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Even for the tone-deaf, learning a tonal language is possible with the right kind of effort.

When I graduated from college and decided to move to Vietnam rather than take an entry-level job in the US, I figured picking up the language would be a snap, immersion being the greatest of all teachers. One year in Ho Chi Minh City, I thought, would lead to proficiency at the very least.

I am, after all, a language person who finds verb conjugations and noun declinations fascinating. Besides, thanks to Portuguese missionaries Vietnamese is one of the few Asian languages written in Latin characters. No sweat.

The more I looked into it, the more I grew certain that this language would be a snap. It has no verb conjugation, no noun declinations, no adjectival agreement…

It was through this research, however, that I discovered the first half of the information that would be my linguistic downfall: Vietnamese has eleven different vowel sounds and six different tones.

I learned what would be the second part of my downfall the first week in the country, at a karaoke bar with some Vietnamese university students: I am tone deaf.

Even still, it took about three months of immersion before I finally got discouraged to the point of renouncing any non-English language as stupid and completely un-learnable. It was another month before I decided to give it another shot, this time with a different approach.

Get a Tutor

My biggest mistake was assuming that I would absorb the language through exposure. Immersion is a great method when learning a romance language because when you stumble on a word, mispronounce it or use the wrong pronoun, whoever you’re talking to can likely understand and correct you.

Unfortunately, in Vietnamese even the slightest error can make you incomprehensible. It’s a simple intonation that defines the difference between ‘apple’ and ‘turtle’, one that seems subtle to a Western ear but is very apparent to a native tonal speaker. And believe me, that is not a mistake you want to make in a grocery store.

I found this aspect of the language to be the most frustrating, and no matter how many books I read or flashcards I made, I wasn’t making any headway in actual communication because I still couldn’t pronounce the words.

It wasn’t until I found a Vietnamese tutor, who would correct even the slightest mispronunciation, that I really began making progress with the language. Other expats I know had similar success through Vietnamese girlfriends, boyfriends or plain old friends who were endlessly patient and willing to correct their pronunciation.

Forget Your Feelings

We use inflection in our voices to communicate much of what we’re trying to say. Try asking a question without raising your voice at the end, or try being sarcastic without speaking in italics. It’s not easy, but you need to make a conscious effort to keep your voice free of your feelings when speaking Vietnamese, otherwise you’ll be asking for noodles served with ‘father’ instead of ‘beef’.

The trick is simply to be wary of your voice, especially when you ask a question. It helps to run the sentence over in your head before you say it, paying special attention to how it should sound. Think before you speak, just like your mother always told you.

Sing It

Aside from having a tutor beat the tones into me, I also got a lot out of trying my hand at the Vietnamese songs at karaoke night. The tones are worked into the tune and they’re often exaggerated to the point that even an untrained ear can recognize the differences.

Not only did it help me recognize the different tones but it also acted as a pneumonic device when I was trying to use the words in regular speech. There is something about a song that will cement the rising and falling notes of a phrase far more effectively than a notated flashcard ever will.

Over-pronouncing your tones also helps your listener and besides, it’s endless amounts of fun to sing your order to the fruit vendor.

Don’t Give Up

It’s frustrating to work so hard at learning a language and still be incomprehensible to the people you’re speaking with, but don’t give up. It may be twice as hard as that Spanish or French class you took in high school, but it’s also twice as satisfying when you finally become conversant.

Community Connection

If you’re interested in tonal languages, take a look at Matador contributor Michelle Schusterman’s excellent blog post about music and language. Also, have a look at how to learn Chinese and ten extraordinarily useful Japanese phrases for travelers.

Language Learning


About The Author

Whitney Cox

Whitney loves moving around and believes that there is no better way to see the world (and nothing is more important than seeing the world) than to buy a one-way plane ticket somewhere new every twelve months. She is currently living in Washington, DC but will be setting sail (one-way, of course) for New Zealand in the near future.

  • Sarah Menkedick

    I have so, so been there as far as the initial cockiness followed by major humility smackdown goes. When I got to China, I thought, “yeah, sure, I’ll learn Chinese no problem. Some classes, chats with the local people…” I speak fluent French and Spanish but WOW was Chinese another story.

    Something to watch out for : we used to ask “cesuo zai nar?” in Chinese, which we thought meant “where’s the bathroom?” We’d get puzzled look after puzzled look and we thought, frantically, what are we doing wrong? Then finally one day a friend at the university where I worked made a subtle, um, rather crucial correction — turns out we were saying the last word, nar, with a high tone instead of a rising tone, meaning we were saying “there’s the bathroom!” instead of “where’s the bathroom?”

  • Michelle

    Great article. Musical training can be so helpful when learning a language- it’s all about intonation, aural skills, listening for subtle inflections…

    Always baffled me when I was a band director how the ESL students were pulled out of band/choir to take extra English classes. Counter-productive.

  • Liv

    I really enjoyed and related to your article. I lived in Japan for 2.5 years and, like you, assumed that I would just pick up the language in a matter of months. I do speak 3 languages, after all. So wrong. At 2.5 years of study I’m just breaking Intermediate level. They say it takes a native English speaker 12 years to become fluent!!

    Then I visited Vietnam. I thought it might be easier to pick up a few phrases because the language is written in Roman characters. HA! Tones? What? Up, down, up, down, what? I gobbled at everyone I met for the next 5 days, trying to master the simple phrase “thank you.” So humbling. So rough. Good for you for keeping with it – so many people simply give up when they encounter an ounce of difficulty.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Great tips there! I’m likely taking on Thai next, so the tonal aspect will be the biggest challenge ahead. Even other European languages require a very different tone in sentences compared to English, and I love musical subtleties – can’t wait to learn all this incorporated into a language :)

  • Christine Garvin

    Wow, I would be horrible at trying to learn Vietnamese then, since I can’t even seem to learn German (where my mother’s whole family lives) AND am totally tone deaf myself.

    Thanks for the tips, nonetheless!

  • joshywashington

    In my 6 months in Vietnam I managed to say maybe a half dozen phrases. I wasn’t trying too hard to learn but the sing-song aspect of Vietnamese was more like memorizing music than learning a language to me.

    Great post!

  • Nancy

    Really cool post. I’m curious-do they ever transcribe tonal language words onto actual sheet music? That would be a great idea for flashcards.

  • Valerie

    Yep, learning a tonal, Asian language is a completely different ballgame from any European language. I guess I will grudgingly acknowledge now that I was lucky to have studied Mandarin as a child so it was easy for me to pick up the tones. I had a really great teacher who was good at explaining the different rising and dipping tones, so that helped too.

    I definitely commend anyone who can master a tonal language – it’s probably the equivalent of 5 European languages.

  • Turner

    Tone deaf in Vietnam – my condolences. That’s one reason I tell people Thai is much more difficult than Japanese; in Japan, there are only one sound for each vowel. In Thai… five each? Can anyone remind me what that sentence means: mai mai mai mai mai?

  • Tim Patterson

    Very good article. Especially liked the line about singing an order to the fruit vendor!

  • Grant Lingel

    Great post and wonderful advice! There really is nothing better than learning new languages and overcoming the long road it takes to become conversational!

  • Whitney

    I’ve never seen that done before, but I imagine if you’ve had musical training that might help. Sadly, I lack experience with sheet music so I can’t say for sure.

  • Marie

    Great ideas, Whitney. I’ve also lived in VN and should’ve stayed longer as I never got past survival language mode. I’ve been learning Thai off and on for a number of years and when I go there and am surrounded by the sounds a lot falls into place for me. But by the time I visit the next time it feels like I’m starting all over! Someone needs to invent an ear trainer. Turner, I think you’re talking about the phrase, “Green wood doesn’t burn, does it?”

  • Sid

    I guess it’s a blessing to be raised tri-lingual, eh?
    I’m fluent in English, Vietnamese, and Lao, but unfortunately, I can only write in English. I can still read in Vietnamese and Lao, at least.

  • Jeff

    This is a method called HPVT (High Variability Phonetic Training) of teaching people to distinguish between sounds aren’t differentiated in their native languages. For example, in Russian there are two sounds that both sound like “sh” to untrained English ears, because we only have one “sh” sound.

    I could tell the difference when I had a Russian speaker say both sounds a few times alternating–”sh, sch, sh, sch”–and I can even produce both now, but if I were to hear either one alone in a sentence or word, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which it was. HPVT is supposed to train you to do that.

    I’m considering using this method for Spanish’s r/rr, but it sounds like the perfect way to learn tones, and I intend to use it for the tonal language I’m trying to learn as well. Only thing is, there’s more than two tones. Worth a try, though.

    This is probably important–”If you test repeatedly on a single example, subjects won’t be able to generalize to other examples. If you use just one speaker, then subjects won’t be able to generalize to the productions of others. But experience with a few different repetitions of a few dozen example types by each of a half a dozen or so varied speakers seems to be enough to allow generalization to new examples and new speakers.”

  • anne

    Great article and very encouraging — one small note — it’s mnemonic, not pneumonic

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