How to: Learn a tonal language
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.
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.
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.