Review: Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen

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For Japanese learners, one of the biggest stumbling blocks can be pronunciation, pitch-accent, and overall phonetics. For one, English and Japanese operate on entirely different phonetic schemes, as English is considered a “stress-accent” language, compared with Japanese, which is a “pitch-accent” language (more on this later!). Phonetics beyond basic pronunciation is rarely taught in-depth in a traditional Japanese language classroom setting, and doing so is difficult to convey in written format, such as a textbook.

Luckily for Japanese learners, there is something you can do. Dōgen, who you might know from his YouTube comedy sketches about life in Japan, also offers an extensive course on Japanese phonetics delivered via videos on his Patreon. Oh, and he also wrote an article for Tofugu on what he uses to study).

Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen is one of the only such resources for native-English-speaking students of the Japanese language, and luckily also one of the best. Dōgen has managed to collect a wealth of information that will not only immediately improve your pronunciation, but give you the tools to continue to make strides on your own. A few of Dōgen’s thoughts on studying Japanese early in the course are a bit extreme, but overall Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen is a valuable resource for any Japanese learner who wants to improve their speaking ability. In this article I’ll talk about the structure and philosophy behind the course, and how well some of the practical advice works.

What Is Phonetics and Why Should You Study It?

Phonetics is a component of general linguistics studies that covers the production and perception of speech in any given language. This concerns items like the sounds a language has, pitch accent, intonation, and many more similar topics. In general, it can be difficult to convey phonetic information in writing, which is one of the reasons Dōgen’s Japanese Phonetics is a video course.

So why study Japanese phonetics? Well for one, in a standard Japanese learning environment like a classroom, you’ll probably only cover the fundamentals of pronunciation, such as the correct pronunciation of kana. However, this will only get you so far. Without knowing a bit about phonetics in general, and developing what Dōgen calls “phonetic awareness,” improperly spoken Japanese can lead to misunderstandings, or at least result in your Japanese sounding a bit odd.

Studying Japanese phonetics will make you easier to understand and increase your comprehension of spoken Japanese.

One reason is that Japanese has a number of homophone words, like 雨 ame (rain) and 飴 ame (candy) whose spoken difference lies in their pitch: for 雨, the あ a is pronounced with a high tone, and the め me is pronounced with a low tone. On the other hand, あ a in 飴 is pronounced with a low tone and め me is pronounced with a high tone. Japanese and English use different phonetic systems, so this comparison isn’t one-to-one, but think about someone pronouncing “hotel” with the emphasis on the first syllable instead of the second, as in “HO-tel” rather than the accepted “ho-TEL.” While this example is rather benign, similar situations might still impede communication, or in more extreme cases, prevent understanding entirely.

Overall, studying Japanese phonetics in-depth alongside general Japanese language study will not only make your spoken Japanese sound more natural, but will also make you easier to understand and increase your comprehension of spoken Japanese.

Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen

a photo of Dogen with a pitch accent diagram

Now that I’ve covered a bit about why it’s important to study Japanese phonetics, let’s talk about what makes Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen so special. Dōgen prefaces the course by explaining that he created it after he realized how few phonetic resources are available for native English-speakers who are learning Japanese.

The course is expansive, consisting of over 80 lessons, all available for a $10 per month subscription fee. Over those 80 lessons, Dōgen covers everything from the reasoning behind studying phonetics, the pitch accents that exist in Japanese, specifics such as the standard Japanese speaking style and voice, and even more niche topics like pitch-accent patterns in names, numbers, and titles.

Since launching the course in 2016, Dōgen hasn’t rested on his laurels despite “completing” all the content, and instead continues to expand the course with supplementary lessons (these are denoted by decimals as in, lesson 5.1 nestled between lessons 5 and 6), livestream Q&As, and updated versions of his original lessons with native-Japanese speech recordings.

Who is Dōgen?

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

Almost all of the Japanese spoken in the course comes via native recordings.

Dōgen, the nom de plume of Kevin O’Donnell, is an American now living in Beppu, Japan. You might immediately recoil to hear that a course focused on improving your Japanese pronunciation is taught by a non-native speaker, but almost all of the Japanese spoken in the course comes via native recordings — particularly the Japanese meant as a reference. What’s taught here is “standard”, Tokyo-dialect Japanese, which you’ll find in almost any textbook or course.

Dōgen’s interest in phonetics, which he focused on while studying abroad at Keio University in Tokyo, cached into a deep understanding of its importance in language-learning. Now, we can all benefit from his years of study and the resources he’s collected in a comprehensive, easy-to-understand format. Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen is extremely thorough, balancing both practical and theoretical knowledge about phonetics, and laying a good foundation to build on before delving into more niche topics like pitch-accent in honorifics.

Course Structure

a screenshot of the japanese phonetics index page

Dōgen’s course is organized similar to a college course, with an introduction, different sections focusing on different topics, and finally some specific topics to close out the course. There’s a hyperlinked digital index of each lesson for you to follow along in order or jump straight to a topic that interests you. As I’ll talk about a little later, certain topics build on one another, but there’s also a lot of standalone lessons, or different sections that work independent of one another. There’s also a bibliography, where Dōgen lists all of his resources so you can refer to the original source material if you so choose (note that many of these are in Japanese). In addition to the written bibliography, he also tends to show citations on screen.

In the next section I’ll break down the detailed structure of the course into roughly four parts. Part one consists of lessons 1–4, where Dōgen outlines the what and why of the course and talks about his personal language-learning background. Part Two (lessons 5–32) is specific to pitch-accent, Part Three (lessons 32–57) covers general pronunciation, from specific sounds to topics such as long vowels or devoicing, and Part Four (lessons 58–80) covers more specific topics, such as pitch accents in names and titles, or in counter words.

Parts 1 & 2: Course Summary & Pitch Accent

As I mentioned, the first few episodes of the course are laid out like a video syllabus, introducing the course and his background as a teacher. First, Dōgen describes what phonetics is, and why it’s an important and often overlooked part of Japanese language study. He details a bit of his own study background and why he places such importance on the phonetic study in spoken language and the steps he took to work on improving his pronunciation. He then lays the groundwork for some of the methods you can apply right away to begin “building phonetic awareness” as he puts it, meaning the ability to accurately determine correct pitch-accent in spoken Japanese, and to identify and address the errors in your own speech.

Dogen lays the groundwork for some of the methods to begin building phonetic awareness.

Finally, he has a video that’s almost two hours in length with Matt from the Matt vs Japan YouTube channel where they attempt to outline a long-term study plan for Japanese, giving advice on the multi-year process to go from basic to advanced. While I like the idea of establishing a study outline for a student to progress along and reference, a few of the positions espoused near the start of the course are a bit extreme for me. Dōgen seems to soften on this a bit as the course progresses, but in the early lessons especially, he goes so far as to suggest putting every other aspect of Japanese study on hold for up to a year while you focus entirely on phonetics. While phonetics is certainly an important component of learning the language, this approach could cause a lot of frustration and might even hinder your overall progress. To me, it sounds like a fast-track to burnout.

While I agree that reaching a high-level of Japanese is a years-long process, for most people, I think a standard study plan focusing on grammar, vocabulary, and working toward a goal of accessing native material as soon as possible is a more efficient method. I don’t necessarily disagree with all the points they make, but there’s no single best way to study. My personal recommendation would be to work on phonetics alongside more standard study methods. Almost everyone has some sort of an accent in a second language; no need to unduly stress about it. That’s not to say it’s not worth studying, but I’d put it in perspective.

Foundation

To properly study phonetics, it helps to have a basic understanding of key concepts and terms before starting out in earnest. Additionally, Dōgen notes early on that correcting errors in your own Japanese pronunciation is difficult without the requisite phonetic knowledge. Think of it like the foundation of grammar and vocabulary you have from your first language; with that, not only can you skip the arduous work of explaining basic concepts like “car” or “baseball,” but having a knowledge-base to reference and understand functional grammatical concepts such as “clause” or “adjective,” can help speed up the language-learning process.

The course focuses on giving the guidelines and patterns to help empower learners to figure out pronunciation.

Luckily, establishing this knowledge is Dōgen’s first order of business. The course focuses much more on giving the guidelines and patterns to help empower learners to figure out pronunciation, rather than simply running through common errors or individual words. The first few lessons outline these philosophies and set expectations for the course.

Dōgen also covers some common misconceptions about Japanese phonetics, such as the idea that Japanese is a “flat” or non-inflected language, or that studying phonetics is pointless since there’s regional variance in what’s considered “proper” pronunciation. Basically, this section is about putting a student in the right mindset to study Japanese phonetics, and emphasizes why this is such an important practice.

Terminology

After the roughly 45-minute introduction (and two-hour study plan video), the course really gets going in Episode 5. In this episode, Dōgen defines some of the key terminology used in the course which is a big help for learners who haven’t studied phonetics previously. For example, Dōgen defines “pitch” as purely the tones used in a language. As a pitch-accent language, this is essential information for Japanese learners. The accent distinguishing words is conveyed by the use of two tones in Japanese, low and high. This is a contrast between English, a stress-accent language, in which one syllable in a word typically is emphasized relative to the other syllables, and as such is pronounced with more force and a longer duration than the other syllables (this tends to slightly increase the pitch, too).

By learning a few key concepts and rules of Japanese phonetics, you can drastically improve your pronunciation.

This might be a revelation for native-English-speaking students of Japanese, and it certainly was for me. As English and Japanese operate on entirely different systems of pronunciation, you can’t just map the pronunciation style you’re used to as an English speaker and expect it to sound natural. By learning a few key concepts and rules of Japanese phonetics, you can drastically improve your pronunciation.

Dōgen goes on to define a number of terms. These include:

Stress An emphasis placed on a syllable, often presented as more force, longer duration, and slightly higher pitch than the surrounding syllables
Accent Both the general speaking style someone possesses as well as an emphasis applied to part of a word
Downstep A drop in pitch which constitutes the “accent” in Japanese words, as opposed to a stressed or emphasized syllable
Intonation The changes in pitch based on a speaker’s emotions or intent — think about how you raise pitch to indicate you’re asking a question, for example

Then starting from lesson 8, he outlines the four basic pitch-accent patterns. For example, in the “atamadaka” pattern, the first mora is high, and every other mora and the particle are low, whereas with “nakadaka” the first mora is low, second mora high, and at some point a downstep occurs before the particle attaches low. Sound intimidating? Don’t fret, Dōgen gives extra tips to help you internalize this kind of information. For the basic pitch accent patterns, for example, he also outlines two rules: the pitch of the first and second mora in any isolated word are always different (either low-high or high-low, but never high-high, for example), and any word that has a downstep won’t ever go back to a high pitch within the same word — once a drop occurs, a word’s pitch stays low.

Before Dōgen’s course I had never seen this information conveyed so accurately or concisely.

Similar to learning the kana syllabaries, learning the four basic pitch-accent patterns and these accompanying rules and terms represents the first step in understanding and improving your own Japanese pronunciation. Before Dōgen’s course I had never seen this information conveyed so accurately or concisely. Without this framework to apply to your understanding, you’d probably have to practice simply mimicking native Japanese pronunciation. Mimicry is still important, but this structure will give you a concrete foothold you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Of course, all this theoretical knowledge is only half of the equation. Dōgen also offers a number of suggestions on practicing to aid your phonetic awareness beyond simply gaining an understanding of the underlying principles.

Dōgen also offers a number of suggestions on practicing to aid your phonetic awareness.

First and foremost, he recommends recording yourself speaking Japanese. It’s not uncommon for there to be a gap between the way you think you’re pronouncing something, and the way you’re actually pronouncing it. One reason for this is that habits can be difficult to break — if you’ve internalized one pronunciation of a word, it can be difficult to change that habit unless you’re aware that you’re making a mistake.

He also recommends watching a single movie or TV show on repeat, until you’ve nearly memorized all of the dialogue. Through this process, Dōgen suggests you’ll create a sort of internal bank stored in your long-term memory, that you can compare against when seeking a reference. I’m not sure how well this would work in practice, but internalizing phonetics through memorization of native speech is great practice.

I often end up shadowing most native Japanese videos I watch, almost habitually repeating lines that stick out to me. However, Dōgen notes that with this approach, you’ll quickly forget the information as soon as you move on to the next part. By repeating the same video again and again — say, a specific episode or two of a TV series, or a movie — you’ll internalize not only the line itself, but the pronunciation and accent much better.

The tests and exercises really make Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen a much more complete course.

Beyond those recommended practices outside the course, several videos in the Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen course act as practice or a test. In Episode 6.1, Dōgen gives a practice exercise where you change the pitch but don’t add stress on a mora, helping to transition you from a stress-accent perspective into a pitch-accent one. Episode 6.2 has a series of listening drills, with the four pitch-accent patterns applied to fake Japanese words. At first, these are shown with pitch-accent graphics, and then without, and then randomized so you can test your listening ability. Episodes 11, 24, and 32 are also tests, with listening drills that test your ability to discern pitch-accent on words, though this time they’re not made-up.

These tests and exercises really make Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen a much more complete course. While I’d still recommend shadowing practice, recording yourself, and testing your comprehension in other places like with コツ’s Minimal Pairs test, having some practice exercises and tests included in the course really highlights what a one-stop-shop it is.

a screenshot of a lesson discussing free japanese phonetic resources

In an additional episode (available for free here!), Dōgen relays some further resources he recommends to help study pitch-accent. This is a great example of how the course isn’t limited to the information he conveys directly, but also offers strategies and resources for you to continue learning on your own.

One of the best resources he recommends is a website called Prosody Tutor Suzuki Kun. He describes this website as almost like Google Translate for pitch-accent. The website has a large text field, and pasting in Japanese text and clicking a button labeled “Analyze” will generate a sample spectrograph and pitch-accent chart that show both the overall pitch of a word or phrase, as well as where the drops in pitch occur. There’s also an option to generate an audio sample, though this is machine-generated. Still, it’s especially handy to be able to pair both the graphs with a recording, even one that’s machine-generated. Using that as a base, and practicing shadowing from there should be an effective method to increase your own phonetic awareness.

Finally, Dōgen provides two Anki decks for memorizing pitch-accents, with native recordings on each card. For students who swear by Anki, this is a big help.

Combined, these resources should make studying Japanese phonetics much easier.

Beyond his recommended resources, one of my personal recommendations is a Chrome Browser Extension called jisho-pitcher. This extension adds pitch-accent graphs to most entries on Jisho.org, one of the premier online Japanese-to-English dictionaries. With this, when you look up a word, you can also see the pitch-accent pattern, similar to the pitch-accent information that’s included on all Apple computers, but accessible to anyone regardless of your operating system.

Combined, these resources should make studying Japanese phonetics much easier, as they provide you with the tools to determine the pitch accent of words or phrases without having to rely only on sourcing examples from native speakers while engaging with native material.

A Deeper Dive: Parts 3 & 4

a photo of Dogen talking into a mic

As thorough as the section on pitch-accent is, that’s only about half the course. This is only natural, as it’s called Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen, not Japanese Pitch-Accent by Dōgen.

The next portion of the course deals with pronunciation in a more specific sense, such as vowel combinations like あい ai in Episode 37, nasalized ん n in Episode 55, and slurring in spoken Japanese in 56, followed by a Q&A in Episode 57. However, the most important episode in this section, and perhaps the entire series, is Episode 33 which covers devoicing. Dōgen even says in the beginning he thinks the information contained in this episode could have the greatest practical effect on someone’s spoken Japanese.

The most important episode in perhaps the entire series, is Episode 33 which covers devoicing.

However, the bulk of this section is dedicated to episodes covering the pronunciation of Japanese sounds. For example, Episode 42 covers the consonant “s,” as in さ sa, す su, せ se, そ so, and し shi. These episodes are extremely detailed, with native recordings, comparisons to English sounds, as well as diagrams of the head to show tongue placement and similar physical parameters. In my experience, Japanese classroom study tends to rely heavily on mimicking the teacher when learning the sounds present in Japanese, as a practice that goes hand-in-hand with learning kana. This is a good first step, but the level of detail Dōgen gives in this course shows what we’ve been missing all along.

The next section, Episode 58 through the final Episode 80, covers more specialized topics. For example, Episode 62 covers pitch-accents patterns and guidelines in common Japanese first names, and Episode 67 covers pitch-accent guidelines in complex number compounds, such as 2426. These lessons are really niche, and definitely lean towards the 20% rather than the 80% of the 80-20 rule.

While these won’t have quite the immediate, noticeable impact on your spoken Japanese of the episode on devoicing or on standard-Japanese speaking style, I think they’re really nice additions, and show Dōgen’s commitment to the topic at hand. After all, a language is constructed of many parts, from nouns, verbs, and adjectives, to names, counter words, adverbs, and more. By giving attention to so many aspects rather than just sticking to the broad rules, Dōgen has set a student up for the greatest amount of improvement in their own Japanese pronunciation.

So, How Well Does it Work?

Overall, Dōgen’s phonetics course is something almost wholly unique in the Japanese language-learning space. Dōgen does a great job balancing the information conveyed and finding a middle ground between what you need to know to improve your pronunciation and avoiding what might not be useful, while still giving you the resources to take a deeper dive on anything that interests you (there’s a very thorough bibliography, and sources are always cited).

Dōgen’s phonetics course is something almost wholly unique in the Japanese language-learning space.

Of course, not every lesson is equally as valuable to everyone, so which parts of the course you focus on will likely depend on your specific goals. Some, like the episodes on pitch-accent rules and devoicing, are immediately applicable to your pronunciation, while others, like some of the more in-depth rules, will take a little while to settle in. Personally, I really liked the first half of the course, both to hit the ground running with pitch-accent awareness, and to start becoming more familiar with the general rules, but some of the more niche lessons in the second half weren’t quite as applicable to me right now.

Beyond the rules of Japanese phonetics, Dōgen offers tips that anyone can put into practice to improve their pronunciation right away. His advice is both practical and theoretical, so you can not only increase your phonetic awareness for constant and continual improvement, but also make immediate adjustments to sound more natural right away. That said, a few fairly extreme positions on studying given early in the course combined with the length may give rise to a slightly inflated perception of its importance, though to be fair this is only partially due to Dōgen’s personal stance.

Pitch-accent, pronunciation, and general phonetics are all important aspects of a language, particularly for the speaking and listening domains, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that it’s a component of language learning rather than the big picture. Even those with very good pronunciation like Dōgen himself often have some sort of accent, and I hate to see other students get hung up on the difficulty in distinguishing on which mora a downstep occurs. As Dōgen shows through the course, this is something you can work on and improve, but I wouldn’t suggest placing too much emphasis on it. You can still learn Japanese to a very high degree with only a basic understanding of Japanese phonetics.

For the students looking to go above and beyond, it’s easy to recommend Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen.

However, for the students looking to go above and beyond, it’s easy to recommend Japanese Phonetics by Dōgen. It’s an extremely thorough, thoughtful, and affordable course, with a solid foundational approach, interactive practice exercises, and practical and theoretical advice to level-up your Japanese pronunciation right away. I’ve never seen such a comprehensive resource on Japanese phonetics anywhere else, and having this wealth of knowledge so readily available is great news for Japanese learners everywhere.

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