Need a way to train my ear to recognize tones accurately so that I can improve my transcription data.
March 4, 2009 8:34 PM   Subscribe

Looking for a flash exercise/game or some way to train my ear to recognizing tone so that I can be a better transcriber. I'm currently researching two tonal languages and I need a way to practice/improve on my skills so that my data is more complete. I don't want to devote a lot of time to this, maybe a few hours. Are there any tools out there that can help me?

Just to be clear, I'm not really looking for info about what tone is, how it works, etc. I just need to practice in a way that allows me to correct inaccuracies. I'm currently pretty bad at recognizing tones. And I'm fairly sure I'm not tone deaf.

posted by iamkimiam to Education (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I've seen software for people learning Mandarin that lets you practice recognizing and producing Mandarin tones. (IIRC, Rosetta Stone does this, f'rinstance.) I imagine there's similar software for some of the other big-name tonal languages — Vietnamese and Cantonese, probably, and maybe some others.

But it sounds from the post like the languages you're working on are pretty obscure, and there's a lot of variation between the tone inventories of different languages. So I'm not sure how much that helps. Hopefully someone else will have a more general solution.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:45 PM on March 4, 2009

(Oops, didn't see the "Zapotec" tag. Right then.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:50 PM on March 4, 2009

Response by poster: No worries. The practice need not be in the language I'm studying. Any tone representations will do, methinks.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:56 PM on March 4, 2009

Best answer: You can try out this Mandarin tone drill. Here is a description of the four tones.
posted by benign at 9:50 PM on March 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been trained as a field linguist, though most of my research was much more concerned with grammatical encoding rather than phonology. Still, I've been there. It's easier to learn tones in general once you 'get it' for one tonal language (like Mandarin as suggested above), but not all tonal languages are equivalent and just because you know one tonal language doesn't mean you'll automatically get the tones in the two languages you're studying (it would be helpful to know what they are), especially if you only have a few hours dedicated to studying this.

The fastest way to learn anything linguistically is to have a native speaker tutor. Being able to ask questions is so potent and so much faster than messing with a flash game in an unrelated language. What I would do is prepare a script for your tutor and have them repeat sentences and words covering all of the tones you want to learn. Also, have them tell a short story that you have a translation of so that you'll be able to hear everything in a natural context. Record everything and listen to the audio over and over. Every time you drive somewhere in your car, every time you wait in line, every time you have a spare moment you should listen to this recording. Drill the words and tones into your head.

Once you think you have everything mastered call your tutor again and have them quiz you, either by having you identify the tones that they say or (if they are less linguistically inclined) repeat some of the words from your recording yourself and have your tutor help correct your pronunciation and tone. Now, keep in mind that not everyone who speaks a tonal language is even aware that they're speaking in tones or what the system for their language is. You will have to be extra thorough to make up for this.

Now, you might be thinking that this is too expensive or that you'll never find people who speak the languages you are studying. Again, I've been there. However, I've always been able to find native language informants by putting up posters around my university campus and offering $10 per hour or a free lunch. I've found Uzbekistani speakers and Tigrinya speakers this way. If you use audio recordings to amplify what you're learning it won't take more than 2 or three hours of your tutor's time to get coverage.
posted by Alison at 5:59 AM on March 5, 2009

Response by poster: Alison, that is an absolutely great idea and I will think of it in future studies. However, the main language I'm studying right now is for a field methods class. I am to do no research whatsoever on THIS actual language outside of class (or related family languages). I realize that tone systems are different for different languages, but any practice will help me so that when I meet with my language consultant for class each week (he is a native speaker of the language I am studying for Field Methods) I will be able to distinguish his tones better. I don't like spending too much of my elicitation time asking him to repeat things over and over because I can't hear his tones. We are not recording on tape at this point.

The other language is Zapotec, which I am studying in advance for, so that this summer I will be prepared and caught up for actual field research in Oaxaca. There will be no speakers of this or related dialects on campus. An exercise/flashgame in Oto-Mangean would be awesome, but I'd be better off wishing on a lotto ticket.

The Mandarin exercise above will help, I'll check that out. Thanks!
posted by iamkimiam at 7:25 AM on March 5, 2009

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