Category Archives: Rhythm & Pronunciation

Harmonizing: How to Shadow Japanese (for people who can’t shadow)

Shadowing Japanese: You don't need to be a Great Detective
Shadowing Japanese: You don’t need to be a Great Detective

Shadowing Japanese is recommended by many people as one of the best ways to learn the language.

There are a few versions of Japanese shadowing around, but they all involve speaking at the same time as a native speaker, saying what she (or he – you should use a speaker of the same gender as yourself) is saying at the same time she is saying it.

Everyone agrees this is difficult, but I suspect it is a lot more difficult for some people than others. Those of us who have very poor short-term memory or lack a certain kind of vocal extroversion can find Japanese shadowing pretty much impossible.

And this is unfortunate because it really is a valuable technique. It doesn’t only improve your speaking. It improves your sense of Japanese rhythm and your ability to hear what a speaker is really saying rather than post-process it into sounds you are more familiar with.

I have recommended using the Amenbo no Uta for these reasons, but it is not a substitute for actual shadowing (though it is a very good supplement to it).

So let’s suppose you are like me and find shadowing to a live speaker or trying to shadow from a text to a speaker in real time prohibitively difficult. Is there a way to get over this problem and get the benefits of shadowing?

Fortunately there is. I call it “harmonizing” and it involves a somewhat unorthodox use of Anki. You are probably already using anki to build your core vocabulary, and you may be familiar with some of my non-standard applications of the tool.

Using Anki to shadow Japanese is even more unorthodox. We are not going to be using it as an SRS tool at all. The only role it plays in Harmonizing is that of a box for throwing up random sentences spoken by Japanese speakers plus text of what they are saying and a convenient one-button method of having them repeat the phrase as many times as you want.

This is why I call it harmonizing. We aren’t trying to shadow long or even medium texts. What we are doing is taking a short phrase spoken by a native speaker and getting used to speaking it in harmony with her. It may take several tries if you are poor at shadowing, but it is a nice contained way of doing it. You will get the sentence with a little practice and be able to say it at the exact rhythm of the speaker.

I aim to do each sentence in perfect harmony five or ten times, then move on to the next sentence. One interesting thing you will find is that some sentences that felt really hard to come to grips with the first time will be easy days later (even with the Anki SRS gap). You have picked up the rhythm of that sentence.

This is super important because the rhythms of Japanese are not the same as English rhythms and that is one of the main reasons Japanese is so hard to hear. By shadowing/harmonizing you are forcing yourself to catch the actual rhythm and pronunciation. With harmonizing you are trying to get your voices to “ring” together like a choir. That won’t happen unless you have the rhythm and cadence very close to right.

Once you have this it becomes easier to pick up what Japanese speakers are saying because your brain is not (or at least is rather less) trying to do what it has been trained to do for years, to translate all vocal noise into English-like sounds. It has become viscerally aware of another kind of spoken rhythm.

How to Shadow Japanese by the Anki Harmonizing Method

Here is the step-by-step guide.

1. Get a deck that has spoken sentences. You will find several in Anki’s shared decks service. Less than there were, since Anki has become more strict about copyright material, but still plenty for your purposes.

2. Start using the deck in the regular way. If the sound is on the back, pass the card immediately. You are not using Anki to test yourself in the ordinary way. If the speaker is the wrong gender or for some reason you don’t want to do that sentence, hit “easy” and make it go away.

3. When you have a sentence you want to work with (you should be able to work with most sentences spoken by someone of your own gender), use the R key to repeat the audio. It may take several tries at first before you get a reasonable harmony. Don’t worry. They are short sentences. Just ganbaru. Don’t despise single-word audio. You can get a lot from shadowing one word exactly right. You will find you can build up to longer sentences.

When you get that satisfying “ring” use the R key several more times to really internalize the rhythm you have now caught.

You are actually training your mouth muscles as well as your ear. There are hundreds of muscles in your mouth and different languages use different ones. You may well find you physically tire quite quickly at first. Don’t worry. It is more important to do a little regularly than to tire yourself with a lot in one session.

4. If you like the sentence and want to shadow it more, hit “hard” to make it come back more often. Remember this is NOT a right/wrong test. Forget everything you know about using Anki when you are harmonizing!

These are the basics of the technique and all you need to know. But let’s have a few

Extra Japanese Shadowing Tips

• It is a good idea to start each session with the Amenbo no Uta. If you can say it reasonably fast, or if you only use part of it, this takes less than a minute. It is not used by just about all Japanese speaking professionals for nothing. It really does help you get your tongue around the sounds of Japanese.

• Things to concentrate on are mora, and the length of “vowels”. I have talked about this at length in the Amenbo article. Remember that もう is two morae, not one syllable. ラッパ is three morae, not two syllables. The Amenbo will help you with this, but as you harmonize, be aware of it. It will be vital to getting that “ring” with your partner’s voice.

• Relatedly, be aware of how very short single vowels are, especially at the end of words. At first, if you get them right, you kind of feel as if you are clipping them off half-way through saying them.

• Try to feel the quality of vowels. Notice, for example, how お is somewhat like a shortened version of the sound we make in “door”, not the one in “hot” or “hoe”.

• Note that the T sound is made with the tongue on the back of the teeth, not the alveolar ridge, as in English, and that just about everything is pronounced further forward in the mouth than in English.

Not More Anki…

Shadowing  is a fundamental technique for helping you to truly get Japanese into your blood. But you may be thinking you don’t wnt to take on another time-consuming Anki obligation.

Fortunately this is not Anki in the usual sense. You don’t need to do it every day, and you don’t need to clear your deck. You don’t care if you get a massive build-up. This isn’t SRS, it is your personal shadowing box.

Yes, if you are building a core vocabulary and learning kanji you need a solid commitment to Anki or some other system. But using Anki for Harmonizing or shadowing Japanese doesn’t work like that.

It is good to do it pretty regularly, at least at first, but you are always in control. Do as much or as little as you feel you need. The SRS algorithm that is so important to the long-term learning of Kanji in particular (vocabulary should be at least partly handled by massive exposure) is irrelevant here.

So if you want to shadow Japanese (and you should) but you find the regular methods tie you in knots, here is the key to the magic door.

Use it wisely. Great treasures lie within.

The Rhythm of Japanese: Improve your speaking and hearing

Drama Club begins with Amenba no Uta (Heartcatch Precure, Ep 16)
Drama Club begins with Amenbo no Uta (Heartcatch Precure, Ep 16)

The Amenbo no Uta is sometimes recommended as a way to improve one’s Japanese pronunciation. However, it can do more than that. It can also improve one’s ability to hear and comprehend the language.

But what is the Amenbo no Uta? It is a nonsense poem that is used by just about all Japanese speaking professionals as a daily warm‐up, from news‐readers to voice actors (and very likely politicians too). While it reads like a stream‐of‐consciousness dream‐sequence, there is method in its words, but not narrative method. Its aim is to drill all the sounds and combinations of Japanese.

It runs to a very strict rhythm, and this is particularly important for the Japanese learner.

One of the problems, not only with speaking but also with hearing, is that we post‐process what we hear rapidly and immediately. For first‐language comprehension this is very useful. We are able to hear all kinds of strange accents, mumbled words and distortions and adjust for them, processing them back into the sounds they “ought” to be.

However, when we hear foreign sounds, we process them back to the nearest familiar equivalent, often helped in the case of Japanese by Romaji transliterations, which also represent the nearest English language equivalent. So we hear し as shi, for example (in fact it is neither shi nor si but a sound that does not exist in English). This doesn’t matter too much for comprehension or comprehensibility, though it is good if we can overcome it.

More important is the fact that the English sense of rhythm is radically different from the Japanese, and this does make Japanese very hard to hear. Our brains are attempting to post‐process what we hear into something English‐like that is very different from what we have heard.

That is one great importance of shadowing. It forces us to say, and therefore become aware of, what we are actually hearing, not what our brains want to post‐process it into.

Reciting the Amenbo no Uta can also help with a very important aspect of this: Rhythm. English is a stress‐timed language, while Japanese is mora‐timed. A mora is not actually the same thing as a syllable. This statement sometimes puzzles people, but I believe we can demonstrate here exactly what we mean, using the Amenbo no Uta.

First of all, I would like you to read and listen to the first four verses. They are written in kana. As you may know, every kana corresponds to exactly one mora (ex cept the small versions of the three y‐kana: ゃ,ゅand ょ which always combine with い‐row kana to form single‐mora glides: きゃ, りゅ, ちょ etc.)

Here is the reading, at a relatively slow “training speed”:

あめんぼ あかい な
あ い う え お
うき もに こえびも
およいでる

かき のき くり のき
か き く け こ
きつつき こつ こつ
かれ けや き

ささげ に すを かけ
さ し す せ そ
その うお あさせ で
さしました

たちましょ ラッパ で
た ち つ て と
とて とて たった と
とびたった

I think you can hear the very regular rhythm:

1234 1234

12345

1234 1234

12345

Each mora is a beat of the poem (and you will also find this in most Japanese songs).

So here is why a mora is not a syllable. We have a very good example in the first line:

あかい な akai na (1234).  English speakers are prone to pronounce and hear this as a 123 “ak eye na”. Because in English the diphthong ai (often spelled “I”) plus any attached consonants is one syllable, eg. “time”, “mind” “sky”.

In Japanese there are no diphthongs. Japanese あい is not the one‐syllable English sound “I”. It is two morae あ and い. It is the same if a consonant is attached:

かい is か+い: two morae.

あかい is あ+か+い: three morae.

This is why it is important to read Japanese in Japanese script.

Going back to the beginning of the line, we are prone to read あめんぼ (1234) as amenbo (123). It doesn’t help that that is how it is written in Romaji, but we would do it anyway because that is how English works. We post‐process what we hear into something we are used to hearing rather than what we actually are hearing.

So already, unless we are attuned to the rhythm of the poem we have 123 123 instead of 1234 1234 for the first line.

あめんぼ is four kana and four morae. a me n bo. ん is always a mora of its own. Japanese people always think of it that way. If a Japanese person says bangohan to you and you don’t catch the word, she will repeat it slowly and carefully:

ba n go ha n (12345)

pronouncing each mora separately.

Fortunately, for much of the poem morae and syllables are the same, so we are able to catch and hold the rhythm easily. But the places where they aren’t are very important. By using this exercise regularly and getting it into one’s blood, one begins to feel the mora‐rhythm of Japanese. Once one has that, the language becomes more hearable. Naturally the Amenbo no Uta should be combined with listening to regular Japanese (your favorite anime is fine, so long as there are no English subtitles).

To round up a few more common difficulties in these first four verses:

We are prone to hear さしました sashimashita (stung) as sashimashta (1234). This is not exactly the fault of Romaji (though the kana tell us how many morae there really are). Most Japanese speakers suppress the second “i” sound almost completely, if not completely. But even if it is completely suppressed it still takes up a mora.

This is another way morae differ from syllables. A mora does not have to contain much in the way of actual sound. It is a beat, whether fully voiced or not.

When saying the Amenbo no Uta you could emphasize this by pronouncing the word sashimashita with the second “i” vowel fully spoken. However, I would advise against this. It is important to practice giving full mora value to morae with no vowel.

A very similar consideration applies to the small tsu. The fourth verse uses several of these, and each time they occupy a mora (as they always do).

We may hear たちましょ ラッパ で tachimasho rappa de as 1234 123, but if we do, it is because we are not counting the gap between ラ and パ (marked by ッ) as a beat.

Because I am writing this, it tends to sound very theoretical. In fact it is quite the opposite. We are talking about the rhythm of the language. Its very heartbeat. You need to to feel this in your blood, not just know about it.

If you can chant Amenbo no Uta every day with its proper rhythm…

1234 1234

12345

1234 1234

12345

…you can safely ignore everything I have written here. You will be getting the language in a more natural way.

Still, I hope you found it of some use.

Reccomended: Harmonizing – How to Shadow Japanese


The Full Amenbo no Uta

あめんぼ あかい な
あ い う え お
うき もに こえびも
およいでる

かき のき くり のき
か き く け こ
きつつき こつ こつ
かれ けや き

ささげ に すを かけ
さ し す せ そ
その うお あさせ で
さしました

たちましょ ラッパ で
た ち つ て と
とて とて たった と
とびたった

なめくじ のろ のろ
な に ぬ ね の
なんど に ぬめって
なに ねばる

はと ぽっぽ ほろ ほろ
は ひ ふ へ ほ
ひなた の おへや にゃ
ふえ を ふく

まい まい ねじまき
ま み む め も
うめ の み おちて も
み も しまい

やき ぐり ゆで ぐり
や い ゆ え よ
やまだ に ひ を つく
よい の いえ

らい ちょう さむ かろ
ら り る れ ろ
れんげ が さいたら
るり の とり

わい わい わっしょい
わ い う え を
うえきや いど がえ
おまつり だ


PS ‐ there is one line (only one) where the scansion is not regular. Once you have the feel of it you will get a little “glunk” (to use the technical term) on that line. Presumably it was caused by the exigences of getting all the sound combinations into one poem. It really is a 力作, or a tour de force as we say in ‐ uh ‐ English.

I will send an invisible winged Dollykiss to the first person to identify the “odd” line in the comments below.

Reccomended: Harmonizing – How to Shadow Japanese