Most of the time when somebody considers learning Cantonese, Vietnamese, Thai, or any of the other hundreds of languages that use tones, they will encounter a person discouraging them from learning it because it is obviously impossible to learn a tonal language. Tones are evidently considered so difficult to handle that of the five languages categorised as exceptionally difficult for English speakers to learn, three are tonal. Of course, there are other factors at play for categorising languages easy or difficult, but tones really seem to put a lot of learners off a language.
So, what are tones and what seems to make them so difficult for language learners with a western background?
Tones Mean Words Differ in Meaning According to Pitch
We’ve briefly covered what tones are in our post about how hard Mandarin is to learn since it also happens to be most common tonal language. Essentially, tonal languages use pitch (how you determine high and low notes in music) to give words different meanings, even if the rest of the words is otherwise pronounced in the same way.
While all spoken languages use tones, the ones most common in Europe only use it to convey emotion and emphasis. In these languages, using tones just makes you sound like not a robot. Tonal languages go a step further and use pitch to differentiate between words. To understand better, just take a look at this excellent video from the NativLang channel on Youtube:
Definitely do ignore the last part of the video about tones being notoriously difficult, however. Although they have that reputation, it is mostly undeserved.
Tones Are Used in European Languages (Almost)
Probably the biggest reason why tones have such a notoriety for difficulty is that they do not appear in European languages and thus seem an incredibly foreign way of constructing a language.
But, as we have already stated, all languages actually use tones to give additional meaning to spoken words. In this limited sense, we call this feature intonation. Although this is obviously not exactly the same as fully tonal languages, it definitely makes the idea of using pitch to distinguish between words seem a lot less foreign. Especially since intonation actually matters a lot even in a language like English.
Additionally, even some European languages make use of pitch accent – a type of a limited tonal system. Swedish, Norwegian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Serbo-Croatian all do this. For example, in Latvian, the word zāle can mean either grass or hall, depending on the tone used. With pitch accent, tones used to differentiate between words are limited to only one or two per word, unlike fully tonal ones that can have a tone for each separate syllable.
Separating themselves from the other major Asian languages, Japanese and Korean (except for some dialects) also only use pitch accent and are not tonal, as is often thought. Although it is sometimes argued that the term pitch accent doesn’t really correspond to any properly defined linguistic feature, it certainly relates to the use of both intonation and tones.
In any case, it turns out tones are simply a linguistic device for giving words different meanings and some European languages even use a more-or-less limited form of the same tool. They’re not seeming so foreign anymore, are they?
Tonal Languages Can Have Easier Grammar
Thanks to the use of tones to carry meaning, a lot of the tonal languages have very simple grammar compared to some of the European languages. Take Hungarian with its 18 cases, or Bulgarian verb tenses – these can in many ways be considered a lot more difficult than struggling with five different ways of saying one word.
Chinese doesn’t conjugate verbs to determine time or show singularity and plurality, for example. These are aspects that make a lot of the more common European languages a real headache to learn. Although, simple grammar does seem to a feature shared by the major Asian languages. Once you get over the initial shock of dealing with a different alphabet, or an entirely novel writing system, you can also discover that, for example, Korean doesn’t bother with genders or changing nouns depending on the case and Japanese shares the simple grammar features of Chinese.
But, of course, language difficulty is very subjective and depends greatly on your motivation and personal preferences.
Conclusion – Tones Are Different But Not Difficult
Tonal languages use different linguistic devices to create meaning in words. Although most speakers of European languages are not used to pitch causing words to have different meanings, it is no way more difficult than struggling with the complicated grammar of cases or conjugation. The way to make tonal languages simple, is to simply keep practicing the different ways of saying words. Don’t forget that even if you get a tone wrong, the locals will still be able to infer meaning from context, so don’t worry and keep at it!