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Evaluation: Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen

For Japanese learners, one of many greatest obstacles may be pronunciation, pitch-accent, and general phonetics. For one, English and Japanese function on completely totally different phonetic schemes, as English is taken into account a “stress-accent” language, in contrast with Japanese, which is a “pitch-accent” language (extra on this later!). Phonetics past primary pronunciation is never taught in-depth in a conventional Japanese language classroom setting, and doing so is troublesome to convey in written format, equivalent to a textbook.

Fortunately for Japanese learners, there’s something you are able to do. Dōgen, who you may know from his YouTube comedy sketches about life in Japan, additionally presents an in depth course on Japanese phonetics delivered by way of movies on his Patreon. (Oh, and he additionally wrote an article for Tofugu on what he makes use of to check.)

Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen is among the solely such sources for native-English-speaking college students of the Japanese language, and fortuitously additionally among the finest. Dōgen has managed to gather a wealth of data that won’t solely instantly enhance your pronunciation, however provide the instruments to proceed to make strides by yourself. A number of of Dōgen’s ideas on learning Japanese early within the course are a bit excessive, however general Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen is a useful useful resource for any Japanese learner who needs to enhance their talking skill. On this article I am going to discuss in regards to the construction and philosophy behind the course, and the way properly among the sensible recommendation works.

What Is Phonetics and Why Ought to You Research It?

Phonetics is a part of basic linguistics research that covers the manufacturing and notion of speech in any given language. This considerations gadgets just like the sounds a language has, pitch accent, intonation, and lots of extra related subjects. Basically, it may be troublesome to convey phonetic info in writing, which is among the causes Dōgen’s Japanese Phonetics is a video course.

So why research Japanese phonetics? Properly for one, in a regular Japanese studying surroundings like a classroom, you will in all probability solely cowl the basics of pronunciation, equivalent to the proper pronunciation of kana. Nonetheless, this may solely get you up to now. With out figuring out a bit about phonetics normally, and creating what Dōgen calls “phonetic consciousness,” improperly spoken Japanese can result in misunderstandings, or at the least end in your Japanese sounding a bit odd.

Learning Japanese phonetics will make you simpler to know and enhance your comprehension of spoken Japanese.

One cause is that Japanese has a lot of homophone phrases, like 雨 ame (rain) and 飴 ame (sweet) whose spoken distinction lies of their pitch: for 雨, the あ a is pronounced with a excessive tone, and the め me is pronounced with a low tone. Then again, あ a in 飴 is pronounced with a low tone and め me is pronounced with a excessive tone. Japanese and English use totally different phonetic techniques, so this comparability is not one-to-one, however take into consideration somebody saying “resort” with the emphasis on the primary syllable as a substitute of the second, as in “HO-tel” relatively than the accepted “ho-TEL.” Whereas this instance is relatively benign, related conditions may nonetheless impede communication, or in additional excessive circumstances, stop understanding completely.

Total, learning Japanese phonetics in-depth alongside basic Japanese language research is not going to solely make your spoken Japanese sound extra pure, however can even make you simpler to know and enhance your comprehension of spoken Japanese.

Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen

a photo of Dogen with a pitch accent diagram

Now that I’ve coated a bit about why it is essential to check Japanese phonetics, let’s speak about what makes Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen so particular. Dōgen prefaces the course by explaining that he created it after he realized how few phonetic sources can be found for native English-speakers who’re studying Japanese.

The course is expansive, consisting of over 80 classes, all out there for a $10 per 30 days subscription charge. Over these 80 classes, Dōgen covers all the pieces from the reasoning behind learning phonetics, the pitch accents that exist in Japanese, specifics equivalent to the usual Japanese talking type and voice, and much more area of interest subjects like pitch-accent patterns in names, numbers, and titles.

Since launching the course in 2016, Dōgen hasn’t rested on his laurels regardless of “finishing” all of the content material, and as a substitute continues to increase the course with supplementary classes (these are denoted by decimals as in, lesson 5.1 nestled between classes 5 and 6), livestream Q&As, and up to date variations of his authentic classes with native-Japanese speech recordings.

Who’s Dōgen?

So, who’s Dōgen, and why did he create this course on Japanese phonetics, you ask?

Virtually all the Japanese spoken within the course comes by way of native recordings.

Dōgen, the nom de plume of Kevin O’Donnell, is an American now dwelling in Beppu, Japan. You may instantly recoil to listen to {that a} course centered on enhancing your Japanese pronunciation is taught by a non-native speaker, however nearly all the Japanese spoken within the course comes by way of native recordings — notably the Japanese meant as a reference. What’s taught right here is “normal”, Tokyo-dialect Japanese, which you’ll discover in nearly any textbook or course.

Dōgen’s curiosity in phonetics, which he centered on whereas learning overseas at Keio College in Tokyo, cached right into a deep understanding of its significance in language-learning. Now, we will all profit from his years of research and the sources he’s collected in a complete, easy-to-understand format. Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen is extraordinarily thorough, balancing each sensible and theoretical information about phonetics, and laying a great basis to construct on earlier than delving into extra area of interest subjects like pitch-accent in honorifics.

Course Construction

a screenshot of the japanese phonetics index page

Dōgen’s course is organized related to a school course, with an introduction, totally different sections specializing in totally different subjects, and at last some particular subjects to shut out the course. There is a hyperlinked digital index of every lesson so that you can comply with alongside so as or leap straight to a subject that pursuits you. As I’ll speak about slightly later, sure subjects construct on each other, however there’s additionally a number of standalone classes, or totally different sections that work impartial of each other. There’s additionally a bibliography, the place Dōgen lists all of his sources so you possibly can check with the unique supply materials should you so select (observe that many of those are in Japanese). Along with the written bibliography, he additionally tends to point out citations on display screen.

Within the subsequent part I am going to break down the detailed construction of the course into roughly 4 elements. Half one consists of classes 1–4, the place Dōgen outlines the what and why of the course and talks about his private language-learning background. Half Two (classes 5–32) is restricted to pitch-accent, Half Three (classes 32–57) covers basic pronunciation, from particular sounds to subjects equivalent to lengthy vowels or devoicing, and Half 4 (classes 58–80) covers extra particular subjects, equivalent to pitch accents in names and titles, or in counter phrases.

Elements 1 & 2: Course Abstract & Pitch Accent

As I discussed, the primary few episodes of the course are laid out like a video syllabus, introducing the course and his background as a trainer. First, Dōgen describes what phonetics is, and why it is an essential and sometimes missed a part of Japanese language research. He particulars a little bit of his personal research background and why he locations such significance on the phonetic research in spoken language and the steps he took to work on enhancing his pronunciation. He then lays the groundwork for among the strategies you possibly can apply instantly to start “constructing phonetic consciousness” as he places it, which means the flexibility to precisely decide appropriate pitch-accent in spoken Japanese, and to establish and deal with the errors in your personal speech.

Dogen lays the groundwork for among the strategies to start constructing phonetic consciousness.

Lastly, he has a video that’s nearly two hours in size with Matt from the Matt vs Japan YouTube channel the place they try to stipulate a long-term research plan for Japanese, giving recommendation on the multi-year course of to go from primary to superior. Whereas I like the thought of building a research define for a scholar to progress alongside and reference, a couple of of the positions espoused close to the beginning of the course are a bit excessive for me. Dōgen appears to melt on this a bit because the course progresses, however within the early classes particularly, he goes as far as to recommend placing each different side of Japanese research on maintain for as much as a 12 months whilst you focus completely on phonetics. Whereas phonetics is actually an essential part of studying the language, this method might trigger a number of frustration and may even hinder your general progress. To me, it feels like a fast-track to burnout.

Whereas I agree that reaching a high-level of Japanese is a years-long course of, for most individuals, I feel a regular research plan specializing in grammar, vocabulary, and dealing towards a objective of accessing native materials as quickly as doable is a extra environment friendly technique. I do not essentially disagree with all of the factors they make, however there is not any single finest method to research. My private advice could be to work on phonetics alongside extra normal research strategies. Virtually everybody has some kind of an accent in a second language; no must unduly stress about it. That’s to not say it’s not value learning, however I’d put it in perspective.


To correctly research phonetics, it helps to have a primary understanding of key ideas and phrases earlier than beginning out in earnest. Moreover, Dōgen notes early on that correcting errors in your personal Japanese pronunciation is troublesome with out the requisite phonetic information. Consider it like the inspiration of grammar and vocabulary you’ve out of your first language; with that, not solely are you able to skip the arduous work of explaining primary ideas like “automotive” or “baseball,” however having a knowledge-base to reference and perceive useful grammatical ideas equivalent to “clause” or “adjective,” may help pace up the language-learning course of.

The course focuses on giving the rules and patterns to assist empower learners to determine pronunciation.

Fortunately, establishing this information is Dōgen’s first order of enterprise. The course focuses way more on giving the rules and patterns to assist empower learners to determine pronunciation, relatively than merely operating via frequent errors or particular person phrases. The primary few classes define these philosophies and set expectations for the course.

Dōgen additionally covers some frequent misconceptions about Japanese phonetics, equivalent to the concept Japanese is a “flat” or non-inflected language, or that learning phonetics is pointless since there’s regional variance in what’s thought of “correct” pronunciation. Mainly, this part is about placing a scholar in the precise mindset to check Japanese phonetics, and emphasizes why that is such an essential apply.


After the roughly 45-minute introduction (and two-hour research plan video), the course actually will get getting into Episode 5. On this episode, Dōgen defines among the key terminology used within the course which is a giant assist for learners who have not studied phonetics beforehand. For instance, Dōgen defines “pitch” as purely the tones utilized in a language. As a pitch-accent language, that is important info for Japanese learners. The accent distinguishing phrases is conveyed by means of two tones in Japanese, high and low. It is a distinction between English, a stress-accent language, through which one syllable in a phrase sometimes is emphasised relative to the opposite syllables, and as such is pronounced with extra power and an extended length than the opposite syllables (this tends to barely enhance the pitch, too).

By studying a couple of key ideas and guidelines of Japanese phonetics, you possibly can drastically enhance your pronunciation.

This may be a revelation for native-English-speaking college students of Japanese, and it actually was for me. As English and Japanese function on completely totally different techniques of pronunciation, you possibly can’t simply map the pronunciation type you are used to as an English speaker and count on it to sound pure. By studying a couple of key ideas and guidelines of Japanese phonetics, you possibly can drastically enhance your pronunciation.

Dōgen goes on to outline a lot of phrases. These embrace:

Stress An emphasis positioned on a syllable, typically introduced as extra power, longer length, and barely increased pitch than the encircling syllables
Accent Each the overall talking type somebody possesses in addition to an emphasis utilized to a part of a phrase
Downstep A drop in pitch which constitutes the “accent” in Japanese phrases, versus a careworn or emphasised syllable
Intonation The modifications in pitch based mostly on a speaker’s feelings or intent — take into consideration the way you increase pitch to point you are asking a query, for instance

Then ranging from lesson 8, he outlines the 4 primary pitch-accent patterns. For instance, within the “atamadaka” sample, the primary mora is excessive, and each different mora and the particle are low, whereas with “nakadaka” the primary mora is low, second mora excessive, and in some unspecified time in the future a downstep happens earlier than the particle attaches low. Sound intimidating? Do not fret, Dōgen provides additional suggestions that will help you internalize this type of info. For the essential pitch accent patterns, for instance, he additionally outlines two guidelines: the pitch of the primary and second mora in any remoted phrase are at all times totally different (both low-high or high-low, however by no means high-high, for instance), and any phrase that has a downstep will not ever return to a excessive pitch throughout the similar phrase — as soon as a drop happens, a phrase’s pitch stays low.

Earlier than Dōgen’s course I had by no means seen this info conveyed so precisely or concisely.

Just like studying the kana syllabaries, studying the 4 primary pitch-accent patterns and these accompanying guidelines and phrases represents step one in understanding and enhancing your personal Japanese pronunciation. Earlier than Dōgen’s course I had by no means seen this info conveyed so precisely or concisely. With out this framework to use to your understanding, you’d in all probability must apply merely mimicking native Japanese pronunciation. Mimicry continues to be essential, however this construction will provide you with a concrete foothold you would not have in any other case.

After all, all this theoretical information is just half of the equation. Dōgen additionally presents a lot of ideas on practising to assist your phonetic consciousness past merely gaining an understanding of the underlying rules.

Dōgen additionally presents a lot of ideas on practising to assist your phonetic consciousness.

At the start, he recommends recording your self talking Japanese. It isn’t unusual for there to be a niche between the way in which you suppose you are saying one thing, and the way in which you are really saying it. One cause for that is that habits may be troublesome to interrupt — should you’ve internalized one pronunciation of a phrase, it may be troublesome to vary that behavior until you are conscious that you simply’re making a mistake.

He additionally recommends watching a single film or TV present on repeat, till you’ve got almost memorized all the dialogue. By means of this course of, Dōgen suggests you will create a kind of inside financial institution saved in your long-term reminiscence, that you would be able to evaluate in opposition to when looking for a reference. I am undecided how properly this could work in apply, however internalizing phonetics via memorization of native speech is nice apply.

I typically find yourself shadowing most native Japanese movies I watch, nearly habitually repeating traces that stick out to me. Nonetheless, Dōgen notes that with this method, you will shortly neglect the data as quickly as you progress on to the subsequent half. By repeating the identical video many times — say, a selected episode or two of a TV sequence, or a film — you will internalize not solely the road itself, however the pronunciation and accent a lot better.

The exams and workout routines actually make Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen a way more full course.

Past these advisable practices exterior the course, a number of movies within the Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen course act as apply or a take a look at. In Episode 6.1, Dōgen provides a apply train the place you alter the pitch however do not add stress on a mora, serving to to transition you from a stress-accent perspective right into a pitch-accent one. Episode 6.2 has a sequence of listening drills, with the 4 pitch-accent patterns utilized to pretend Japanese phrases. At first, these are proven with pitch-accent graphics, after which with out, after which randomized so you possibly can take a look at your listening skill. Episodes 11, 24, and 32 are additionally exams, with listening drills that take a look at your skill to discern pitch-accent on phrases, although this time they don’t seem to be made-up.

These exams and workout routines actually make Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen a way more full course. Whereas I might nonetheless suggest shadowing apply, recording your self, and testing your comprehension elsewhere like with コツ’s Minimal Pairs take a look at, having some apply workout routines and exams included within the course actually highlights what a one-stop-shop it’s.

a screenshot of a lesson discussing free japanese phonetic resources

In an extra episode (out there totally free right here!), Dōgen relays some additional sources he recommends to assist research pitch-accent. It is a nice instance of how the course isn’t restricted to the data he conveys immediately, but additionally presents methods and sources so that you can proceed studying by yourself.

Among the finest sources he recommends is an internet site referred to as Prosody Tutor Suzuki Kun. He describes this web site as nearly like Google Translate for pitch-accent. The web site has a big textual content subject, and pasting in Japanese textual content and clicking a button labeled “Analyze” will generate a pattern spectrograph and pitch-accent chart that present each the general pitch of a phrase or phrase, in addition to the place the drops in pitch happen. There’s additionally an choice to generate an audio pattern, although that is machine-generated. Nonetheless, it is particularly useful to have the ability to pair each the graphs with a recording, even one which’s machine-generated. Utilizing that as a base, and practising shadowing from there ought to be an efficient technique to extend your personal phonetic consciousness.

Lastly, Dōgen gives two Anki decks for memorizing pitch-accents, with native recordings on every card. For college students who swear by Anki, this can be a huge assist.

Mixed, these sources ought to make learning Japanese phonetics a lot simpler.

Past his advisable sources, one among my private suggestions is a Chrome Browser Extension referred to as jisho-pitcher. This extension provides pitch-accent graphs to most entries on Jisho.org, one of many premier on-line Japanese-to-English dictionaries. With this, whenever you search for a phrase, you may as well see the pitch-accent sample, just like the pitch-accent info that is included on all Apple computer systems, however accessible to anybody no matter your working system.

Mixed, these sources ought to make learning Japanese phonetics a lot simpler, as they offer you the instruments to find out the pitch accent of phrases or phrases with out having to rely solely on sourcing examples from native audio system whereas partaking with native materials.

A Deeper Dive: Elements 3 & 4

a photo of Dogen talking into a mic

As thorough because the part on pitch-accent is, that is solely about half the course. That is solely pure, because it’s referred to as Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen, not Japanese Pitch-Accent by Dōgen.

The subsequent portion of the course offers with pronunciation in a extra particular sense, equivalent to vowel mixtures like あい ai in Episode 37, nasalized ん n in Episode 55, and slurring in spoken Japanese in 56, adopted by a Q&A in Episode 57. Nonetheless, an important episode on this part, and maybe the whole sequence, is Episode 33 which covers devoicing. Dōgen even says to start with he thinks the data contained on this episode might have the best sensible impact on somebody’s spoken Japanese.

Crucial episode in maybe the whole sequence, is Episode 33 which covers devoicing.

Nonetheless, the majority of this part is devoted to episodes protecting the pronunciation of Japanese sounds. For instance, Episode 42 covers the consonant “s,” as in さ sa, す su, せ se, そ so, and し shi. These episodes are extraordinarily detailed, with native recordings, comparisons to English sounds, in addition to diagrams of the top to point out tongue placement and related bodily parameters. In my expertise, Japanese classroom research tends to rely closely on mimicking the trainer when studying the sounds current in Japanese, as a apply that goes hand-in-hand with studying kana. It is a good first step, however the stage of element Dōgen provides on this course reveals what we have been lacking all alongside.

The subsequent part, Episode 58 via the ultimate Episode 80, covers extra specialised subjects. For instance, Episode 62 covers pitch-accents patterns and tips in frequent Japanese first names, and Episode 67 covers pitch-accent tips in complicated quantity compounds, equivalent to 2426. These classes are actually area of interest, and positively lean in direction of the 20% relatively than the 80% of the 80-20 rule.

Whereas these will not have fairly the instant, noticeable influence in your spoken Japanese of the episode on devoicing or on standard-Japanese talking type, I feel they’re very nice additions, and present Dōgen’s dedication to the subject at hand. In any case, a language is constructed of many elements, from nouns, verbs, and adjectives, to names, counter phrases, adverbs, and extra. By giving consideration to so many points relatively than simply sticking to the broad guidelines, Dōgen has set a scholar up for the best quantity of enchancment in their very own Japanese pronunciation.

So, How Properly Does it Work?

Total, Dōgen’s phonetics course is one thing nearly wholly distinctive within the Japanese language-learning house. Dōgen does an amazing job balancing the data conveyed and discovering a center floor between what you’ll want to know to enhance your pronunciation and avoiding what may not be helpful, whereas nonetheless supplying you with the sources to take a deeper dive on something that pursuits you (there is a very thorough bibliography, and sources are at all times cited).

Dōgen’s phonetics course is one thing nearly wholly distinctive within the Japanese language-learning house.

After all, not each lesson is equally as useful to everybody, so which elements of the course you concentrate on will possible rely in your particular targets. Some, just like the episodes on pitch-accent guidelines and devoicing, are instantly relevant to your pronunciation, whereas others, like among the extra in-depth guidelines, will take a short while to settle in. Personally, I actually appreciated the primary half of the course, each to hit the bottom operating with pitch-accent consciousness, and to start out changing into extra accustomed to the overall guidelines, however among the extra area of interest classes within the second half weren’t fairly as relevant to me proper now.

Past the foundations of Japanese phonetics, Dōgen presents suggestions that anybody can put into apply to enhance their pronunciation instantly. His recommendation is each sensible and theoretical, so you can’t solely enhance your phonetic consciousness for fixed and continuous enchancment, but additionally make instant changes to sound extra pure instantly. That mentioned, a couple of pretty excessive positions on learning given early within the course mixed with the size could give rise to a barely inflated notion of its significance, although to be truthful that is solely partially because of Dōgen’s private stance.

Pitch-accent, pronunciation, and basic phonetics are all essential points of a language, notably for the talking and listening domains, however I feel it is essential to remember the fact that it is a part of language studying relatively than the massive image. Even these with superb pronunciation like Dōgen himself typically have some kind of accent, and I hate to see different college students get hung up on the issue in distinguishing on which mora a downstep happens. As Dōgen reveals via the course, that is one thing you possibly can work on and enhance, however I would not recommend putting an excessive amount of emphasis on it. You’ll be able to nonetheless be taught Japanese to a really excessive diploma with solely a primary understanding of Japanese phonetics.

For the scholars seeking to go above and past, it is easy to suggest Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen.

Nonetheless, for the scholars seeking to go above and past, it is easy to suggest Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen. It is a particularly thorough, considerate, and inexpensive course, with a strong foundational method, interactive apply workout routines, and sensible and theoretical recommendation to level-up your Japanese pronunciation instantly. I’ve by no means seen such a complete useful resource on Japanese phonetics anyplace else, and having this wealth of information so available is nice information for Japanese learners all over the place.

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