Mike Cash wrote:
Yet for all that, I have never been able to pick up on the pitch thing, much less actively learn it myself. To this day, I just can't hear it. And if someone does a side-by-side example for me, if I strain I can pick it up. But as for remembering which is which....I can't.
When I first became aware of pitch accent in the Japanese language - when I was about a third year Japanese language student at the college level - I couldn't hear it either. And to make things worse, there was little explanation to be found beyond the all too familiar examples of aME-Ame
, and the thing is, it's a little more complex than about 20% of the lexicon spoken in isolation. But because it was so mysterious at first, it became something of an obsession of mine that even eclipsed my fascination with kanji, and I can at least assure you, the more you familiarize yourself with the phenomenon, the better you'll become at actually hearing it. Hearing the difference between two pitches - one relatively high and one relatively low - isn't difficult. Anyone can do it. The thing that makes it so hard is that your English-speaking brain listens for stress accent and not pitch accent.
I'll give you an example. I had a phonetics professor who was a native Dutch speaker, and when he pronounced a Dutch un-aspirated "t" and a Dutch "d," I couldn't hear the difference to save my life. The only difference is in voicing, and you would think the difference between a voiceless consonant and a voiced consonant would be night and day, right? But he explained that, as a native English speaker, I didn't listen to voicing to distinguish the two sounds - I listened for aspiration (i.e. the puff of air that follows the "p," "t," and "k" sounds at the beginning of words). So, in the absence of the clue that aspiration provides, my brain was thrown for a loop. But once you know what to listen for - in that case voicing - you can hear it. It just takes some effort at first to overcome strong habits.