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Assessment: Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen

For Japanese learners, one of many greatest hindrances might be pronunciation, pitch-accent, and total phonetics. For one, English and Japanese function on totally 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 tough to convey in written format, equivalent to a textbook.

Fortunately for Japanese learners, there’s something you are able to do. Dōgen, who you would possibly know from his YouTube comedy sketches about life in Japan, additionally gives an intensive course on Japanese phonetics delivered through movies on his Patreon. Oh, and he additionally wrote an article for Tofugu on what he makes use of to review).

Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen is without doubt one of the solely such assets for native-English-speaking college students of the Japanese language, and fortuitously additionally probably the greatest. 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. Just a few of Dōgen’s ideas on finding out Japanese early within the course are a bit excessive, however total Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen is a useful useful resource for any Japanese learner who desires to enhance their talking skill. On this article I am going to speak concerning the construction and philosophy behind the course, and the way nicely among the sensible recommendation works.

What Is Phonetics and Why Ought to You Examine 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 plenty of extra comparable matters. Basically, it may be tough to convey phonetic info in writing, which is without doubt one of the causes Dōgen’s Japanese Phonetics is a video course.

So why examine Japanese phonetics? Properly for one, in an ordinary Japanese studying atmosphere like a classroom, you may in all probability solely cowl the basics of pronunciation, equivalent to the proper pronunciation of kana. Nonetheless, this can solely get you up to now. With out realizing a bit about phonetics normally, and creating what Dōgen calls “phonetic consciousness,” improperly spoken Japanese can result in misunderstandings, or not less than end in your Japanese sounding a bit odd.

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

One cause is that Japanese has various 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. However, 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 methods, so this comparability is not one-to-one, however take into consideration somebody saying “lodge” with the emphasis on the primary syllable as an alternative of the second, as in “HO-tel” relatively than the accepted “ho-TEL.” Whereas this instance is relatively benign, comparable conditions would possibly nonetheless impede communication, or in additional excessive circumstances, stop understanding totally.

Total, finding out Japanese phonetics in-depth alongside basic Japanese language examine won’t solely make your spoken Japanese sound extra pure, however may also make you simpler to know and improve your comprehension of spoken Japanese.

Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen

a photo of Dogen with a pitch accent diagram

Now that I’ve lined a bit about why it is vital to review Japanese phonetics, let’s discuss what makes Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen so particular. Dōgen prefaces the course by explaining that he created it after he realized how few phonetic assets 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 thirty days subscription price. Over these 80 classes, Dōgen covers every little thing from the reasoning behind finding out phonetics, the pitch accents that exist in Japanese, specifics equivalent to the usual Japanese talking type and voice, and much more area of interest matters 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 an alternative continues to develop 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?

Nearly the entire Japanese spoken within the course comes through native recordings.

Dōgen, the nom de plume of Kevin O’Donnell, is an American now dwelling in Beppu, Japan. You would possibly instantly recoil to listen to {that a} course centered on bettering your Japanese pronunciation is taught by a non-native speaker, however nearly the entire Japanese spoken within the course comes through 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 finding out 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 examine and the assets he’s collected in a complete, easy-to-understand format. Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen is extraordinarily thorough, balancing each sensible and theoretical data about phonetics, and laying a great basis to construct on earlier than delving into extra area of interest matters like pitch-accent in honorifics.

Course Construction

a screenshot of the japanese phonetics index page

Dōgen’s course is organized comparable to a school course, with an introduction, totally different sections specializing in totally different matters, and at last some particular matters to shut out the course. There is a hyperlinked digital index of every lesson so that you can comply with alongside so as or bounce straight to a subject that pursuits you. As I’ll discuss a bit later, sure matters construct on each other, however there’s additionally a number of standalone classes, or totally different sections that work unbiased of each other. There’s additionally a bibliography, the place Dōgen lists all of his assets so you possibly can confer with the unique supply materials if you happen to so select (be aware that many of those are in Japanese). Along with the written bibliography, he additionally tends to indicate citations on display.

Within the subsequent part I am going to break down the detailed construction of the course into roughly 4 components. 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 matters equivalent to lengthy vowels or devoicing, and Half 4 (classes 58–80) covers extra particular matters, 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 vital and infrequently ignored a part of Japanese language examine. He particulars a little bit of his personal examine background and why he locations such significance on the phonetic examine in spoken language and the steps he took to work on bettering 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 power to precisely decide right pitch-accent in spoken Japanese, and to establish and tackle the errors in your individual 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 examine plan for Japanese, giving recommendation on the multi-year course of to go from primary to superior. Whereas I like the concept of creating a examine define for a scholar to progress alongside and reference, a number 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 counsel placing each different facet of Japanese examine on maintain for as much as a 12 months whilst you focus totally on phonetics. Whereas phonetics is actually an vital part of studying the language, this strategy might trigger a number of frustration and would possibly even hinder your total 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 believe an ordinary examine plan specializing in grammar, vocabulary, and dealing towards a aim of accessing native materials as quickly as attainable is a extra environment friendly technique. I do not essentially disagree with all of the factors they make, however there isn’t any single greatest option to examine. My private suggestion could be to work on phonetics alongside extra normal examine strategies. Nearly everybody has some type of an accent in a second language; no must unduly stress about it. That’s to not say it’s not price finding out, however I’d put it in perspective.


To correctly examine 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 individual Japanese pronunciation is tough with out the requisite phonetic data. Consider it like the muse of grammar and vocabulary you will have out of your first language; with that, not solely are you able to skip the arduous work of explaining primary ideas like “automobile” 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 data 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 working by 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 that Japanese is a “flat” or non-inflected language, or that finding out 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 review Japanese phonetics, and emphasizes why that is such an vital follow.


After the roughly 45-minute introduction (and two-hour examine 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. This can be a distinction between English, a stress-accent language, by 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 improve the pitch, too).

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

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

Dōgen goes on to outline various phrases. These embrace:

Stress An emphasis positioned on a syllable, usually offered as extra power, longer length, and barely larger 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 burdened 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 offers further suggestions that will help you internalize this sort of info. For the fundamental 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 identical 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 bettering your individual 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 should follow merely mimicking native Japanese pronunciation. Mimicry remains to be vital, however this construction gives you a concrete foothold you would not have in any other case.

After all, all this theoretical data is just half of the equation. Dōgen additionally gives various options on working towards to help your phonetic consciousness past merely gaining an understanding of the underlying rules.

Dōgen additionally gives various options on working towards to help your phonetic consciousness.

Before everything, he recommends recording your self talking Japanese. It is not unusual for there to be a spot between the way in which you assume you are saying one thing, and the way in which you are really saying it. One cause for that is that habits might be tough to interrupt — if you happen to’ve internalized one pronunciation of a phrase, it may be tough to alter 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 practically memorized the entire dialogue. By way of this course of, Dōgen suggests you may create a type of inside financial institution saved in your long-term reminiscence, which you could examine towards when searching for a reference. I am unsure how nicely this might work in follow, however internalizing phonetics by memorization of native speech is nice follow.

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

The checks and workouts actually make Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen a way more full course.

Past these beneficial practices exterior the course, a number of movies within the Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen course act as follow or a take a look at. In Episode 6.1, Dōgen offers a follow 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 checks, 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 checks and workouts actually make Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen a way more full course. Whereas I would nonetheless suggest shadowing follow, recording your self, and testing your comprehension elsewhere like with コツ’s Minimal Pairs take a look at, having some follow workouts and checks included within the course actually highlights what a one-stop-shop it’s.

a screenshot of a lesson discussing free japanese phonetic resources

In a further episode (out there without cost right here!), Dōgen relays some additional assets he recommends to assist examine pitch-accent. This can be a nice instance of how the course isn’t restricted to the data he conveys instantly, but additionally gives methods and assets so that you can proceed studying by yourself.

Top-of-the-line assets he recommends is a web site known 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 discipline, 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 working towards shadowing from there needs to be an efficient technique to extend your individual phonetic consciousness.

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

Mixed, these assets ought to make finding out Japanese phonetics a lot simpler.

Past his beneficial assets, considered one of my private suggestions is a Chrome Browser Extension known as jisho-pitcher. This extension provides pitch-accent graphs to most entries on, one of many premier on-line Japanese-to-English dictionaries. With this, if you search for a phrase, you too can 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 assets ought to make finding out 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 known 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 combos 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 your complete sequence, is Episode 33 which covers devoicing. Dōgen even says at first he thinks the data contained on this episode might have the best sensible impact on somebody’s spoken Japanese.

A very powerful episode in maybe your complete 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 pinnacle to indicate tongue placement and comparable bodily parameters. In my expertise, Japanese classroom examine tends to rely closely on mimicking the trainer when studying the sounds current in Japanese, as a follow that goes hand-in-hand with studying kana. This can be a good first step, however the degree of element Dōgen offers on this course reveals what we have been lacking all alongside.

The subsequent part, Episode 58 by the ultimate Episode 80, covers extra specialised matters. For instance, Episode 62 covers pitch-accents patterns and pointers in frequent Japanese first names, and Episode 67 covers pitch-accent pointers 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 affect in your spoken Japanese of the episode on devoicing or on standard-Japanese talking type, I believe they’re very nice additions, and present Dōgen’s dedication to the subject at hand. In spite of everything, a language is constructed of many components, from nouns, verbs, and adjectives, to names, counter phrases, adverbs, and extra. By giving consideration to so many elements 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 might want to know to enhance your pronunciation and avoiding what may not be helpful, whereas nonetheless providing you with the assets 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 components of the course you give attention to will seemingly rely in your particular objectives. 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 preferred the primary half of the course, each to hit the bottom working with pitch-accent consciousness, and to start out turning into extra conversant in 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 gives suggestions that anybody can put into follow to enhance their pronunciation instantly. His recommendation is each sensible and theoretical, so you can’t solely improve your phonetic consciousness for fixed and continuous enchancment, but additionally make instant changes to sound extra pure instantly. That stated, a number of pretty excessive positions on finding out given early within the course mixed with the size could give rise to a barely inflated notion of its significance, although to be honest that is solely partially because of Dōgen’s private stance.

Pitch-accent, pronunciation, and basic phonetics are all vital elements of a language, notably for the talking and listening domains, however I believe it is vital to remember that it is a part of language studying relatively than the large image. Even these with superb pronunciation like Dōgen himself usually have some type 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 by the course, that is one thing you possibly can work on and enhance, however I would not counsel putting an excessive amount of emphasis on it. You possibly can nonetheless be taught Japanese to a really excessive diploma with solely a primary understanding of Japanese phonetics.

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

Nonetheless, for the scholars trying to go above and past, it is simple to suggest Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen. It is an especially thorough, considerate, and inexpensive course, with a strong foundational strategy, interactive follow workouts, 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 data so available is nice information for Japanese learners all over the place.

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