Every learner, who is not born into a tonal language, knows and dreads the difficulty of trying to learn a language that distinguishes meaning based on tone. The most famous examples of such languages are Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese languages (for example, Mandarin and Cantonese). Not surprisingly, they are all considered extremely difficult for English speakers to learn. Of course, what one considers a hard language really depends on the individual person but the fact remains that tonal languages are very different to what speakers of all European languages are used to.
Or are they? Tones are nothing more than the feature of a language to distinguish meaning based on the pitch of your voice. While that might sound unfamiliar, everybody actually uses tone to convey and alter meaning, regardless of their native language.
First things first – What is tone?
So, “tone” is just a fancy linguistic term which means that the pitch of your voice can be used to distinguish between words. If you’ve ever come into contact with any type of musical education, you know that pitch essentially refers to distinguishing sounds to higher and lower, and it’s marked with various notes.
What all of that means is that speaking a word in different notes will alter its meaning in a tonal language, as the video below explains:
This is usually the part where every language starts running for the hills. However, as we mentioned, all languages use tone to signify meaning. It’s just a question of how much.
In English, for example, you can use pitch to show whether a word (or a sentence) should be taken as a question or a statement of fact. You only need to look at the header for this paragraph to see that. When asking someone “Really?”, you would certainly finish the word on a higher note than when you’re simply stating “Really.”, you can even add a third and fourth meaning to cover disbelief (“Really?!”) and sarcasm (“Really…”). In that sense, English and every other language on the planet uses pitch to carry meaning.
The only difference in true tonal languages comes down to the fact that “Really?” and “Really.” would possibly mean different things altogether. In those languages, pitch signifies lexical distinctions as opposed to post-lexical. All of that is a complicated way of saying that tonal languages use pitch to make words different, while all languages use pitch to express the speaker’s intention.
Don’t stress it
Stress is another feature used by all languages, which is remarkably similar to tones. The importance of stress in English can be demonstrated by the old joke “How do you tell the difference between a plumber and a chemist?” “Ask them to pronounce unionised.” You see how where you put the stress in the word “unionised” completely changes its meaning, much like tones do in some languages. There are many other examples in English and in pretty much every other language on the planet.
While stress is not the same as pitch, you can see how you’re already very familiar with some features of language which change a word’s meaning based on how it’s said.
Conclusion – You’re already much more familiar with tones than you thought
So, tonal languages are not that difficult because you’ve already used tones to signify meaning in your native language. While it might not be exactly the same because pitch in a non-tonal language will only be used to signify the speaker’s intentions, you also know another feature, which does change a word’s meaning based on how it’s said – stress. All of that means that you’re much more familiar with tones in a language than you thought.