Why Tonal Languages Aren’t as Hard as You Think

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Why Tonal Languages Aren’t as Hard as You Think


Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Here’s my take on language difficulty: All languages are created equal.

Mandarin Chinese. English. Russian. Arabic. You name it.

They all have their own challenging aspects. But – here’s the kicker – humans can speak all of them. I’ve yet to hear about a language that went extinct only because it was so difficult to learn. If I’m wrong, please let me know.

All that said, some languages appear harder than others. Don’t they?

Some have genders. Some have more tenses than others. Some have different alphabets.

Some even have tones.

“Oh, nooooooooo! Tones!”

A lot of people feel intimidated by the prospect of learning a tonal language simply because they think it’s so hard.

In this article, I’ll show you why tonal languages are not as hard as you may think.

But first of all, remember this: English uses intonation.

Tones in English

Think about the word “really”. Depending on the tone you use, it can be used to express disappointment (really?), surprise (really!), or sarcasm (really…).

The only difference with English is that the tones aren’t as fixed as they are in tonal languages. With tonal languages, tones aren’t always fixed (for example in songs, or when you’re yelling), but they’re generally consistent, and they’re part of the grammatical structure of the language.

Whereas in English, tones are used to express emotion.

Looking at the example of “really” again:

  • If you say, “Really?” then you’re asking a question.
  • If you say, “REALLY!” then it shows excitement.
  • If you say, “(Hmmm) really…”, then it expresses doubt or negative emotion.

That’s why it’s difficult to detect emotion when we send messages on our machines. On smartphones and computers it’s hard to tell what kind of tone of voice we are using. That’s why we have EMOTICONS 😉

English speakers usually use a high intonation when asking a question and a low intonation when bearing negative news (think when somebody gives condolences for a relative who recently died).

But, I’m not trying to argue that English is a tonal language. It’s not.

I’m just trying to make it clear that English uses tones to communicate, whether we realize it or not, and learning a tonal language isn’t as foreign or as difficult as we think it is.

If you speak English, then you’re already familiar with some tones.

In Vietnamese and Thai, the rising tone is very similar to the intonation English speakers use when asking a question.

Or to take another example, think of a little kid shrugging his shoulders and saying, “I dunno!” The intonation you are thinking of is very similar to the hỏi tone in Vietnamese.

Though tones from English may not line up perfectly with new ones you will learn in a tonal language, sometimes they are quite close, giving you a nice little head start.

Can “Tone Deaf” People Speak a Tonal Language?

Maybe you’re reading this thinking…

“But, wait! What if I’m tone deaf?!”

This is another preventative wall people often put up. I’m here to tell you that you are wrong (no offense).

I’m a musician, and some people may tell me I have an easier time recognising tones when I’m learning a tonal language due to my musical background.

The truth is, I know plenty of musicians here in Vietnam that can’t speak Vietnamese one bit. I also know plenty of Vietnamese people that can’t sing well!

Being a musician may help, but mostly because musicians love sound. You can love it, too.

If you believe that you are at a disadvantage because you are not musically talented or you are tone deaf, then you’re wrong.

When I was in high school, a Brazilian exchange student named Eduardo lived with me for three months. When he first arrived, he could barely speak any English. After three months, we became best friends and brothers, and his English was phenomenal.

One day, about a month after he arrived, we were hanging out with my friend, Ashley. At the time, Eduardo’s English was pretty good, but he was still learning and making mistakes. We were walking from my house to the park down the street and we decided to sing some songs to pass the time. Classic high school thing to do!

Eduardo and I started singing whatever Taylor Swift song was popular at the time, but Ashley didn’t join in.

“You don’t like this song? Come on, sing!” I encouraged her.

“No, no. I can’t,” she replied.

“Why not?” Eduardo asked in his heavy Brazilian accent.

“You don’t want me to sing, trust me. I’m tone deaf,” she replied.

Eduardo’s face suddenly became serious.

“Oh my god! Have you gone to a doctor for help?”

Ashley and I busted out laughing! But, Eduardo had no idea what was going on.

She explained to him what she meant. Then we all had a chuckle. Except Eduardo didn’t really think it was funny, because he translated “tone deaf” literally into Portuguese, which didn’t make sense. had never heard of the concept “tone deaf” before.

What’s the point of this story? “Tone deaf” is not real as long as you don’t believe that it’s real.

Nature is real. Being “tone deaf” is not.
Nature is real. Being “tone deaf” is not.

Musicians may have a little bit of a head start because they tend to pay more attention to sounds, but you are just as capable. I don’t care how bad your singing voice is or whatever excuses you may make up in your head.

You are able to learn a tonal language and you are not at a disadvantage. You just have to remind yourself of` that.

Another reason you can learn a tonal language easily is…

Tonal Languages Have Fewer Words to Learn

With tonal languages, you don’t need to memorise nearly as much vocabulary.

In Vietnamese, ma (ghost), má (mother), mà (but/which), mả (tomb), mã (horse), and mạ (rice seedling) all have different meanings. Same letters, but different tones.

Once you conquer the tones, it’s easier to add vocabulary because you have fewer combinations of words to choose from.

Tonal Languages Often Have Simpler Grammar

For most tonal languages, there is no verb conjugation, no tenses, and no gender.

For example, in Vietnamese, “Hôm quá, em đi đâu?” means, “Where did you go yesterday?

Its literal translation is: “Yesterday, you go where?”

To talk about the past or the future, you simply add one word. But, in this situation, you don’t even need to, because it’s already implied that you are talking about the past when you say yesterday.

You also don’t have to worry about conjugation or tenses (my LEAST favorite part about learning French) at all!

Literal Vietnamese translation breaks down as follows:

  • Tôi muốn ăn cơm:“I want eat rice.”
  • Em ấy muốn ăn cơm: “She want eat rice.”
  • Ngày mai họ muốn ăn cơm: “Tomorrow they want eat rice.”

For negation, you just add one word (không) and the rest of the sentence remains the same.

Tôi không muốn ăn cơm: “I no want eat rice.”

Pretty simple, huh?

Tonal Languages 2

What’s the Best Way to Learn a Tonal Language?

Learning a tonal language takes time and effort (so does learning ANY language!), but here are some tips and tricks that will surely help you in your journey.

And remember to be patient…

No one sits down at a piano for the first time and knows how to play a 12 bar blues in E minor.

No one can juggle 5 bowling pins the first time they try juggling.

No one can complete a triathlon the same day they learn how to swim and ride a bike.

You get the point. Building skills like these take time; you’ll need to be patient.

Step 1: Start with Exposure and Mimicry.

Studies prove that the first time our brains are exposed to tones, we can’t differentiate them. However, after a certain amount of exposure (a few weeks or maybe even a few months, everyone is different), we’ll have a breakthrough and we’ll be able to recognize tones and differentiate them.

Think about a baby boy in China learning Mandarin Chinese. He’ll start learning words and sounds far before anyone tells him how many tones they are, or what they look like on a graph.

How’s he going to learn these words and sounds? By mimicking his mom and dad.

So, instead of studying and analyzing the tones first, start by listening to them. Search the web for videos in your target language. Listen to radio stations. Stream music.

Even if you can’t understand anything and it sounds confusing, just listening to the language will help you learn the flow and rhythm, as well as getting you familiar with the tones.

As you listen, try to mimic what you hear. Start by mimicking words and short sentences. It won’t matter that you don’t know what you are saying, because just by speaking, you are allowing your brain to become familiar with the tones. Think of it as listening to a song and then repeating back only the melody.

Remember to be patient. Everyone struggles through this stage.

Step 2: Master the Alphabet (Exception: Chinese)

If you can’t pronounce the new sounds of your target language, then the tones are going to be even harder to learn.

Fix this by mastering the alphabet (with Chinese being the exception to this rule). That way, once you try to tackle the tones, you’ll be familiar with the sounds and be able to pronounce the words correctly.

Adding new sounds and new tones to your “vocabulary” will be overwhelming, and you might even confuse the two. Learning whole words and grammatical structures can wait. It doesn’t matter how many words you know or how well you can write a sentence. If you don’t know the tones, then no one is ever going to understand you when you speak.

Step 3: Learn One Tone at a Time

Don’t overwhelm yourself and learn all of the tones at once.

If you do this, it’ll be the same as when you go to a party and you are introduced to eight people all at once. After shaking their hands, you’ll realize that you didn’t remember a single name.

Instead, learn one tone and spend a week or two practicing it. Once you are confident, then move on and learn the next one. Every time you learn a new tone, you should review the tones you’ve already learned by comparing them to each other.

Physical actions can help with this. Have fun with it! Rising tone? Stand up on your tippie toes. Low tone? Make an angry face. Heavy tone? Hold out your fist. The more fun you have the easier it will be to remember.

If you jump up and down like this every time you practise the rising tone, I guarantee you’ll remember it. Or, you’ll get really tired. Or, both!
If you jump up and down like this every time you practise the rising tone, I guarantee you’ll remember it. Or, you’ll get really tired. Or, both!

Step 4: Apply the Tones You Learn to English

Before applying the tones to new vocabulary, practise the tones on a non-tonal language that you already speak.

It’s going to seem awkward at first. But, trust me, it will help. If you introduce too many new concepts (vocabulary, pronunciation, AND TONES), it’ll be overwhelming and no fun at all.

Once you can apply the tones to English words you already know, then you’ll be able to recognise them more easily. Then, you can start using them with vocabulary in your target language.

Step 5: Find Native Speakers to Practise With

You can’t learn tonal languages alone. Well, you may be able to, but it’ll be a long and hard process.

You’re going to need help from someone who knows the language. It can be a teacher, a friend, or your landlord. Just make sure they’re willing to take the time to help you out.

If you are living in a country where your target language is spoken, practise speaking with the locals as much as you can. Listen to them and try to mimic them as much as possible.

If you’re learning Thai, go to the family owned Thai restaurant near your house and tell them you are learning Thai and try to practise. I’m serious. Two years ago, when I was in New York City, I took two 45-minute subway rides just so I could go to a Ghanaian restaurant to eat Ghanaian food and practice my Twi. The restaurant owners were so happy! Not only did they help me with my Twi, but they also gave me a discount on the meal!

And don’t be afraid to make mistakes!

Think of it as learning how to ride a bike. It’s hard to get the feel for it at the beginning, but once you figure it out, it suddenly clicks. As you’re learning, you may fall from time to time (in this case, forget the tones or make mistakes), but every time you get back on the bike, you’re one step closer to riding it like a pro.

Another thing you can do is record yourself practising your tones and send the recording to a native speaker and ask them to correct you. I actually did this to practise my Patois (Jamaican). I sent voice messages through a messenger app called Whatsapp. My friend would respond using the correct accent, and then I’d try to mimic her the best I could. You can find language exchange partners to do this with using the HelloTalk app.

My favourite site to connect with native speakers on the web is italki.

When you need help, just ask. Most people love to help others learn their language. If they agree to help you, ask if you can take them out for coffee or lunch once or twice a month. Alternatively, for long distance friends, ask if you can do a Skype call.

You’ll never know until you ask. Before I moved to Vietnam, I reached out to my high school friend, Huy, and told him that I was moving there.

I hadn’t talked to him in over 4 years, but he was super excited that I was going to his native country. He even offered to help me learn Vietnamese! Even though he was in busy in medical school, he still taught me for an hour on the phone before I left.

The vocabulary he taught me ended up being more useful than anything I could find in books or online.

When the Going Gets Tough, Just Keep Going

Even when things are difficult and you want to quit learning a tonal language, keep going. It’s worth it! Without patience, none of the steps above will do you any good.

It will take time to master tones. But, try your best not to get frustrated, and you’ll see for yourself that learning a tonal language is not as bad as you may think.

When I first started learning Vietnamese (fall of 2013), I was stubborn.

I neglected the alphabet and the tones. I refused to pay for a teacher because all of them insisted that I learned the alphabet and the tones. I wanted to learn words and phrases, not sounds!

I was not patient.

After casually (and inefficiently) learning Vietnamese for about 8 months, I still didn’t know the alphabet or the tones.

Then, I spent 25 days on a reality TV show speaking only Vietnamese, and I was finally forced to figure it out.

One month after I got back, I participated in a stand up comedy compilation. All in Vietnamese, of course.

I am not Superman. In fact, I am far from it. I am lazy, unfocused, and impatient. Plus, I never hired a teacher because I stubbornly convinced myself that I couldn’t afford it! But, if I could manage to get on TV telling jokes in a tonal language, then you are more than capable of and speaking one!

The only thing stopping you is yourself.

Now tell me: What tonal language have you neglected because you thought it was too hard?

author headshot

Jeremy Ginsburg

Culture Chameleon

Jeremy is a world traveller who's passionate about learning foreign languages and studying cultures. A self-proclaimed "Enterperformer", he plays three instruments and makes YouTube videos for fun.

Speaks: English, Twi, French, Hebrew, Vietnamese

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