This is a video I took of my daughter’s toy, which has lots of educational games. In particular, this game teaches Japanese kids how to hear and pronounce Japanese intonation correctly. Listen carefully:
Notice how words like chopsticks and bridge are both pronounced as hashi but you can hear the difference in intonation. While practicing conversation online on Skype, one Japanese fellow I talked to explained that the intonation in Japanese is a matter of takasa (高さ) or level of the tone (high vs. low), while in English it was a question of tsuyosa (強さ) or strength of each syllable (how forcefully it’s pronounced).
So, in the video above, the word for chopsticks sounds like HAshi, where “HA” is a higher tone than “shi”. Meanwhile, for bridge, it’s the opposite: haSHI, where “SHI” is a higher tone than “ha”. Listen again until you can clearly hear it. Also, bear in mind that different dialects can also pronounce these differently, and many words also have no tone at all. This is “standard” Tokyo-style Japanese used here, for reference.
Other words on my daughters toy are:
- KIru (to cut) and kiRU (to wear)
- HAku (to sweep) and haKU (to wear shoes and pants)
- Ame (rain) and aME (candy)
Anyhow there isn’t really any good rule of thumb for intonation. Many words are completely flat too. Instead it just takes lots of listening practice.
P.S. I had a much older post on the subject, but it was flawed and confusing. I trashed it and made a much better one.
P.P.S For some reason I thought it would be funny to do the Japanese-style “V sign” at the end. It seemed funny at the time, anyway. :p