Learning a tonal language? Can't carry a tune? Does this mean you are doomed to sound funny, to get funny looks from the nationals you speak to, to get mice instead of milk because you got the tone wrong? Not necessarily!
There is a difference in musical “tone” and language “tone.” Musical tone is a specific pitch in exact intervals with other pitches. Some people cannot hear the difference between a series of pitches which distinguish a certain melody. Some of us can hear the difference, but cannot produce the same difference when we try! Language tone, on the other hand, is simply a relative distinction between pitch levels which occur in the individual speaker's voice range.
My wife Edith once commented that children always the mimic the tones first. Pitch distinction is a natural skill, part of that “readiness” the Lord gives us, part of the analytical learning “equipment” we are born with. We express emotion by change of tone: high, long tones for anger or excitement, low, rising and falling tones for comfort.
Think how strange people sound when talking their “baby talk” to babies. The tone rises and falls much more and goes lower and higher that in normal speech. Perhaps this is because we subconsciously exaggerate the tone distinctions to be sure the baby hears the difference.
Listen to an Italian tourist speaking English. The consonants will be close to English. Vowels may be similar enough to be understood. But close your eyes. The speech tones sound Italian. The production forms of our voice in our native language carries over into our second language.
You use English tones when you speak English. If you are unaware of the tonal quality of your native language, you will carry over your native tones into your new language. This will cause interference.
Learners tend to focus on segments, that is, the consonants and vowels. These, of course, are important. But the characteristic “natural sound” of the language is dependent more upon on the tones. We call this intonation.
In this sense every language in the world is a tonal language. Intonation is a feature of every language, whether or not it has tone distinctions for meaning of individual words.
How many ways can you say the English word “Well” with a different meaning? A question, a sigh, exasperation, exclamation, etc. The segments are the same -- only the intonation is different.
What about the American words for yes, no or “what?” -- expressed in grunts: huh? uh-huh, huh-uh, uhh. (Be sure to get the nasalization right!) There are so many ways to express slightly different feeling or meaning with each of these.
There is no native speaker of English who cannot master these distinctions. If you can speak English, you can hear and produce tones. It's just that the tones are different for your second language. Musicians may hear and distinguish them more easily, simply due to their ear training in pitch discrimination. But there is no direct link between musical tone and language tone.
Then how can you master the new tonal patterns of your new language? Experience and practice. If learners put in as much time practicing tones as they did conjugating verbs and declining nouns, tones in their speech would sound more natural.
Make up drills for the patterns. For instance, for a question in Swahili, you need to rise then fall sharply on the end. In English you rise. Get a short sentence that goes up on the end. Get your language helper to give you several examples (no more than seven). Listen to the helper read them, so you can zero in on that one pattern. Then try to mimic. Then try to say them from memory or read them, with correction.
Any pattern you want to learn should be drilled in this simple pattern. Learn word tones the same way. Set out a list of two-syllable words with the different tone patterns. Get your helper to select these or use printed resources. It is best to start with actual words that have come up in your lessons. Then add other words with the same tone pattern.
To drill tone you do not have to know the meaning of the words. Get two-syllable words with two high tones, then high-low, then low-low, then low-high, if these all exist. Some languages have three or more levels, plus rising and falling.
Start simple, then work up. Listen selectively to one pattern at a time, then contrast various patterns. Train your ear for language tones, the way a musician trains the ear for musical tones. You did it in English, you can do it in Zulu or Uighur!
Tunes and Tones: Singing the Language
Working on Tones
version of this article first published in "Techniques" series, Focus on Communication Effectiveness, December 1992
This version written 20 October 2005
First posted 28 October 2005
last edited 7 October 2008
Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 1992, 2005
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.