then we break them all the time. It can be a bit of a pain to say the least!

      • Nick Hoyt

        Actually, I thought that I would expand a little bit more on this since I gave it a little more thought.

        Kids generally learn new languages by LISTENING to them all the time. So they tend to understand languages phonetically first, and then it is only later on that they learn the written part of it.

        But (for whatever reason) adults tend to learn second languages by READING them. This may be one of the main reason why English is so tough to learn. Because learning how to pronounce English words from the written part of it is a big challenge.

        But if all you did was study and practice English (or any language really) from the way that it sounds, then your accent would tend to be more like that of a native’s because your ears did all the work, and not your eyes when you learned.

        It may feel weird to learn a new skill purely from sound, since we basically learn everything from sight in school, but it may actually be a better way for a language.

        I may be off on this (I’m not really a linguist) but that’s what I would say about it.

  • Beth

    One thing that surprised me when I moved to Asia is just how FAST everyone speaks. You’re right that everything is slowed down in a classroom setting. What’s surprising is just how much! With Chinese, for example, everyone speaks quickly and even though their tones are distinct, they’re spoken SO fast that it takes a lot of practice to really perfect that.

    I love what you said, though:
    Do you believe that you can get 1% better today than you were yesterday?

    This is where it’s really at. My Chinese is not nearly as good as I want it to be, but it’s MUCH better than it was last month and it’s WAY better than it was two years ago when I seriously started studying Mandarin. The important thing isn’t necessarily how fast you become good at something, but how consistent you are with your learning. Work every day, and in a week, you’re going to know more than you did before. In a month, you’ll know even more. Pretty soon, a year will go by, and you’ll be incredible!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, that is so true! What I find interesting is that when you study really hard at learning the language for an extended period of time, eventually there will come a point when you listen to a conversation and you’re able to understand everything clearly. It’s like, “wow did I really just understand all of that easily?!”

      You’re comprehension skills seem to sneak up on you and activate when you least expect them to. It’s a pleasant surprise for sure!

  • Steve T

    Terrific post, Nick. This points out things I experienced and wondered about in many trips across Japan, but I never “got it” until NOW! They definitely did not cover this at all in my conversational Japanese class, though in their defense it was a pretty basic business-survival Nihongo that they were attempting.

    While I was always taught that it was the “ka” at the end of the sentence that made it into a question, it did seem to me that it worked best with a rising inflection. At least a couple times I forgot and left off the “ka” but still ended with a rising inflection, and I was understood – so I did have a hint at the end of sentence rise aspect.

    When I would give my coworkers my “I can teach you enough Japanese in 5 minutes so you never get on the wrong train” lesson, I did always end with a rising inflection at the end of “ikimasu ka” but I just did it, without ever explaining it, or fully knowing it. I’m not sure you have to for Americans, since it is automatic.

    And thanks for pitching kaizen. Everybody on earth can benefit from this philosophy, which I learned back in the late 1980s, and I’ve been an advocate from then until now. As an engineer I believe that engineering and other important technical pursuits always benefit most from the kaizen approach. When I learned kaizen I felt bad about engineering project work I’d done for the first years of my career without it.

    I will definitely dust this off and visit other parts of your site before my next visit to Japan.

    Thanks again, and please keep up building the site – it is much needed!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Steve, thanks I really appreciate the comment and the nice words you left!

      It’s funny that you mentioned you weren’t taught that a rising tone at the end turns it into a question in Japanese (so you don’t always need the KA) because that exact same thing happen to me too. I first figured it out because I watched a lot of anime and the characters would rarely use KA when they would ask their friends questions.

      It must be one of those things that all languages have in common, I guess.

      And that’s the power of using the language in real life – you get exposure to things that are looked over in the classroom!

      As for Kaizen, you’re totally right! Engineering is the perfect place for it to be applied in order to see massive improvement over time. The first time I learned about the concept, was actually in its application to the Japanese cars that Japan was importing into America (back in the day). Little by little the Japanese cars overtook American ones in terms of performance, until the big companies here decided it was time to apply the same philosophy in their own business practices.

      • Steve T

        You sure got that timing right for American industrial interest in kaizen. I was teaching them about it (with help from some experts out of Nagoya) back in the late 80s and early 90s. There’s nothing like having your tail kicked in the market place to open up otherwise closed minds. Back then I was facilitating in-factory workshops for manufacturing executives and senior engineers for the University of Dayton. This was zen-master style teaching in kaizen and the Toyota Production System, and it left a mark… I had great fun and a crazy near disaster or two each time we did it.

        • Nick Hoyt

          Yeah, I always think it’s cool when one culture does something exceptionally well and it ends up getting adopted by others around the world (since people get tired of losing to it) and then industries are changed forever.

          Especially considering how quickly information travels these days, we really are living in a global community!

  • Roldan

    Hi Nick,

    Having traveled extensively throughout Asia during my days in the military forces, I can attest that nearly all oriental languages are tonal.

    When I was in Thailand I discovered that the word “MAI” has five different meanings and if repeated five times using different intonation it will make the phrase “New wood on silk won’t burn”. I thought that was rather funny and I’ve never forgotten it.

    Anyway, I was married to a Vietnamese woman for many years and I always misunderstood her because I wasn’t quite sure if she meant to say ‘Eat Rice’ or ‘Drink medicine’ as they both sound very similar.

    By the way, this is a great idea for a website!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, there really are a lot of tonal languages, and most of them are located over there in Asia. I didn’t know about that phrase with the five different “MAI” in it, but that is hilarious!

      And that’s pretty cool that your wife is Vietnamese! I’ve heard that the best way to motivate yourself to learn a new language, is to marry someone who is a native of it.

  • Charred R.

    Glad that I found this article! It’s very helpful and I really like it. It’s almost the same with the Korean language, if you heard them already do you think it’s tonal language too? The shadowing technique seems very helpful. I think the Japanese tonality is really cool as I watched anime like One Piece I can feel the tone even by just reading the subtitle. This is a great post. Will be checking again.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Charred, it’s good to hear that you enjoyed the post!

      You know, even though I had a friend in college that was from South Korea, I don’t think that I ever heard him use Korean (probably because I didn’t know it). I’m sure that they use tones and pitch like all languages at the end of sentences to indicate if it’s a question or a statement.

      But as for words that change meaning when the direction of the pitch changes, I’m not entirely sure. I’d have to look into it.

      Anyway, switching topics, yeah learning Japanese from anime if pretty cool because you get to experience all of the different aspects of language that get left out in most books and courses. And even though it gets knocked a lot, I actually wrote a post on using anime to learn Japanese. I think it’s a really cool way to study the language!

      If that’s something that interests you, then you can click here to read it! Thanks!

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