Mistake #6 - Poor Intonation

This is a tough one to teach.

As I mentioned before, I don’t think that you need to worry too much about the intonation and rhythm of Japanese. However, you do need to worry about it a little bit. The main mistake that I see non-native speakers of Japanese making when it comes to intonation and rhythm is the fact that they’re simply ignoring it. Whenever possible, you should try to break down the sounds native speakers are making and then repeat them to the best of your ability.

Throughout this guide, I’ll point out various subtleties of native intonation in words and phrases that we look at. There’s no way to cover them all, however, because that would mean covering the entirety of the Japanese language. I’ve been studying Japanese for years now, and I still make mistakes quite commonly when it comes to intonation and pitch. This isn’t a big deal, because in 99% of cases people will still understand what I’m trying to say, but I’d like to have near-perfect intonation at some point in my life, so I’ve asked Japanese friends to point out when my intonation is strange, which helps a lot. Also, I’m always listening to the intonation and pitch of native speakers and trying to imitate it.

Pride can be a big barrier here. Sometimes Japanese intonation will sound funny to non-native speakers (i.e. to me) because they use a range of tones and sounds that are unfamiliar to us. But we should copy these “weird sounds.” There is a lot of evidence that “making fun of” native pronunciation actually improves the pronunciation of non-native speakers.

As a result, I often try to remind myself that I shouldn’t be embarrassed about sounding “strange.” Rather, I should just try to make those sounds I keep hearing, try to space out my words the way I hear them. If I’m being a straight-A student, I’ll even pick out a Japanese phrase, maybe from a TV show or podcast, and use Audacity to make that single phrase into an audio file. Then I can just put on my headphones and listen to that phrase on repeat until it haunts my dreams and I plummet into insanity… I mean, until I can reproduce it exactly from memory.

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