MattVsKhatz (noticing pitch accent)

(Dogen should also be included in the mix but I couldn’t resist the title pun :slight_smile: )

So, a recent series of videos from Matt, Dogen and Khatz have all converged on this topic of pitch accent at around the same time, and while there were no new revelations or anything, seeing their different perspectives laid out at the same time did get me thinking about where AJATT is lacking, and other ways that AJATT could be improved.

On the one hand, you have Khatz who doesn’t find it enjoyable to do conscious study of pitch accent, and instead prefers to watch TV and just imitate their accents, even if it means sacrificing a bit of perfection for enjoyment. On the other hand, you have Matt and Dogen who recount that they never automatically noticed pitch accent despite lots of listening, and ultimately turned to a more conscious and deliberate approach to studying it. Their knowledge is impressive, and maybe their results are closer to perfect (going by Kaz’s nitpicking videos), but they also describe having to do more conscious monitoring.

I think there’s enough evidence to conclude that doing AJATT does not mean your Japanese ability will end up like Khatz’s. Perhaps there are contingent reasons related to the individual’s unique background, experiences, other interests, strengths etc. that predispose them to be better at noticing. But what about the people who don’t have that predisposition? I suspect vanilla AJATT won’t work for them, and I suspect that’s the majority. There’s essentially a gaping hole in AJATT where there is a lack of advice on how to improve one’s ability to notice.

To me, the interesting question is:

  • What are the hidden or unstated tips/advice/techniques/mindsets that Khatz may have used himself which contributed to his higher-than-average ability to notice but which perhaps he didn’t share in sufficient detail to people who followed his guide? What did he do to notice that others didn’t do?

For Khatz, I suspect his predisposition comes from a hobby that he had when he was an early teen, which was to imitate people’s accents (e.g. imitating famous actors, or accents of foreign languages, for fun). This is a hobby shared by Richard Simcott, who liked to even do impressions of native speakers of foreign language B trying to speak in foreign language C. E.g. an Englishman speaking French with an Austrian accent. If that’s a hobby you enjoy, you are probably in a much better position to notice pitch accent while trying to imitating people on Japanese TV.

Could that hobby actually be a prerequisite to doing well with vanilla AJATT? More generally, can you think of any other things that could help someone to become better at noticing features of the language?

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I mean, if you want a big one you could use the fact that he’s a native speaker of an African tonal language, but I don’t see how focusing on the advantages Khatz had is all that productive. It just seems like it could be kind of defeatist if you take it too far. Maybe because when I started getting good at Japanese people around me suddenly switched from “You’ll never get good at the language!” to “You’re so naturally talented! It must be in your genes! I could never do that!” almost overnight, so I’ve become warier of some things.

As for noticing pitch accent, maybe music would help? Not sure, since I haven’t studied pitch accent, but I’ve been able to figure out basic melodies on the piano by ear since I was little, and I’ve always tried to sing along with songs in different languages by imitating the sounds. I did this with Japanese for a while too before I began studying it. Then I progressed to singing along with j-pop songs with lyrics. When I took a Japanese class I was surprised how many of my classmates had thick accents. Only me and the one classmate who had just come back from Japan pronounced Japanese in a way that didn’t bring to mind one of those foreigners in J-dramas and anime who pronounce Japanese like English. I received full points for pronunciation (though the bar was so low I’m not sure how much it counts) and I hadn’t studied Japanese prior to that class aside from singing along with songs. I don’t know how much of that, if any, also applies to pitch accent though.


You could be on to something although it could be the combination of music and imitation, and maybe less so music alone. When I was a kid, I used to listen to movie music and ad jingles on the TV and try to reproduce them on the piano. It was a fun game that by no intentional design on my part taught me to be really observant about melodies, harmonies and rhythms. I think there may have been a bit of chance involved where I took it to the level where I tried to reproduce as much of the detail as I could. At music school, I noticed that my class mates, for example, did not seem to pay as much attention to harmonies as I did, they would primarily hear the melody and the rhythm. So in this sense, not noticing all the layers in the harmony is a bit like not noticing the pitch accent and intonation in Japanese. In both cases, if you leave this dimension out, you’ll still communicate the message clearly and it’ll still be understood, making it the least significant detail in terms of communication. But if you leave out the melody or mess up the rhythm, the music may become unrecognisable, and if you leave out words or mess up grammar, you’re sentence may also become unrecognisable.

But I’m convinced that if my class mates had found the music imitation game as fun as I did, they’d inevitably take it to the level where they’d start paying attention to all of those less noticeable details.

Perhaps you’re right that the music listening skills might transfer to language to some extent. I remember having a similar experience to you when studying Korean at a language school, and noticing the vast majority of students could not notice the difference in how they were pronouncing a vowel and how the teacher was pronouncing it. I definitely wouldn’t say I could see it everything clearly, though. We can only notice mistakes up to about our current level, and we are unaware of anything much higher than that.

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I agree with the general sentiment but I think Ryan was actually asking about hidden steps that may be actionable but didn’t get mentioned by Khatz because he didn’t do them for the sake of learning Japanese.

Khatz being a native speaker of a tonal language is also pretty vital info to have when comparing his advice to Dogen and Matt’s, since it actually reveals they are talking about different things. Matt and Dogen are discussing how to learn something new that doesn’t exist in your native language. Khatz is talking about learning how a familiar concept applies differently to Japanese. Quality of advice aside, that alone says a lot about which person’s advice we should each be taking.

I’ve noticed this seems to be a common thread amongst musicians with good aural skills. The standard chicken and egg argument could be made about talent making the game fun, but I think you’re right that this is mainly about practice.

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Pitch accent is something I’ve found difficult to pick up naturally simply by hearing/speaking the language a lot. I’ve wondered about musicality having an effect as I am tone deaf, and I seemed to make more progress in seeing what I was doing wrong by reading about the basic rules of pitch accent in this book on Japanese pronunciation and then practicing with a native speaker then from what I was able to notice myself through listening. I was long able to tell I had a distinctive American accent compared to a native speaker, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly where I was going wrong by just listening.

I’ve kind of wondered about the effects of knowing a tonal language. I studied Chinese, too, a little bit in college and was never able to get the hang of proper intonation with Chinese tones, either. On the other hand, I’ve met many Chinese speakers of Japanese who speak the language with a distinct Chinese accent where it sounds, at least to me with my limited knowledge and tin ears, that the Chinese tones and similarity of many of the kanji readings between the languages causes quite a bit of interference in speaking. So, I’m not necessarily convinced that knowledge of a tonal language necessarily translates directly to pitch accent mastery for the majority of learners, either.


I was just reading an article about tone deafness and it points out that there are actually differences in brain matter in subjects with true tone deafness. One interesting paragraph also connects music and language:

Some experts believe there’s a great deal of overlap between how the brain handles music and how it handles speech, which also has elements of pitch and rhythm. Others, though, believe that musical perception and thinking occur separately from other functions, and that our brains are predisposed toward developing centers and networks dedicated exclusively to music.

On your L1 conferring benefits when learning a particular L2, this clearly has to be true, and to me it’s mainly the overall distance between L1 and L2 that matters, factoring in all the dimensions of the language, like the phonology, pitch accent and everything else. One way to be reminded of this is that Japanese speakers are probably not in the easiest of positions to learn English pronunciation, because there are so many vowel and consonant sounds in English that they’ve simply never tuned into before given their L1, not to mention stress, articles, and the fact that the concept of not having vowels between consonants often doesn’t compute.

But for this one particular facet of tonality, we also need to be careful in guessing what we think the distance is between say Dholuo and Japanese. I really don’t know enough about Dholuo to conclude anything, but like @htrk I’m a bit skeptical that just having a tonal L1 should confer such a big benefit on its own. For example, I’ve heard many Chinese people speak English, and for those that have strong accents, it does not seem like they have “noticed” that our intonation is different in all the ways you might expect they should if that tonal feature of their L1 is supposed to make them more aware of it. My theory is that they had incorrect pronunciation drilled into their minds in their English classes by their teachers who were mostly Chinese, and they would probably have developed their inner ability to notice more by becoming addicted to English TV shows.

In any case, though, even if having a tonal L1 is a significant benefit on its own, we can’t change our L1 :wink: I don’t worry too much about this, as I think there are probably other significant factors that are within our control to change, and that is what I was hoping to explore.

I guess the thought experiment is to design a fun activity that would help everyone to notice the things in a language that might be subtle. The thought experiment is to try to avoid any explicit study of theory or rules behind pitch accent, but let the nature of the exercise or activity help to improve your chances of noticing.

E.g. In the case of tone deafness (barring any neuroatypical condition), learning to play an instrument (a tuned instrument) is one sure way to force yourself to confront pitch head on and enormously improve your chances of noticing pitch intervals and relationships, the more time you spend with it.

(By the way, I’m also not necessarily convinced everything can be reduced down to a single clever activity, but then thought experiments don’t need to be constrained by reality in order to lead to useful ideas :slight_smile: . The ideal answer could after all be something like a mix of TV imitation and having some general guidance at the outset that when imitating, you should specifically try to pay attention to all these things: the sounds of the vowels and consonants, the way the pitch goes up and down, the tempo, etc. etc. And let the imitation game then take care of the rest)


Has anyone here done Dogen’s phonetics course? It seems relevant.

(I didn’t try it yet because the subscription model means it gets expensive if you take too long. Maybe at some point I’ll want to put a lot of time into that topic.)

I signed up for Dogen’s course a few weeks ago. He provides extremely clear and easy to understand guidance on what pitch accent is and how to use it, at least for the early lessons I’ve finished so far. I can tell that it is going to take a lot of work to apply it in my daily life. But my brain seems designed to incorporate just this type of instructional material, with a heavy emphasis on structure and common rules. I think if you are the type of person who enjoyed the systematic, one-at-a-time approach found in Heisig’s kanji book, Dogen’s series is probably a good way to acquire pitch accent skills.

A note about subscribing through Patreon: It seems a subscriptions are full-month, always charged at the start of the month, no matter when you signed up. If you want to get Dogen’s $10/month program and you are sensitive to cost, be sure to sign up at the start of the month for the best value. If you sign up on, say, the 28th of a month, you will only get a few days’ access before you are charged again on the 1st of the next month.

So this thread got me interested in learning more about pitch accent…I tried some of Dogen’s videos and while he’s very charismatic, for some reason the info didn’t really click with me.

Then I found this video and oh my gosh! A lot of things I’d noticed about Japanese over the years but figured weren’t important just make sense now.

I also found this Japanese channel with a lot of videos on intonation/pitch accent. There are a lot more Japanese videos I found when I searched youtube for 日本語 アクセント or 日本語 イントネーション, and there are probably more English ones out there as well. I think I’m going to go through some of them and see if I find any other interesting ones.


I was just thinking about my earliest experience with pitch accent with Japanese, and I realised that despite having a musical background, I still completely failed to notice Japanese pitch accent at first, until a Japanese person pointed it out to me.

I remember trying to say “お元気ですか?” and she said. No, “お元気ですか?”. At first I truly couldn’t hear the difference until she started using hand signals to point out that the pitch at the end first goes down before it goes up. That was pretty early on in my Japanese language adventure, and I can see how valuable it was that someone pointed that out to me right at the start(*), otherwise I may not have noticed it myself, despite my musical training. Having a good sense of pitch doesn’t mean that your brain will register pitch as a significant feature of the language, especially if your brain has been programmed to recognise certain other features of a language as being more significant, although maybe once you become aware of it (e.g. with a little help from others), THEN maybe your musical background will help you catch on more quickly. But before then, it’s completely possible for a musical person to have a blindspot for pitch when it’s outside the context of music.

I also recall this other time where my brother was complemented on his Japanese accent (over mine) despite the fact that he had only memorised a couple of common Japanese phrases from audio recordings and didn’t necessarily understand what the individual words meant. However, he reproduced the sounds he heard in every detail. Perhaps “not” knowing what the individual words meant gave him an advantage. I remember in my case, I knew that か served the function of indicating a question, and I thought (given my English background) that questions just go up at the end, so that’s how I pronounced it. Not based on mimicking a native phrase that I heard, but by reconstructing my own version of the output based on an understanding of the individual words. (Edit: I know this example is not technically “pitch accent”, but it did open my ears to “pitch” in the Japanese language.)

Another factor is that both my brother and I have a musical background, but he has always enjoyed doing impersonations of famous actors.

Based on all of this, I would guess that:

  1. A musical background doesn’t guarantee that you’ll notice Japanese pitch accent at first, but after someone points it out to you, your musical background may help you to catch on more quickly(?)
  2. Having someone to point it out to you is helpful.
  3. A musical background might not be as help as having a hobby of mimicking or impersonating other people’s accents on TV.

(*) This raises another question: Both Khatz and Matt say not to worry about pitch accent from the start. Matt asserts that it is also a waste of time to do shadowing and mimicking too early in the process. But I think we should be doubtful about such a claim since that is not the way that Matt himself learned. It would be safer to just take his advice for the way he actually learned if you want to reproduce his results, and as for other approaches, it’s better to listen to other language learners who have more experience to share with those other approaches. For example, Gabriel Wyner (Fluent Forever) and Idahossa Ness (Mimic Method) both took an approach of training the ear and nailing down the sounds of the language first before anything else. In other words, I’d prefer to take each language learner’s advice primarily related to the methods they have the most experience with, and then reconcile all of that advice in my own head.


I started reading about Japanese pitch accent from this book, 日本語アクセント入門, and it had some interesting explanations comparing how tonal languages, like Chinese, pitch accent languages like Japanese, and stress accent languages like English are different. I had heard English called a stress accent language before, but I didn’t know technically what that entailed.

Basically, to summarize, both Japanese and English use placement of accent to distinguish between words. An example the book gives for English is the word export. You can say it like éxport with the stress on the first syllable, or as expórt, with the stress on the second syllable, but the second way can only be a verb, while the first one can be a noun. The difference is that English combines an additional element not seen in Japanese: the stressed syllable becomes longer than the non-stressed, whereas in Japanese the mora length is not affected. Vocalization is also different in English, with stressed parts becoming louder.

On the other hand in Chinese, which is tonal, the placement of the accent is not deterministic as to distinguishing the meaning, unlike Japanese and English. Take some words that are pronounced “ma” for example - you could have má (麻, with a rising tone) or mǎ (馬, with a falling then rising tone) - in either case, there is a tone in the same place - over the a - so it isn’t where a tone is placed in the word that changes the meaning, it is which type of tone is used that changes the meaning.

When I was practicing pitch accent some with my wife with example sentences from the other book I have, she kept chiding me in parts for sometimes extending the vowel on the high accent parts, and now I can see why - even though my pitch wasn’t necessarily wrong, I was importing my English stress accent tendencies onto Japanese by lengthening the vowel. So, in a way, the problem is worse than I thought - theres even more native language interference going on than I thought - but I was at least glad to see it illuminated in a way that cleared me up on how these languages use the accent differently.


Well, I’m still on a pitch accent bender, so I figure I’d share a few more of my thoughts/observations in hopes that maybe they’re of interest to someone trying to go down this road, too.

I’m still making my way through the book I mentioned above, while also looking at the supplements in NHK Accent Dictionary, and it’s been pretty illuminating. In addition to the standard Japanese pitch patterns, there are some tendencies based on type of word to fall to use a certain pattern. For example, two-kanji compounds with four mora tend to follow the 平板型 (heiban-gata) pattern, where the pitch rises slightly after the first mora and remains flat for the rest of the word. So, 勉強 is accented like be-NKYOU.

What’s also been also eye-opening is the book’s comparisons to English. Apparently, in English, the stress on a word tends to fall (of course, there are exceptions) on the second to last syllable, sometimes the third to last syllable, depending on the vowels. Computer (com-PU-ter) is a good example of this. In the case of words like philosophy (phi-LO-so-phy), you can see the accent shift to the third to last syllable because here the second to last syllable is pronounced like the “uh” sound in “butter” (at least in my variety of American English) and the “uh” sound cannot be stressed in English.

Now, some time ago I remember my wife correcting me on how I said the word 緑 (みどり). I was saying mi-DO-ri, when the correct accent is MI-do-ri. I can see now that I didn’t mistake the word because I was just “freestyling” it by applying accents at random where I didn’t know them - I was simply applying to rules of the English accent consistently to Japanese, so I applied it to the second syllable before the end. Thinking about it, I realized I would do that to other words I have recently learned - for example, saying wa-TA-shi instead of the correct wa-TA-SHI. Particularly aggregious was those two-kanji four-mora compounds. They often follow a rising then flat pattern, but I was saying them like English with a high then falling pattern - BEN-kyou (instead of the correct be-NKYOU) or GAKU-sei (instead of the correct ga-KUSEI [学生]).

I would hypothesize this tendency would be seen in many other English native learners. Take this video of Steve Kaufmann speaking Japanese, for example (not picking on his accent or saying it’s especially bad or anything, I just selected him because he specifically said he didn’t study accent because he didn’t see a practical benefit to it), and I can see some similarities in some of the places he deviates from Japanese accent:

Take 2:16, for example, when he says 文化的憧れ
You can hear him say it like BUN-ka-teki a-ko-GA-re, but looking at the NHK Accent Dictionary (and asking my wife), the correct accent would appear to be bu-NKATEKI AKOGARE. However, if we look at what Kaufmann said, it’s a pretty clear application of an English accent pattern - place the accents on the second to last syllable in bunka and the second to last syllable in akogare. To be honest, I probably would have said something similar, especially before starting this pitch accent binge.

So, in conclusion, now I can see that not only am I trying to acquire the knowledge of the Japanese pitch accent and apply it when speaking, I’m also fighting against the subconciously engrained accent patterns of my native language when I don’t know what the word should sound like in Japanese. Maybe this is just another big “well, duh, you’re native language interferes with your acquisition” moment, but seeing the rules spelled out really made it click that, yeah, that’s basically what I’m doing when I speak Japanese. So, now the question is, what’s the best way to overcome this? (Although I expect the answer probably involves lots and lots of repetition and focussed practice after more study of the rules).


I’m curious, would you mind posting some images of the book’s content? It sounds really interesting, and I’m considering buying it myself, but it’s kind of pricey and has no content preview on Amazon. Also, please continue to post updates as you go through it! Reading your posts on it has been fascinating.


There’s also a pitch accent Anki deck that I’ve been considering giving a try. Not sure how good it is though.

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It appears Sanseido has a few preview PDFs on their site, in addition to a full table of contents. The comparisons to English are not a large part of the book, but as I mentioned above, really helped open up my mind to exactly where I was going wrong (basically, I have subconscious accent patterns from my native language I wasn’t even aware of, but were systematically affecting how I spoke Japanese). The rest goes over accent patterns for various scenarios – loanwords, conjugation accent patterns of adjectives and verbs, compound words, interaction with particles etc., and also goes into differences between some of the regional dialects (the differences can be quite stark), among other topics. The one area I wish it went into more detail of is how accent works when words form into a clause – it goes into it a little detail with a few examples, but I may need to find something with more depth on that topic after I finish this. Overall, I recommend it, though – it helps show the systematic aspects of pitch accent beyond just the basic patterns. I’ve been using it in conjunction with the NHK Accent Dictionary for the Monokakido Dictionary app on iPhone (which has audio samples for each word) to try to get a better feel for how the words sound accentuated clearly. The appendices to the NHK Dictionary are good, too, for showing some more of the patterns, although the explanations are terse.

As for practice, I have been reviewing everyday with an Anki deck I’m making while referencing the NHK Dictionary audio. I structured the deck with each word simply showing the place where the accent falls (the last high mora, called the 核 of the word in Japanese). Because of the rules of standard Japanese accent, if you know where the 核 of the word is, you know the entire accent. For example, let’s look at MI-do-ri, again. The basic rule is that the second mora is different than the first and once the pitch falls, it cannot rise again in the same word. So, I marked みどり as み」どり in my deck because I know if the 核 is “MI”, “do” must be low and since it cannot rise again, “ri” must be low, too. Heiban-gata words, like 勉強, remain high and continue high into the following particle, so they do not have a 核, and so I just write it as べんきょう with no marking. The book posits that natives themselves do not think in terms of what accent every mora of a word has, simply where the 核 is, which is far less information to have to remember. That made me worry that any more info on the card than just marking the 核 would be overkill. I’ll take a look at the Anki deck you linked to, too, though, so thanks for that resource.

I guess in terms of studying, I’m also thinking more of how best to suppress my tendency to subconsciously think in English stress accent while internalizing the basic principles of Japanese pitch accent, besides just brute force repetition (which I intend to continue trying). I tried consciously keeping the patterns I had learned in memory while speaking (while of course being conscious of words whose patterns I knew outright), while of course listening intently for pitch, and even thinking of pitch while reading, but this, while definitely shifting my accent, also led to very slow speech and daily headaches. I burnt out of it after a few days, but am continuing with studying with the book and Anki and trying to at least apply it on vocab learned and on some of the more basic patterns, while continuing to study and review the others (like the 2-kanji 4-mora compounds I mentioned above).


み」どり seems like a slightly odd way to mark the high-low transition – it looks more like a low-high, graphically speaking. But AFAIK there’s no one standard way to mark up pitch accent.

Yeah, it isn’t a perfect way to mark it, and I struggled a little with what to make it – I tried bars on top of the mora with HTML code in Anki (どり), but that was time consuming to do. Had some other ideas, too, but in the end, I just ended up going with 」after the 核 because it was quick and easy to input in Japanese and the space it leaves makes it stand out a little. But, yeah, it’s doesn’t really work as a graphical representation of pitch, just a marker of “this is where the 核 is”. (Ended up spending most of my free time budget on it adding in the nasalized g sounds with the appropriate か゚き゚く゚け゚こ゚ kana.)

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Thanks! Judging by the preview PDFs, that book looks awesome! I wish the price was a little lower though. Since the US is officially in a recession I’ve been trying to save as much as possible lately… I’ve put it on my “to buy” list though. I plan to buy it when things start to recover more here.

I’ve actually got an old version of the NHK Accent Dictionary app! Sadly when NHK announced they were making a new edition of the dictionary the company behind the Android app discontinued the Android version. :disappointed_relieved: It still works…for now, but I don’t know how much longer it’ll continue working with newer Android versions. I’ve got an EPWING version of the same dictionary as a backup, but the audio is really fuzzy on that one. I wish someone would hurry up and make an updated Android version of the dictionary, but so far no luck. :slightly_frowning_face:

That’s an interesting way to indicate pitch accent! I didn’t know they had a word for the last high mora in a word in Japanese. Makes sense though.

Yeah, I wish they had a workbook for this kind of thing. I’ve been looking at Japanese videos on pitch accent lately, and the questions in this video stumped me.
It goes over homonym verbs that have different pitch accents. I thought I understood it, but in practice I couldn’t tell them apart…

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Yeah, those verb examples are tricky. Detecting it in everyday life is still hard for me and I find I can only start to really hear the difference after I’ve already studied and practiced the pronunciation of the word in question. I’m still really just starting out, so I hope at some point it will begin to feel more natural, but so far I have to really concentrate, and even then it can be hit or miss in whether I hear the difference or not.

The more I read about it and try to do listening practice for it, the one other thing that I think is kind of tripping me up is the mora-based nature of the Tokyo dialect vs. the way I think in syllables in English (apparently, there are syllable based dialects in Japanese – the book gives Kagoshima’s dialect as an example of one – but the Tokyo standard is mora-based).

Take the word 看病 (かんびょう), for example. It is two syllables (かん・びょう), but four mora (か・ん・びょ・う). In Tokyo dialect, pitch changes occur between mora, and it is common for syllables where there is an ン sound, an extended vowel, or small ッ to “carry” the accent – meaning the pitch rises or falls mid-syllable in a way that would be unnatural for an English native to say. My guess is I or another native English speaker would have a tendency to say something like KAN-byou when saying it, stressing the entire first syllable. However, the correct Japanese is か↘んびょう, with the pitch falling mid-syllable.

This has also got me to reconsider pitch vs. tones, again, because thinking about it these mid-syllable pitch changes do kind of resemble rising and falling tones in Chinese, even though the principles behind how tone and pitch accent are applied to words are quite different. For example, the Chinese pronunciation of the same word is “kànbìng” and contains a falling tone in the same first-syllable position. The effect, at least listening to the audio from the NHK Dictionary and a Chinese-Japanese dictionary I also have, is quite similar. Of course, the Japanese pronunciation remains at low pitch for the rest of the word, while the Chinese is immediately followed by another syllable with a falling tone, so that part is different.

Although I dismissed the idea at first, I kind of wonder if maybe a Chinese natives, or those speaking a tonal language with a similar tone system, wouldn’t be more attuned to at least picking up those mid-syllable shifts and accurately reproducing them in a way that just feels really unnatural to me so far getting started.

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