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Emphasis is Not Always Easy

I set out to do a review of Duolingo for the sake of the blog, and I promise you’ll hear about it in a future post. One of the languages I decided to “try” was Japanese. I have been using Japanese weekly, if not daily, since I started studying Japanese. In fact, there’s a good chance I could even write this article in Japanese with little issue. Basically, I know the language, and felt confident critiquing a language-learning program. What is always interesting to see, regardless of the language program or curriculum, is the order of which the language is taught. By some odd twist of fate, the first fundamental I was taught was giving me the most trouble as I tried it in Duolingo. I was, for lack of a better term, stressed out by it because I couldn’t tell what they were emphasizing in sentences. Ironically, the first fundamental I had ever learned was now my biggest enemy in this new arena.


Fundamentals are just that to me - fundamentals. I don’t get stuck on them, or at least I never did until I ran into this particular snare in Duolingo.  This fundamental of the Japanese language is that the word order and the particles (small words that function like prepositions and articles) of the sentence change with emphasis. I found that I had a lot of trouble recognizing this in Duolingo because they were emphasizing something in a vacuum, or in other words, with absolutely no context. This made me think a lot about emphasis, or the importance of “stressing” particular words foreign languages.

In Japanese emphasis is often very simple. For instance:

Kore wa ame desu (これは雨です。)= This is rain.

Kore ga ame desu (これが雨です。)= This is rain.

If you are as fixated on detail as I am, you’ll notice that the “wa” turned into a “ga” but the sentence had no apparent change. You’re probably hoping this variation is dependent on preference. In fact this slight change, is the Achilles’ heel of most foreign Japanese learners.

                The “wa” and the “ga” have two entirely different connotations. The dependent factor is stress. No, not the stress you are feeling from your daily life, the stress I felt trying to manage this issue, or even the stress you’re feeling reading this article, but emphasis. I’ll explain the difference between these two later, but before we can understand how novel of a concept this is, we must first understand how this is done in English.

Stressed Out

In English, emphasis is tonal. You change the emphasis of the word through sound, making it longer or louder or both. If you look at the top of the article, I already made you read a word like you would hear it. When I said, “Basically, I know the language,” I used a typed method of emphasis for the English language, italics. I could have used a bold font and underlined, but that may have come off as too strong. You knew as you read it, I was emphasizing the word “know”, indicating that I don’t just know the language, but I am exceedingly familiar with it. Therein lies the problem, this linguistic “fix” is not universal. What might be in italics in English would not be in Japanese if the “wa” and “ga” sentence structure addresses it. However, if further emphasis is required, the word may be put in bold and broken down into the syllabic script, hiragana. For example, the word for water, mizu, and is usually written as 水, but were you to really emphasize in writing that someone should be drinking water and not juice, you may see it written as みず.

Many languages can’t do that because they are dependent on the tone of the word. For instance, in Chinese, stressing the word meaning to know, zhīdào (知道), as we would in English might make it sound like the word for sleep, shuìjiào (睡觉). When English speakers complain about the difficulty of tonal languages, they have good reason to. Would you expect speakers of the language that has the “There, their, they’re” and “sense, since, cents” conundrums to have an easy time with a tonal language?

Fortunately for us native English speakers, Japanese is not truly a tonal language, but stressing a syllable or two can change the way your listener perceives the message. For example the word for hospital in Japanese is byouin (病院) while hair salon is biyouin  (美容院). Imagine trying stress that you need to go to the barber but you are immediately taken to the emergency room.  Even though I have been speaking the language for four years now, I still stop and clearly enunciate the one I mean to say as though it were my first time saying the word. If I were to try to tonally emphasize these, a bad hair day could very well get worse.

In some cases, words that are true homophones (words that sound the same) may be completely confusing to Japanese speakers because without a very clear context, there may be a few words that are all pronounced the same. In English, I can say, “It is good to hear” and the phrase makes it very clear to other English speakers which word I am using. However, if I were to say, "sono hana wa ookii" , hana can mean either flower or nose. The full sentence meaning, "that (blank) is big." We should hope that nobody's appearance is being criticized, but if the context isn't clear, the way the word is written would. Flower is written 花 and nose is written 鼻. Just like in English, some Japanese the way a word is written is clearer than the sound of the word, but in many spoken cases, context and emphasis are the only tools available. 

Emphasizing the Meaning

Back to our original example, how does a single syllable (not letter, Japanese doesn’t use letters as we know them) “wa” versus “ga” make a difference in this sentence? Wa and ga are known as subject markers. When these markers follow a phrase, the meaning is “we are talking about X” with two subtle differences. Wa tells us that everything after the subject marker is emphasized.  Ga tells us that the subject is emphasized.  In a way, both of these answer an otherwise, unasked question.

In the first example, “kore wa ame desu”(これは雨です。)  answers,  “What is this?”

The answer: Rain

The second example, “kore ga ame desu,(これが雨です。)” answers, “Which of these is rain?”

The answer: This

What effect does this have on translation? We talked about spoken communication, but if you’ve been paying attention, you know these blogs always come back to translation. Think back to the issue that got me here. Duolingo is mostly translation practice in essence, and that was the problem. There are some "always use (blank)" rules in Japanese, but when it is flexible, I needed context to know where the emphasis was.

Emphasis is entirely dependent on context. Can you imagine how much skill it takes to be able to establish accurately where to create the right amount of emphasis in a sentence that  in English we consider lacking emphasis all together? There is one thing I didn’t say from the offset, wa and ga are the two of the most frequently used particles in Japanese. This concept is one of the most fundamental. Mastery comes from finesse, and as Thomas B. Macaulay once said, “Finesse is the best adaptation of means to circumstances.” At Tone, we have that ability to adapt.


 (Editor’s Note): In the last six months our blog has frequently referenced the Japanese language. This is both fortuitous and strategic.

  • Derek, Translation Administrative Coordinator, primary blogger, and Team Tone member since January speaks Japanese as his second language; so discussing Japanese is a natural fit for our team.
  • As an ‘Eastern’ language with different characters and structure than English, Japanese also fits into tone’s emphasis on translating not just language, but also culture.
  • And, believe it or not, Japanese is one of the most translated languages in the world for patents, websites, cell phone applications, technology, pharmaceuticals, and several other industries.

With the confluence of all these factors, expect to continue seeing Japanese references as we create understanding and opportunity in a multicultural world on the move.



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