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understanding japanese

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understanding japanese

Postby flammable hippo » Fri 10.06.2006 12:23 am

i have read many times that one of the main reasons why japanese still uses kanji is because of the relatively many homonyms and that they are necessary to comprehend what it is that you are reading....so my question is....if homonyms are that troublesome that kanji are needed to distinguish them....how do japanese people understand eachother while speaking? i know the pitch accent helps a little...but not really....some might say that they can know by context...but then....why would they know by context when speaking...but now when writing? and one would assume that its harder with speaking since slang is much more in use. i also noticed that on japanese news shows, there are almost always kanji subtitles for everything they say...is this to aid in comprehension or is it just there for those that are hard of hearing...cause i can understand what they are saying SOO much more by being able to read the japanese text underneath.

so what do y'all think?

ps-i'm sorry if this topic has appeared elsewhere...i did look! also, i am not ripping on kanji either, i love them! lol. even though they can be annoying at times...
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RE: understanding japanese

Postby Sachi » Fri 10.06.2006 12:33 am

First, welcome to the site :)

Second, I know what you mean--I've wondered this before, too (and also made those observations). However, I don't think it relies much pitch. I think it comes down to context, but I don't know for certain.

PS -- It helps to use proper grammar (capitals, not adding "..." too frequently, etc.). It keeps things easier to understand, and keeps the mods happy ;)
Last edited by Sachi on Fri 10.06.2006 12:34 am, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: understanding japanese

Postby flammable hippo » Fri 10.06.2006 12:42 am

Hi, its nice to meet you. I've actually been part of the site for a while but I've only just figured out how to post my own comments and start threads. lol. Well actually, I was able to post some comments on Clay's articles and on the kanji section, but I only recently found the "start thread" button even though I've probably read over it a bunch of times.

I tend to ramble since I'm kind of a spaz and I'll try to remember to use proper grammar :D
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RE: understanding japanese

Postby Dehitay » Fri 10.06.2006 12:45 am

It's both pitch and context much like like English is unnunciation and context
take the following English words for example that sound the same but we rarely have problems understanding which is in use
tail(noun), tail(verb), tale
content(adj), content(noun)
too, to, two
bat(animal), bat(tool), bat(verb)
no, know
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RE: understanding japanese

Postby Harisenbon » Fri 10.06.2006 11:23 am

While context plays a LARGE part of it, so does pitch (as was said earlier).

I'm sure everyone remembers learning the difference between 蜘蛛 and 雲 and 橋 and 箸. What they DON'T tell you is that those pronunciation things exist for almost EVERY word. I'm currently in the process of relearning 13 years of ingrained pronunciation because I was never bothered to perfect it the first time. :/

That being said, it is perfectly normal to be able to watch the news without actually watching the screen, and the announcers are trained (as in english) to ennunciate clearly so as to make what they say understandable to everyone.
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RE: understanding japanese

Postby AnyOtherDay » Fri 10.06.2006 2:13 pm

I'm currently in the process of relearning 13 years of ingrained pronunciation because I was never bothered to perfect it the first time. :/


T'would also be nice if more Japanese teachers and teaching materials started us off on the right foot rather than pretending pitch hardly matters. I realize they don't want to overburden or frighten away their students, and sure, native speakers will most likely figure out what you meant to say regardless, but why sabotage us from the beginning? Teach things precisely, and if we ignore what's offered so be it. But at least give the motivated ones a chance before they develop habits that are hard to break.
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RE: understanding japanese

Postby Infidel » Fri 10.06.2006 2:53 pm

I don't see them say it doesn't matter. Rather they that if you don't know, do everything monotone.
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RE: understanding japanese

Postby AnyOtherDay » Fri 10.06.2006 3:19 pm

How many textbooks include a detailed section on intonation patterns? There are rules to how it's done. How many indicate how each word is pitched? Very few, and they tend to be the lousy roumaji ones. And as far as teachers go, how many spend a lot of time on the spoken language? Since the written language is considered the biggest difficulty, that's where almost all the effort goes. Being literate is very important, but so is speaking well. It's the same neglect one finds in most formal language courses, regardless of the language being taught. That's not to say that all teachers or materials are deficient in this area, but I'm inclined to think that most are. I haven't studied Japanese in Japan, however, so I don't know if they might address the issue more. The silly thing is that pitch in Japanese isn't difficult to learn. The only reason people don't bother with it is because they're not pushed to do so. They're told to do everything monotone if they don't know, making them think it's really not that valuable to work on. Sure, monotone is best for when you don't know, but it doesn't mean one should stop there. When you don't know something, you find it out. That's how learning works. It's easier to make small repairs to a house as you go along than to end up with a huge wreck and have to tear much of it down. :)

Anyway, this is my observation, experience and opinion from studying at a couple different universities, reading on my own, and also being tutored by native speakers, but if others have had good teachers and thorough materials to work with, good for them -- and I hope they'll share those with us. :)
Last edited by AnyOtherDay on Fri 10.06.2006 3:28 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: understanding japanese

Postby two_heads_talking » Fri 10.06.2006 3:25 pm

pitch huh? I don't think any text or teacher I ever learned from mentioned pitch in any lecture etc. In fact Japanese is known as a monotonic language, please point me in the direction of anything that teaches pitch.. I will have to admit, if there is any, I have been ignorant of it up to this point.
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RE: understanding japanese

Postby AnyOtherDay » Fri 10.06.2006 3:35 pm

Take a look at 新明解日本語アクセント辞典. It's aimed at speech professionals, but I've also found it extremely useful in my own studies. If I end up speaking like a broadcaster, so be it. :D

Of course, it focuses on Tokyo dialect, which is what most students would want and need anyway. But it's written for native speakers, so it's not suited for all levels of students. I had to enlist the help of a very kind bookstore owner in learning how to use it.
Last edited by AnyOtherDay on Fri 10.06.2006 3:47 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: understanding japanese

Postby Infidel » Fri 10.06.2006 3:45 pm

lessee, Japanese step-by-step and learn Japanese new college text both go into good detail. In fact, I recommend Japanese step-by-step pretty firmly for anyone starting to get interested in the pitch system.

But it is true, I have not found any pitch books that are written in kana. They are all written in roumaji.

Colloquial Japanese also goes into the pitch system. It puts a mark above each mora that has a pitch change.

Actually, just about every Japanese book I've seen has at least mentioned the pitch system in the beginning.
Last edited by Infidel on Fri 10.06.2006 3:46 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: understanding japanese

Postby kinkachou » Fri 10.06.2006 4:00 pm

Based on my personal experience learning Japanese, in written Japanese the kanji do make it easier to read and be sure what the word is as well as where words begin and end. It's actually gotten easier for me to read kana and kanji instead of the dreaded romaji. As for speaking, I was once told by a Japanese teacher that Japanese is a very context high language. Subjects can be dropped and many words sound alike so you have to be paying attention more than English I guess. Though the other side of the coin is that it's really easy to make great puns in Japanese.

In the year that I studied in Japan, I was essentially told by the Japanese teachers that pitch doesn't really matter. They never covered it, other than the occasional mention of homonyms with a different accent. They also mentioned that pitch isn't standard throughout Japan, and because we were in Nagoya we often heard Kansai dialect which uses much different pitches. Therefore, there was no point in studying it, or so I was told. We were told, however, to try to imitate the pitches of the native speakers you are around, and that if you hang around Japanese people enough you'll just pick it up automatically. Anyway, that's just my experience. So if pitch really does matter, we are probably going to end up sounding like gaijin for quite some time.
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RE: understanding japanese

Postby AnyOtherDay » Fri 10.06.2006 4:13 pm

You must have or have seen a newer edition of Colloquial Japanese than the one I have. That's a great feature, and I hope it starts making its way into more and more books. I should probably have taken a closer look at Japanese Step-by-Step the first time I saw it, but I tend to dismiss anything outright if it relies on roumaji. It seems strange that a book would guide you in pitch but not bother to teach you kana. To me, it seems that kana would be one of the first "steps"!

Since it sounds like you may have personal experience with those books, do you take advantage of those aids in your own speaking practice? If so, why did you decide it was important to do? I ask because I'm currently helping a Japanese blogger friend put together some study materials for a beginner's Japanese course he's creating for the web, and I wonder what approach might encourage people to work just a little harder on their speaking from the early stages of their study.
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RE: understanding japanese

Postby Infidel » Fri 10.06.2006 4:14 pm

I think pitch isn't something you can expect to just automatically pick up. I think you need to actively listen for pitch, and practice it. There are so many words that were never sounding right when I spoke to them. It turns out, part of the reason was because I was using stress instead of pitch. The other reason, was because I was changing pitch in the wrong places.

of course, Anyotherday's recommendation is probably better for Two Heads. I can only recommend books I can read of course. And a Japanese grammar book is not one of them.

You must have or have seen a newer edition of Colloquial Japanese than the one I have.


Well I do have this second edition version. Unfortunately, all of the pitch notation is above the roumaji. The Japanese text with the kana and kanji only has furigana above the words.

The problem with Japanese step-by-step is the way to pitch system is rendered. Low pitch is shown in lowercase text and high pitch is shown in uppercase text which gets annoying very quickly.

Since it sounds like you may have personal experience with those books, do you take advantage of those aids in your own speaking practice?


This is pretty subjective. since I never expect to go to Japan, what good does speech practice do for me?

For a period of time I used to live with my ex-wife's parent's tour Chinese immigrants that spoke Chinese Cantonese. There is one common trend I've noticed with the them that I've also noticed with everyone else who I have ever met that spoke a foreign language and that is that mispronunciations are duplicated in misspellings. For example, my father-in-law like you stickup notes to label everything in the garage. I couldn't help but chuckle every time I saw the word groves written on the glove box.

So, the benefit for me is knowing that this extra effort will pay off in better spelling and grammar when I write Japanese -- I hope. Another benefit, is the reduction in tongue twisters. I've noticed that a large number of the tongue twisters I experience when speaking Japanese is because I'm using stress instead of pitch. And last but not least, it just sounds better.

I should probably have taken a closer look at Japanese Step-by-Step the first time I saw it, but I tend to dismiss anything outright if it relies on roumaji.


I think this is the problem with books that teach pitch. The only ones that seem to go into any detail and teach pitch throughout the entire course all roumaji books. So someone like Two Heads or you who ignore roumaji books will never even know they exist.
Last edited by Infidel on Fri 10.06.2006 5:15 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: understanding japanese

Postby AnyOtherDay » Fri 10.06.2006 4:41 pm

kinkachou wrote:
Therefore, there was no point in studying it, or so I was told.
We were told, however, to try to imitate the pitches of the native speakers you are around


Paraphrasing: "There's no point in studying it, but be sure to study it." :D

and that if you hang around Japanese people enough you'll just pick it up automatically.


To a certain degree. But as I know from tutoring English learners, people often get to a point where they stop improving unless they make a big effort to do so. Or they hit a wall in what they can accomplish on their own. I've worked with many people frustrated that they still have strong accents after living in the US for 10 years and speaking English every day. Although getting your meaning across is the most crucial thing, I think most learners would like to sound more natural if they could. And native speakers appreciate hearing their language spoken well.

Thankfully for English learners, there are many, many excellent resources devoted to speech improvement.

Infidel wrote:
This is pretty subjective. since I never expect to go to Japan, what good does speech practice do for me?


Well then, why do people here bother to correct everyone who writes "romaji" rather than "roumaji"? It's all pretty subjective anyway. (And before anyone says that "rou" is closer to the Japanese, remember that Japanese doesn't even have the English "r" sound, so the "ou" hardly matters either.) Sure, it'll mess you up if you ever want to use an IME, but again, people will figure you out if you goof up. If people understand us anyway, why bother? "Romaji" may be good enough if all one wants to do is transcribe lyrics poorly.

I just think it's strange that so many care about an inadequate approximation system that's mainly used by non-native speakers, yet don't think that something like pitch matters.

But you're absolutely right that everyone has different goals, so it's wrong for me to make assumptions.

Infidel wrote:So, the benefit for me is knowing that this extra effort will pay off in better spelling and grammar when I write Japanese -- I hope. Another benefit, is the reduction in tongue twisters. I've noticed that a large number of the tongue twisters I experience when speaking Japanese is because I'm using stress instead of pitch. And last but not least, it just sounds better.


Thank you for broadening my perspective. Those are all great reasons. As you pointed out, language learning is very personal, and I'll try to keep that more in mind.

Anyway, I've seriously derailed this topic, so I'll drop it after this last post. I study the sound of Japanese because I think it's important, but I'm making it sound like a bigger deal than it should be. If people understand you easily and you understand them, that's most of what matters.
Last edited by AnyOtherDay on Fri 10.06.2006 10:25 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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