How to deal with tonal languages

Learners of tonal languages have a hard time when first starting out. Listening can be extremely difficult, and words that sound completely different to native speakers sound exactly the same to you.

I assure you, this is perfectly normal. Every learner has to go through this at some point.

But if you know how to go about it, you will be surprised how quickly you can get used to the tones in a new language.


What is a tone?


A tonal language is a language where the tone of what you say effects its meaning. Common in East Asia, a few examples of some tonal languages are all Chinese languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka etc), Vietnamese and Thai.

However, the concept of tones is not quite as alien as it might seem on first sight.

We have things like this in English as well. For example:

  1.  "That's not your computer"
  2. "That's not your computer?"
  3.  "That's NOT your computer"


In the example above, we have the same sentence spoken in three different ways. In example 1, there is not much inflection, this is simply a statement of fact.

In the second example, an upwards inflection can change a statement into a question.

And in the third example, stressing the word "not", changes the inflection of the whole sentence. Like you are warning the person, or telling them off.

See how in English when we change the intonation of words it can change the overall inflection of a sentence. The only difference with tonal languages, is that it changes the meaning of the word.

For the sake of this post, I will illustrate my examples using Cantonese.

Lets take the sound "si".

In Cantonese there are 6 tones. As you change the tone of the sound "si", the meaning changes with it. The six tones of Cantonese are illustrated by the diagram below:

Note in the transliteration, how the letters correspond to the sound, and the number to the tone.

As you can see from the example above, for the same sound "Si", there are different meanings depending on the tone used. For example with the 2nd tone (mid rising tone), it has the meaning of history, and with 3rd tone (middle flat tone) it has the meaning of try.

Tones coupled with the fact that they are typically present in languages very different from English can make listening very hard at first. But there is no need to worry, this is completely normal and part of the process that everyone has to go through when learning their first tonal language.

If you know the right way to go about learning tones, then you will be surprised with how far you can come in just a few short months.


What is the best way to learn tones?


Traditionally what I have seen people do, is try to remember the tone for every single word or character they come across in isolation. Then when it comes time to speak, they end up stuttering and taking way too long to form a sentence. This is because they have to carefully think about each syllable they say.

This sort of approach is completely unnatural, and you will never be able to get to a comfortable conversational level if you go about it in this way.

What I recommend instead, is having something like the picture above as a reference point to look to.

Then when you first start learning put a huge emphasis on listening. When you are listening to your dialogues, pay special attention to the tone markings in the script (or transliteration if you are learning Chinese, for example Pinyin). If you forget what a symbol means, then go back to the chart for reference.

Listen to the word, and read at the same time. Make sure to listen to how the tones fit together to form phrases and sentences. Tones are relevant to each other, and may change when coupled with other words as well. So thinking in chunks is a great way to get started, and understanding tones better.

In doing this for a few weeks, you will naturally get used to the sounds of the language and before long remember all of the tones and be able to start distinguishing them in your dialogues.

While there is no quick fix to master the tones, a lot of listening with special attention to the tone markings will help you a lot. Especially as a beginner.

If you are learning a Chinese language, like Mandarin or Cantonese, this is another reason why I recommend to hold off learning characters at the start. This is so you can focus your attention on the new sounds of the language, and train your ear to be able to pick the tones out in context.



How can I produce the tones accurately and comfortably in conversation?

Notice up to now for the most part, all I have spoken about is listening and being able to distinguish the tones from one another in context.

This is because listening and being able to hear the sounds has to come before production. If we try to produce before we can recognize the sounds, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

This is why I recommend such a big emphasis on listening when you first start, especially with a tonal language.

However, if your goal is to speak, then you should start speaking early. Normally, I recommend about a month after first starting with the language.

So how can I make sure I get my tones accurate when speaking?

The best thing by far I recommend for this is to find a patient language partner or teacher to help you practice.

Also it's best to do this over the internet, this way your teacher can easily write down the pronunciation and tone of the word as well as saying it. This gives you an extra point of reference to help you recognize the correct pronunciation before you try and produce.

When you first start out practice having simple basic every day conversations.

Make sure to ask to be corrected when you get the tone wrong. When you first start out feedback is essential. It is much better to get this right at an earlier stage, then it is to try and defossilize bad habits later down the line.

As you start to build up your vocabulary and become more comfortable producing the correct tones in simple conversations you can slowly branch out into more interesting topics. Making sure to work with a attentive partner or teacher to help correct you as you go.




Tones can seem intimidating at first, but you will be surprised with a lot of listening how quickly you can start to pick them out and make sense of everything.

Make sure to look at phrases and sentences, and not to learn tones of single words or characters in isolation.

The first step is being able to understand and recognize the tones in context, and then move onto speaking.

Make sure when you start output, you work with a partner or teacher who can give you instant feedback and support.

Context is king. Being able to understand and deduce what is being said only becomes easier and easier the broader your vocabulary gets, so things will only become clearer with time.

It will seem hard at first, but it does get better over time. If you keep going you will be able to start understanding and picking out words in full speed conversation before you know it.

Have you learnt a tonal language before? What barriers or obstacles did you find most difficult about it? What do you think is the best way to deal with tones?