Should non-native students of Japanese pay close attention to pitch accent?

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From a long-time learner of Japanese language:

I must say that the Japanese instructors at the Foreign Service Institute were NOT inclined to teach — or even acknowledge — pitch … and, for that matter, in all but rare cases, "bother" to correct students save on the most egregious botching of vocabulary or grammar.

Their core view, perhaps not atypical for the era, or, who knows, even for today, was "No foreigner is EVER going to learn to speak Japanese, so it is senseless to devote effort to minor things."

All that was part and parcel of the famous (=infamous) "study" by the Japanese who devised a means of determining WHY foreigners could never speak Japanese properly, and why Japanese could never speak foreign languages properly.  After wiring up his brain to gerry-rigged electrodes and electrical impulse measuring devices, he concluded (he was a dentist, I believe, and not a scientist let alone a linguist) that Japanese is a vowel-rich language, foreign tongues are consonant-rich, vowels and consonants are processed on opposite cerebral hemispheres, so "of course" it would be "impossible" for Japanese to speak foreign languages (he excluded vowel-rich Polynesian languages as inferior and unworthy of serious attention) and vice versa.  When asked how it could be, then, that Japanese diplomats so often spoke foreign languages fluently, without accents, he replied "Because they are no longer TRUE JAPANESE.  Their brains have altered."

A gentler version of that is found in this posting to a language forum, with extensive comments providing a variety of viewpoints on the subject:

"Pitch Accent? Should Learners of Japanese master it?", Ling!Q (April 2011)

Now we have a new look at this subject:

"Practicing pitch-accent is on the rise among Japanese learners", Jennifer O'Donnell, Japan Times (12/3/21)

The article begins:

When I started learning to speak Japanese, my teacher told me to stay fairly monotone. English, she said, is like a song. Japanese? That’s more like a machine gun.

While Japanese may seem rather “flat,” listen carefully and you’ll hear some fluctuation thanks to what is known as pitch-accent.

Pitch-accent, known as 高低アクセント (kōtei akusento) in Japanese, is the term used to describe when a language prominently sounds syllables or words by changing the pitch, rather than the volume. For example, あめ (ame) can mean “rain” (雨) or “candy” (飴) depending on whether the pitch goes high-low (rain) or low-high (candy). In fact, there are four pitch-accent patterns in Japanese: 頭高 (atamadaka), which goes high-low; 中高 (nakadaka), which goes low-high-low; 尾高 (odaka), which goes low-high; and 平板 (heiban), which means flat. More on these later.

English, on the other hand, is a stress-accent language. This means the syllables are sounded by changing the volume or vowel length in part of the word. Have friends at home ever pronounced カラオケ (karaoke) as “ka-rii-OH-kee,” stressing the “o”? That’s thanks to stress-accent.

In Japanese, stressing syllables by changing the volume can sound strange, and changing the length of the vowel can potentially change the meaning of the word, such as with おじさん (ojisan, uncle) and おじいさん (ojiisan, grandad). It can be hard for some non-native Japanese speakers to make themselves understood if they have a very strong stress-accent when speaking.

The author goes on to introduce a number of successful YouTubers who emphasize stress-accent and gives a series of illuminating examples of the importance of correct articulation of this aspect of speech for understanding, including this humdinger, employing four Japanese words, 私 (watashi, I), はし (hashi, chopsticks), 橋 (hashi, bridge) and 妹 (imōto, younger sister):

Let’s use them in a sentence: 私の妹のパートナーはカナダ人だから、「はし」と「橋」のイントネーションの違いがわからないそうだ (Watashi no imōto no pātonā wa Kanada-jin dakara, “hashi” to “hashi” no intonēshon no chigai ga wakaranai sō da, My younger sister’s partner is a Canadian, so he can’t understand the difference in the intonation of “chopsticks” and “bridge”).

While some Japanese teachers may once have despaired of ever teaching native stress-accent to their foreign students, I must say that I have heard more flawless (to my ear) foreign speakers of Japanese than I have native-sounding foreign speakers of Mandarin.  I do not know whether this discrepancy should be attributed to the nature of the two languages, or to the character of the individuals who are attracted to the two languages.



Then there's the "hen na gaijin ('strange / crack-brained foreigner')" stereotype, as (used to be?) common on Japanese TV shows — see here and here.

[Thanks to Mark Liberman]


Selected readings


[Thanks to Don Keyser]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 8:20 am

    When I first met my wife-to-be, some 25 years ago, she spent much of the day in conversation with a fellow Vietnamese. Having listened to them speak together, I asked her "is Vietnamese a tonal language ?". She looked at Thanh, then replied "No", and he nodded in agreement. During the period that followed, during which she and I were out of contact for some three months, I did my research and discovered that Vietnamese was very much a tonal language, as I had suspected during their conversation. When we started going out, I told her of my findings, and asked why she had told me that Vietnamese was not a tonal language. She replied to the effect that (a) she didn't think I was really interested (!), and (b) that in general foreigners did not need to know that Vietnamese was tonal, perhaps implying that even if they did, they would never master the Vietnamese tonal system. Some years later, in English conversation with a native Vietnamese speaker, he asked from where in Vietnam my wife came, and I responded "Đà Nẵng", using the correct tones. "Oh", he said, clearly surprised, "you speak Vietnamese !". "No", I explained, "I don't — I just know how to pronounce the name of my wife's home town correctly !".

    Much later, after spending a couple of weeks in Kyoto, I met up with one of my (Chinese) Mandarin teachers who I knew also spoke Japanese, and asked him "Is Japanese a tonal language ?". Being who he was, he thought carefully before answering, and then said "Well, yes, in a sense it is, but not in the same way as Chinese is tonal", and then went on to explain the phenomenon termed "pitch-accent" above.

  2. Chris Button said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 8:23 am

    We could flip it around and ask if Japanese learners of English should be made aware of how they might apply it to English.

    While I personally think it's a mistake in linguistic analysis to conflate "stress" with changes in tone/pitch ("stress" is something which tends to attract such tone/pitch changes, but it does not have to attract them), we do tend to conflate them as speakers. Hence a Japanese speaker might apply their low pitch to unstressed syllables in English and their high pitch to stressed syllables in English.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 9:12 am

    I spotted akusento, pātonā, and intonēshon. Did I miss any other borrowings from English? Well, I guess there's the second half of karaoke.

    I hope the long-time learner of Japanese will recognize that "gerry-rigged" is only marginally more acceptable [*] than "jerry-rigged" and the correct term is "jury-rigged". Etymonline says of the adjective "jury"

    '"temporary," 1610s (in jury-mast, a nautical term for a temporary mast put in place of one broken or blown away), a sailors' word of uncertain origin. Perhaps it is ultimately from Old French ajurie "help, relief," from Latin adjutare (see aid (n.)). Jury-leg for "wooden leg" is from 1751; Denham once used jury-buttocks.'

    [*] To me.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 9:37 am

    OR, perhaps speakers of tonal and pitch-accented, etc. languages are unaware / not conscious of these features of their languages when they speak them. For example, aside from professional linguists / phonologists, I don't know any Cantonese speakers who can tell you clearly how many tones their language has and how they should be described.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 11:45 am

    "… I don't know any Cantonese speakers who can tell you clearly how many tones their language has and how they should be described".

    I don't have easy access to Cantonese speakers here in Cornwall, but I do have access to at least one native Vietnamese speaker with whom I have never discussed the Vietnamese language. Next time we meet I will ask her (trying not to lead her) about the Vietnamese language, whether it is tonal, if so, how many tones, how to describe the tones, whether those tones have names, etc.

  6. David Marjanović said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 11:53 am

    Not many native speakers of English can tell you how many vowels any variety of English has either.

    (I mean, most will probably say "five" or "six" without hesitation – and mean the letters.)

    Standard German accents vary between 14 and 17 monophthongs, but I had to imagine a vowel chart, multiply by 2 and count the extras to figure that out. And Standard German makes it much easier than English because the correlation between the sound systems and the spelling system is much tighter.

  7. David Marjanović said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 11:54 am

    …actually I'm not sure if 14 occurs or if 15 is the minimum. My Standard accent has 15 in any case, and accents with 16 and 17 definitely exist.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 11:56 am

    Whether or not a language has tones is a far more fundamental matter than whether or not a language has vowels. So far as I know, all languages have vowels.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 11:59 am

    Obviously most people in most societies do not engage in self-conscious scholarly/technical discussion of features of their native language that they have mastered w/o needing to be consciously aware of, but the use of the loanword アクセント is still a bit interesting.

    You would think that awareness that e.g. the two different words romaji'd as "hashi" are not exact homophones would have been of interests to poets or scholars or other such specialists for a very long time. However, I don't know that the loanword creates a strong inference of absence of any specialist discussion within Japanese culture before the Meiji-era boom in borrowing Western lexicon started (obviously, there were earlier booms as well) versus just the possibility that in certain scholarly fields the process of Meiji and post-Meiji modernization meant that the prior local lexicon for certain technical topics got crowded out by loanwords.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 12:19 pm

    @David M.: I doubt most AmEng speakers could tell you how many different vowels their variety of English has, on a basis that would agree with what a phonologist/phonetician would think, but if you ask the question the right way to clarify that you are asking about distinct sounds versus distinct letters, I think a significant percentage would give you at least 10 or 11. This is because many U.S. schoolchildren are systematically-if-imprecisely taught that each of the five standard vowel letters has a "long" and "short" pronunciation (e.g. the KIT vowel is "short I" and the PRICE vowel is "long I"), with teachers often adding that A has at least three variants (PALM/TRAP/FACE) because it's too hard to squeeze it into the only-two-variants schema. As best as I dimly recall, this simplified system has difficulty accounting for, at a minimum, FOOT, THOUGHT, and NURSE, w/o even getting into diphthongs. (FACE, PRICE, and GOAT don't necessarily get taught as diphthongs, since they can be spelled with a single letter).

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 1:28 pm

    J. W. Brewer: I'd add that I was taught "schwa" as the vowel in NURSE as well as the first syllable of "abut" (but not the second syllable). However, the minimum unaccounted for doesn't necessarily contain THOUGHT. In a suburb of Cleveland, in the mid-to-late '60s, I was taught that "caught" and "cot" have the same vowel—though my classmates and I distinguished them.

    I was never sure how SQUARE fit into the system I was taught. I think it might have been included in FACE.

    There's a 15-step scale of vowels in order of second formant that's sometimes taught in American poetry classes, so I'd estimate that at least 0.001% of the American population would say "15". (Transparency: I wrote most of that Wikipedia article.)

  12. Chris Button said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 1:58 pm

    I might add that all languages are "tone languages" by virtue of intonation (none of us are robots), but not all languages have lexical tone distinctions. Personally, I find pitch tone more challenging because it's all relative, while contour tone is distinctive regardless.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 2:18 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: I was probably taught schwa reasonably young but perhaps not as young as the rest of the system. I'm pretty confident that we were led to assume that FACE and SQUARE were both just "long A." Although maybe you can think of those two as allophones? I see that (with the perhaps understandable exception of NURSE), your 15-step scale omits pre-rhotic vowel variants, which may be consistent with that "allophone" framing of the situation?

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 2:51 pm

    Although SQUARE is spelled with an "A", for a native speaker of (Southern) <Br.E> the vowel sound is far closer to that of the DRESS set than it is to any of the sets based on "A" (TRAP, BATH, FACE, PALM, START)

  15. KevinM said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 3:31 pm

    "When asked how it could be, then, that Japanese diplomats so often spoke foreign languages fluently, without accents, he replied 'Because they are no longer TRUE JAPANESE.'" Just wow. An actual, pure example of the "No true Scotsman" fallacy in the wild!

  16. Julian said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 3:58 pm

    Victor – most Cantonese speakers couldn't tell you how many tones they have; versus others comments about about how many vowels your English has.
    My Australian non rhotic English has 20 vowels (I think).
    The 12 that have signs in Pitman's shorthand: that pen is not much good. Pa may we all go too.
    Three diphthongs that have Pitman signs: buy boy bough
    Three more that don't have Pitman signs, I guess because he was rhotic and did not distinguish them from some of the above: bear burr beer. (Which of the above he would have used to render them is an interesting question)
    Plus shwa.
    Plus, the difference between the long and short 'a' in 'band/bang' is phonemic in a very few words: can as in 'I can' vs can as in 'tin can' .
    And I still don't know where to put the vowel of 'old'.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 6:00 pm

    Comparing tones and vowels is like comparing apples and oranges.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 7:00 pm

    Do you think most Cantonese speakers could tell you how many vowels their language has and how they should be described, or is it only tones, pitch accents, etc., that that's true of?

  19. David Marjanović said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 7:59 pm

    Whether or not a language has tones is a far more fundamental matter than whether or not a language has vowels. So far as I know, all languages have vowels.

    Yes, but people who only speak tone languages tend not to know that not all languages have phonemic tones.

    (This goes so far that there are a few English-based creoles with phonemic tones, because English stress was reinterpreted as tone and shuffled around in ways that made two tones phonemic.)

  20. Jonathan Smith said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 8:01 pm

    I don't see that there's much disagreement above… what VHM reports of speakers of tonal languages (they "may often be unconscious of these features") is certainly true — I have witnessed relatively educated speakers of e.g. Mandarin drawing their fellows' attention to what "tones" are via minimal contrast examples, and native speakers of languages including Cantonese have asked me (!) about their language's tonal systems including number of tones. There is nothing surprising about this… # of vowels seems like an OK English parallel to me but perhaps "# of manner contrasts on stops" or something is better… note that non-linguists aren't in general even aware that e.g. p:b::k:g, let alone number of contrasts.

    Re: Japanese pitch accent, there is a great website Out There with thousands of example recordings systematically organized (along with humorous promotional videos of forners giving oral presentations in Japanese before and after intensive pitch accent training), but I can't find it right now.

  21. Jonathan Smith said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 8:18 pm

    Or more recently I have seen knowledgable speakers of Taiwanese expounding at length on the language's tones for other native speakers, including stuff like explainer saying that syllable A of word AB belongs to "Tone 3" and learner responding that hang on, it sounds like your description just now of "Tone 2"… the answer to come of course being "tone sandhi" — fantistically involved in Minnan and yet entirely obscure to your average native speaker.

  22. tsts said,

    December 4, 2021 @ 9:45 pm

    I have also found that native Cantonese speakers cannot say much about the tones in their language. However, they certainly know that their language is tonal, and will point out when a tone is incorrect. They have just never learned a formal system to talk about it. So they correct me by pronouncing the word, I tell them something like "oh, so this is low rising?", and they answer "could be" or "sounds about right but not sure".

    In contrast, most educated Mandarin speakers I have met, including people whose native language is Cantonese or Toisanese, can usually tell me which tone to use to pronounce a word.

  23. John Swindle said,

    December 5, 2021 @ 8:08 am

    Nothing much to do with Japanese pitch accent, but regarding awareness of tones …

    Mandarin has a canonical number of tones, whether it’s actually spoken that way or not. (It isn’t.) Of course the actual number of tones for a tonal language can vary from place to place. But does Cantonese or Taiwanese or Vietnamese have an agreed-upon number of tones like Mandarin?

  24. Philip Taylor said,

    December 5, 2021 @ 8:43 am

    John — "does […] Vietnamese have an agreed-upon number of tones like Mandarin ?". "Agreed" is perhaps an over-statement, but for each of the main geographical/topolectal area there is general agreement. The tonal diacritics provide a guide, and these are as follows : unmarked tone (ngang), acute (sắc), grave (huyền), hook above (hỏi), tilde (ngã), and dot-under (nặng). Thus for Mandarin's "four tones + neutral", Vietnamese is generally regarded as having "five tones + neutral", although an older analysis would suggest that there are in fact seven tones + neutral.

    In my wife's topolect, the "unmarked tone" or ngang represents a level tone, the acute accent (sắc) a rising tone, the grave accent (huyền) a falling tone, the hook-above (hỏi) a falling-rising tone where the "rising" part is not always present, the tilde (ngã) a broken "step-function" rise, with a glottal element separating the two parts, and the dot-under (nặng) a short, low, tone. There might be very different realisations of these tones in other topolects.

  25. Randy Alexander said,

    December 5, 2021 @ 11:23 am

    I dated a Japanese girl during and after graduate school, and at that time became deeply fascinated with the Japanese language. I remember she had a dictionary with pitch accents given for each word. A beautiful resource.

  26. David Marjanović said,

    December 5, 2021 @ 1:29 pm

    # of vowels seems like an OK English parallel to me but perhaps "# of manner contrasts on stops" or something is better… note that non-linguists aren't in general even aware that e.g. p:b::k:g, let alone number of contrasts.

    Good point!

  27. John Swindle said,

    December 5, 2021 @ 6:35 pm

    @Philip Taylor: Thanks. I should have known that the tone marks would drive recognition of tones and establish the number of tones.

  28. JoshR said,

    December 5, 2021 @ 8:09 pm

    While he's mentioned only in connection with his videos on pitch accent, I highly recommend Dogen's YouTube channel for the comedy shorts. Although it's targeted to the rather niche audience of ex-pats in Japan and Japanese learners.

    I learned Japanese in the mid-90s through Jorden's Japanese: The Spoken Language. (Far from being on the rise, the bursting of Japan's bubble economy put many collegiate Japanese programs on the chopping block at the time, including the one I was in.) Jorden's book/method has always been somewhat controversial, in that, being concerned purely with the spoken language, it was written entirely in romanization. And not just any romanization, but Jorden's particular romanization, which among many other things included indications for pitch accent. The idea was that you were supposed to use the romanized text of the conversations and drills only as a reference, but primarily refer to the accompanying cassette tapes to learn how to pronounce the words.

    In Jorden's system, reading/writing was taught separately after the student had built up a core of vocabulary and phrases. My feeling is that for most textbooks (for both classroom and self-learners) sacrifice pitch accent at the altar of getting the student to read Japanese as early as possible. The assumption will be that pitch accent will be picked up (at varying degrees of success) simply by listening to any audio media.

    I do see the reasonableness of such an approach, but while detecting and applying pitch accent is a knack that some will have more than others, I think it is also a trainable skill. But to train that skill, the student has to be cognizant of what to listen for.

  29. JoshR said,

    December 5, 2021 @ 8:23 pm

    Another note on pitch accent. While the article (and most textbooks) treat pitch accent as an immutable part of Standard Japanese, it is actually one of the more salient features of regional dialects. The candy/rain distinction for "ame" is actually reversed in the Kansai (western Japan) dialect, for example.

    After my first three year sojourn in Japan, over half of which was spent in western Japan's Shiga Prefecture, I happened to meet a honeymooning Japanese couple at Disney World. I struck up a conversation, using purely polite, semi-formal Standard Japanese, but was then surprised when the husband asked, "Did you live in the Kansai region?" It turned out that he himself was from Shiga Prefecture, and had picked up on subtle pitch accent features that were more Kansai than American.

  30. wanda said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 1:16 am

    Re: vowels: I was never taught the difference between broad A and short A or that the schwa existed in school. We covered short and long vowels, and that's it. I learned to read without consciously knowing any of these mechanics. I only learned about them from the textbook I used to teach my own child to read.

  31. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 2:35 am

    Learning English as a second language, I can't recall that the teachers ever brought up the question of how many vowels English has. I probably never reflected on the question until I took an independent interest in linguistics.

    (One good reason for the teachers not to bring the question up may have been the fact that while we were being taught RP, there was a policy of not correcting American pronunciations we picked up from TV. We probably all ended up with hybrid accents quite apart from L1 influences.)

  32. Shostakun said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 3:32 am

    My poor pitch accent is probably the single feature my wife complains about the most in my Japanese, despite its many faults. :) That said, I think the pitch accent is rather betwixt and between.

    Personally, when I experience breakdowns in communication, its basically due to not knowing the right word and/or butchering the grammar. I don't think I've ever experienced a miscommunication due to pitch accent ambiguity in 12 years in Japan. So if your primary purpose is communication, I'd say pitch is not something that necessarily requires a great deal of attention.

    On there other hand, there's the still-pervasive view here that language education == learning grammar rules. The pitch accent can be safely ignored from this perspective as well, not strictly having a grammatical function.

    As to whether learners should strive to speak like a native speaker, that's a vexed question and ultimately comes down to personal preference. When I teach, I definitely focus on areas which are likely to create misunderstanding, but don't push it much further unless the student specifically asks. When I speak Japanese, aesthetically I do like to (attempt to) use a pitch accent, but I would never want to entirely lose my American accent, either.

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 5:08 am

    A quick update re Victor's "I don't know any Cantonese speakers who can tell you clearly how many tones their language has and how they should be described".

    I asked my wife to cast her mind back 25 years, to the time when I asked her whether Vietnamese was a tonal language after listening to her in conversation with Hàn Thế Thành, and asked her "How aware were you at that time that Vietnamese is a tonal language ?". To my complete surprise she responded "Not at all". I then asked "Did you therefore realise that Vietnamese was a tonal language when you started to learn other languages ?" (she speaks five in total), and she said "No, I only discovered that it was a tonal language when you started asking me questions about the various tones". Quite a surprise !

  34. cliff arroyo said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 5:11 pm

    "I asked her whether Vietnamese was a tonal language"

    Does she have formal education in Vietnamese? I thought that was covered in school… how do they teach children to read and write without explicitly describing tones?

  35. Todd said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 5:42 pm

    Question from a non-lingust.

    I'm not entirely sure that I understand the relationship between vowel sounds, pitch accents, and tones. My question. How is it that Swedish and Norwegian have pitch accents and Danish does not? Rather, Danish appears to have an insane number of monopthongs. Are these changes related somehow? Pitch accents versus a large number of vowel sounds?

  36. Chris Button said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 11:08 pm

    Tones are traditionally considered “supersegmental”, so I personally don’t think comparing them to “segmental” vowels or consonants (or even segmental features such as manner of articulation) is particularly useful.

    A lexical tone/pitch needs a syllable at a minimum as the smallest intuitive unit of speech.

  37. Chris Button said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 11:41 pm


  38. Chris Button said,

    December 6, 2021 @ 11:43 pm


    (would love for the edit function to be brought back)

  39. Philip Taylor said,

    December 7, 2021 @ 4:20 am

    Cliff — "Does she have formal education in Vietnamese ?". Yes, including taking over 200 examinations ! She came to this country after completing her Vietnamese education, and then went on to complete her higher education in this country.

    "I thought that was covered in school… how do they teach children to read and write without explicitly describing tones ?" — Here I am guessing, but I would imagine that all such teaching is purely by example and repetition, and (also a guess) I would imagine that exactly the same situation obtains in China and other countries in which tonal language is the norm. I will ask (w.r.t. Vietnamese).

  40. maidhc said,

    December 7, 2021 @ 5:00 am

    English is actually a fairly tonal language. But tones in English are not used to distinguish between one word and another, as in some Asian languages. Tones in English are usually used to supply some conversational nuance, to modify the basic underlying meaning of the words. This could go as far as to imply "I don't think so!".

    This is why emails in English can frequently be misinterpreted. The tonal context is missing.

    Some other European languages are much less tonal, and the nuances might be supplied by (for example) word order.

  41. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 7, 2021 @ 4:25 pm

    I obviously have no idea what Mr. Taylor's wife's early education in Vietnam was like, but when my older children were in U.S. elementary school a decade or more ago I was quite interested to see them being taught various things about English spelling conventions and their relation to pronunciation that I had zero recollection of having been taught at their age back in the wild and wooly 1970's.* My initial thought was that pedagogical theory must have changed and they were no making stuff more explicit, but then I realized that an alternative possibility was that my memory was unreliable — in particular, I had already learned to read before I got to the age where school was supposed to introduce non-readers to reading and I have generally through my life had no problems with the weirdnesses of English orthography that often trip people up. So it seemed equally plausible that because I had personally mastered the system in some sort of idiosyncratic audodidact way, I had just tuned out and subsequently forgotten whatever formal classroom teaching was intended to get me to that same result more explicitly.

    *Indeed, I felt like I was learning stuff for the first time, in that descriptive-linguistics sort of way of initially hearing an explicit account of a pattern in my own language use that I already tacitly and intuitively understood but previously could not actually articulate and explain.

  42. Philip Taylor said,

    December 12, 2021 @ 11:23 am

    « Here I am guessing, but I would imagine that all such teaching is purely by example and repetition, and (also a guess) I would imagine that exactly the same situation obtains in China and other countries in which tonal language is the norm. I will ask (w.r.t. Vietnamese) ». Confirmed over lunch today — that is exactly how Vietnamese is taught (to native-speakers-to-be) in Vietnam. No mention is made of tones, the pupil merely having to copy the teacher's pronunciation until it becomes second nature.

  43. Martha said,

    December 12, 2021 @ 11:54 am

    I know absolutely no Vietnamese, but I thought that Vietnamese diacritics (in part) indicated tone. If they aren't making mention of tones when teaching Vietnamese children to read and write, how do instructors explain these diacritics' presence at all?

  44. Philip Taylor said,

    December 13, 2021 @ 4:32 am

    Martha — "how do instructors explain these diacritics' presence at all ?". I would suspect (I will ask later today) that they simply explain "that is how this word is spelled". I am sure that you know this, but it is important to remember that for native speakers of tonal languages, má (rising), mà (falling), (ma) level, etc., are different words, not three variants of the same word differing only in tone and meaning.

  45. Stephen L said,

    December 13, 2021 @ 8:52 pm

    re: Philip's post
    >"No, I only discovered that it was a tonal language when you started asking me questions about the various tones"

    A friend of mine who speaks Irish and English has been learning Russian recently and in the presence of his brother was complaining about cases. A conversation went roughly as follows:

    Friend: What the hell even is the genitive case? How am I supposed to know what that is? We never learned this stuff in school.
    Friend's brother: You don't remember an tuiseal ginideach (Irish term for 'genitive case')?
    Friend: Wait, that's what it is? Oh, I guess I knew what it was all along…

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