Tips for learning a tonal language?
May 10, 2009 7:01 PM   Subscribe

Tips for learning a tonal language?

I'm taking Beginners' Vietnamese. It's a tonal language, like Mandarin, Cantonese, Thai etc., and I'm finding it very hard.

I think I've got quite a good ear for sounds, and I'm a little musical, so it's not the fact that tones are involved that's the problem, I'm fine with the concept.

It's just a lot to cope with, learning new words and learning the tonal thing at the same time. Or maybe I'm just getting old.

Does anyone, particularly teachers or students who've worked with tonal languages, have any tips?

[Vietnamese, in case you don't know, is written with the roman alphabet, and the tones are indicated by diacritical marks, so you can at least look at a word and see which tone it uses, you don't have to memorise that.]
posted by AmbroseChapel to Education (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I only have a couple years of learning Mandarin.
What I found helpful was to feel each tone had a little emotion to it. Like the descending tone was jabbing your finger as you said it. The high flat done was sort of shrugging wistfully. I think it made it easier to learn the tones and say them correctly even if the emotion isn't "really" part of the words (or is it).

Also I think in any language it helps to be a mimic as well, to learn it not trying to sound like "yourself" (if you're doing that) but trying to match the pitch and meter of the native speakers first. Maybe that's obvious, though.
posted by fleacircus at 7:34 PM on May 10, 2009

When learning Mandarin, I always found it very useful to listen to a lot of native speakers talking, even if I didn't know what they were saying. I would listen to the radio and watch TV, and try to pick out the sounds and the tones and get used to hearing the words that way, with their tones. When it's separate from meaning - i.e. you can't understand them, but you know enough to pick out just the separate sounds - I found that it was easier to hear the different tones later, when I was actually learning the meanings. Worked for me, YMMV.
posted by gemmy at 7:39 PM on May 10, 2009

I took 5 semesters of Mandarin Chinese in college and got to maybe conversational level. However, I was never able to learn to hear the tones very well, even if I had people enunciate things very clearly. My mind just didn't seem to work that way. That said, you can still understand pretty well, even ignoring the tones -- the language just has a lot more homophones.

But it's absolutely critical to produce the tones when you speak. People always complimented my pronunciation, and I was careful to use the right tone with each syllable. I could never quite just let myself go and trust that it would come out right. In English, the tone of my speech is inextricably linked to my emotional state, and that would carry over into Chinese if I weren't careful.

So what I did was I learned each word, and filed away each tone with each syllable. I had a good memory for that sort of thing, it turned out. Each tone I had practiced a lot and had a little mental trick to make me say it right: 1 tone was "singing out", 2nd tone was question, etc. Eventually, if I knew I wanted, say, 3rd tone then 1st tone for a word, I could produce it easily without resorting to any mnemonics. Then I would carefully take each syllable as it was ready to come out, make note of the tone I memorized along with it, and then sent it through my internal "tone producer".

I also rehearsed over and over lots of common dialogues and phrases, so that those could come out a little faster with the proper tones.

But sadly, I was never able to really let go and just speak. If I were questioning, excited, etc, it would always creep in if I weren't watching for it, and make the words unintelligible. Maybe with more time and practice I could have avoided that, though.
posted by losvedir at 7:46 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Having a musical ear may or may not help. The only way to get the tones down is by sitting with a native speaker who will stop you on every single tonal mistake. It's like learning to walk again. Until you are able to speak without thinking "this sound plus this tone" you've not actually truly learned the pronunciation.

So yea, get a persistent teacher, a stick to give them to smack you with for every tonal mistake, and a devoted and chipper attitude about expanding your mind. Good luck!
posted by FuManchu at 7:54 PM on May 10, 2009

God I hear you, also learning viet. What's helped me (precious little, it's hard!) is as intimated above - trying not to 'sound' like yourself. Once I gave up trying to convey my personality or mood it improved.

I see your local-ish. I have some cd's, mp3's etc. Memail me if you want I'm happy to send. :)
posted by smoke at 8:02 PM on May 10, 2009

I studied Chinese in college and never got very far with the tones. I'm going through and re-learning the words I had learned then and I'm making an effort to make sure I learn the tones as I go.

What I've been doing is using a flashcard program (one happens to have been written for my exact textbook, which was pretty nice) and simply not considering a card 'correct' unless I get the tone right. I've been doing pretty well that way, actually.

So I would just say practice, practice, practice. You've just to memorize the tones as you go, and make sure you don't consider a word 'learned' unless you can remember what tone goes with it.
posted by delmoi at 8:13 PM on May 10, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, I appreciate your help.

smoke, I'll email you, thanks for the offer.

delmoi, I think you missed the part where I said the tones are visible in Vietnamese script.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 8:57 PM on May 10, 2009

I took about a semester of conversational Mandarin. My approach was kind of ridiculous but I would remember the tones primarily by making a hand gesture in the air which I associated with each tone as I said the word. I did do pretty well remembering and pronouncing the tones and was commended on this by other students and the instructors but I became somewhat dependent on the hand gestures, it was almost like cheating at arithmetic by counting on your fingers.

So it might have developed into an impediment if I'd continued learning; certainly the instructors at least considered it weird.
posted by XMLicious at 9:01 PM on May 10, 2009

I have observed people who have problems with tones (I speak Mandarin so I'll use it as my example of a tonal language) and I find that it basically sounds like they're speaking English, but saying Chinese words. It has less to do with the individual words and more the overall tone "contour" of the sentence - sort of like you could identify what language people are speaking if you heard their muffled voices through a wall, not quite loud enough to hear distinct words.

Of course, as a beginner it's difficult to pick up this natural "rhythm", so I agree with the posters above that you should instead make your voice as neutral as possible. It's better to speak slow and enunciate your tones properly in the beginning than attempting to speak fast and disregarding your tones.

I also remember seeing a website for people learning Mandarin where they suggested that you accompany each tone with a physical action. Of course this is impractical for normal speech but some of my friends found it helpful when they were learning to produce the tones properly. For example, they said you should stomp your feet for the falling tone, raise your eyebrows for the rising tone, etc.
posted by pravit at 9:10 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding listening. When I was trying to learn Mandarin it took quite a while before I could even break down what I was hearing into individual words reliably. Listening to people a lot really helps with that, even if you can't understand what they're saying.

As for the tones, I found that once I stopped thinking of them as something at all separate from the sound, or really thinking of them much at all, it got easier. I focused on saying things exactly as I heard them, and that worked pretty well. So yes, seconding what was said about about mimicking.

A kind of mental trick for that is to think of it almost like making fun of someone. When making fun of people by mimicking them you don't just copy what they say, but also the way they say it, including their tones, though exaggerated. You can do the same thing when learning a new words/phrases using that same mimicry, just without exaggerating. Provided you've heard them said aloud by a native speaker, or at least correctly anyway.

so you can at least look at a word and see which tone it uses, you don't have to memorise that.

You might not need to memorize the pronunciation of words to read them correctly, as in Mandarin, but you're definitely going to need to memorize them if you want to talk to anyone!
posted by benign at 9:29 PM on May 10, 2009

Most west African languages are tonal, and when I was learning Yoruba we used a lot of music and songs, since the text had to conform with the tonal contours of a sentence. Luckily, I liked listeneing to Juju and Apala music for hours a day. I had Vietnamese roomates one year, and I seriously could not stand Vietnamese pop music, although I learned a little bit of Tieng Viet.

As with other second languages, immerse yourself in videos, radio, podcasts, music even though you may not be at the level of understanding them yet. After a while you pick up on common sentence structure sound and the tones become clearer without actally memorizing them as separate words.
posted by zaelic at 1:53 AM on May 11, 2009

Also I think in any language it helps to be a mimic as well, to learn it not trying to sound like "yourself" (if you're doing that) but trying to match the pitch and meter of the native speakers first. Maybe that's obvious, though.

Yeah, I'd like to second this one.

Normally, mimicking someone's accent is sort of taboo — we don't want to be culturaly insensitive or sound like we're mocking or whatever. But if you're learning Vietnamese, then you've got to mimic the fuck out of your teacher's Vietnamese accent. Don't repeat his/her words in your own voice; imitate every little nuance. You'll feel funny at first, like you're being rude or exaggerating, but you'll learn how to make it sound right.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:58 AM on May 11, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks again everyone.

I'm very interested in the gesture thing, and I think there's something in the concept of a western taboo about imitating people's speech precisely, I am somewhat inhibited about imitating the speech of my (tiny, female) teacher.

I'm taking an evening class, for those who have asked for details, and using a local Australian textbook and audio, though I'm investigating other computerised options and getting podcasts and so on.

I think a minor problem is that our teacher is teaching us more or less the way you teach children, which is a bit frustrating as an adult.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:57 PM on May 11, 2009

I have to second that you need to mimic native speakers, and of course you need to do a lot of listening to pick out different accents and "voices" among native speakers. Most people can (some better than others) imitate foreign accents while speaking English - do that, except while speaking the other language. Mimicing your female teacher might not be the best idea since men and woman may speak in very different ways depending on the language (e.g. Japanese). Usually I would pick the voice of someone who I felt I could imitate (I'm a male in my 20's so I can't imitate the voice of a man in his 50s with a lot of grit in his voice, nor can I imitate a petite young woman) and try to emulate them as much as possible. If I'm reading silently, I might imagine what it would sound like for them to say a sentence, playing their voice back in my head, and then say it myself.
posted by pravit at 5:38 PM on May 11, 2009

Response by poster: I just thought of something which might help others -- highlighter pens. I'm going through Vietnamese text and making all falling tones green, all rising tones yellow and so on (I'm trying to use mnemonics like "leaves fall from trees" so I remember that green goes with falling).

it's not practical in the long term but it helps me to look at the words diffferently. And of course, it's made me look at them very carefully right now to make myself use the right pen.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 10:24 PM on May 18, 2009

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