I was glancing through a thread about low and high tones on my forum and it made me realize that we don’t treat tones with as much care as we should in Japanese (ie, virtually none). For example, if I were to describe it in Chinese tones, you really do need to pronounce 日本 with something similar to a second and fourth tone. In contrast, 二本 is more like a fourth and neutral tone. And this really could potentially be an issue. What if you said 日本ください instead of 二本ください? Now you’re asking for Japan instead of two bottles! What a わがまま!
Personally, I’ve had times when I would ask somebody about a new word I just learned and the person would have no idea what I was talking about. Then I’d write the word and he/she would say, “Oh you mean [X]!” and pronounce the word exactly the same way but with different pitches. See, without context you really do need to get the tones right.
And sure, context will cover your ass and prevent any mishaps most of the time but is Chinese any different? You know in Rush Hour 2 when Chris Tucker attempts to speak Chinese? It was hilarious but in real life, if you messed up all the tones, it just becomes gibberish. There are a few insidious homophones like eyeglasses vs eyes: 眼睛(yǎnjīng) / 眼鏡(yǎnjìng), but overall context should take care of one or two mistakes. I’ll have to watch that movie again now that I know some Chinese to see if they were really clever enough to teach Chris the wrong tones correctly to actually say the unintentional but hilarious lines.
Chinese has always had a notorious reputation of being insanely difficult due to the tones but I actually think Japanese is more difficult. With Chinese, at least all the tones are laid out and stay (mostly) the same. In contrast, Japanese really has no rules for pronouncing words with the correct pitch and it would probably change anyway depending on how you’re using it. Unlike Chinese, you’ll probably be understandable even with all the wrong tones, but you will still sound foreign and may even be difficult to understand.
We really should start thinking about patterns in Japanese tones and how we could effectively teach students how to pronounce things correctly not just phonetically but on the tonal level. For example, I’ve noticed that long vowels are often a high and flat tone (first tone in Chinese). Just listen to how train announcers pronounce 東京. (Tones are more clearly enunciated in formal settings like announcements and news broadcasts.) I’m sure by just practicing the long vowel sounds in this manner, you can significantly improve your pronunciation and sound more “Japanese”.
Can you think of any other neat tips for getting the right tones?