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Tunes and Tones:  Singing the Language
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Sitting in an outdoor cafe in the streets of Nairobi, I would hear many different languages.  Tourists from various lands would use their English in this African capital.  You could usually tell what their native language was, from their accent in English.

Tones and Accents
Close your eyes.  Listen to the speech around you.  The melody of the language is often the most distinctive characteristic.  We know there are accents due to some interference from the way we speak our native language.  The production forms of our voice in our mother tongue carry over into our second language.  You use English tones when you speak English.

If you are unaware of the tonal quality of your native language, you will carry over your native tones into your new language.  This will cause interference, which might be serious enough to create confusion in the hearer.

Tuning the Tones
English speakers seem to be afraid of tones in other languages.  I have heard the question many times about some language mentioned, “Does that language have tones?” Americans interested in working overseas may ask about the language of a prospective country of assignment, “Is that language a tone language?  I don't want to go where they speak a tonal language.”

Tones are changes of pitch on individual syllables that give words unique meanings, just like changes in consonants or vowels.  What is it about tones that frightens people?  After all, billions of people around the world speak tone languages.  They learn these as tiny children.  Yet “tones” seems to be a major roadblock to some language learners.

Tunes or Tones
Have you ever noticed how speakers of some foreign languages sound like they are singing?  The patterns of some languages can sound like music to a foreigner.  But in reality, all languages have a unique melody of their own.  There are two phenomena of language that lend languages their unique musical quality: the intonation of the sentences and the tones of words.

Though any variation of pitch has a musical quality, there is a difference in musical “tone” and language “tone.” Musical tone is a specific pitch in exact intervals with other pitches.

Language tone, on the other hand, is simply a relative distinction between pitch levels which occur in the individual speaker's voice range.  Many people are unable to “carry a tune,” or match a pitch, but everybody masters the tonal qualities of their native tongue.

Emotional Tones
Pitch distinction is a natural skill, probably part of our neural makeup – part of the analytical learning “equipment” we are born with.  We express emotion by change of tone: high, long tones for anger or excitement, low, rising and falling tones for comfort.  Even the “tone deaf” can express emotion in their own language!

Think about “baby talk” English speakers use with their babies.  Notice how silly they sound, as they exaggerate the tone distinctions to be sure the baby hears the difference.

Tones and Intonation
Learners tend to focus on the consonants and vowels.  It was always an amusing cause of concern when someone was really having trouble with pronunciation in a language I was helping them with.  Many learners never heard the difference in intonation.

Some students do not naturally hear that characteristic “natural sound” of the language.  This unique, melodic sound of each language is dependent more upon on the tones than on the production of sounds.  And nfortunately, teachers don’t seem to focus on intonation, either!  If learners put in as much time practicing tones as they did conjugating verbs and declining nouns, tones in their speech would sound more natural.

In this sense every language in the world is a tonal language.  Intonation is a feature of every language, whether or not it has tone distinctions for meaning of individual words.

How many ways can you say the English word “Well” or “What” with a different meaning?  Question, exclamation, dismay, plea, disbelief, consternation, fear, etc.?  The segments are the same – only the intonation is different.  And what about that all-round powerful word “Okay”?  Wow!  You could play with that one all day!

How many ways can you say yes, no with nothing but grunts?  The difference is in the intonation, or the tone, of the word.  There are so many ways to express slightly different feeling or meaning with each of these.

You're a Master!
You can easily make the distinction in English because you have already mastered those distinctions.  It seems natural.  But you just can’t remember all the extreme concentration exerted by your brain when you were an infant or young child.  If you can speak English, you can hear and produce tones.  What you need to do is awaken that deep awareness inside you.

Listen to a baby lying in its cot or carrier seat.  Babies are always “cooing,” singing and babbling to themselves.  Listen to how they “sing” to themselves.  Often a baby will repeat the intonation of a phrase you speak to them.

Working On Tones
But wait, you say.  I’m not a baby.  It’s easy for them.  This is still going to take a lot of work.  Well, yes!  And, no doubt, you’ll get tired and maybe discouraged along the way.  But it does not have to be drudge!

Are you still getting blank stares or frowns instead of laughs and nods?  Yes, tones can be frustrating.  Even the intonation of a sentence is hard to master in a foreign language.  But look, your best resource is simply listening!

Of course, there are technical drills and some of these are more productive than others.  But never overlook your natural surroundings as great resources.

Just Listen
Active listening in unstructured situations is great!  (You’re listening now to the music of the language, not primarily the meaning.) You can listen in situations when you don't have to respond.  Attend meetings where you are not on the program.  Listen hard in meetings, classes, worship services and cafes.

Cafes?  Yes, coffee shops are where it happens in most cultures.  Or tea may be the thing!  Tea time is learning time, listening time.  Don't overlook the informal resources just waiting for you!  Watch it while you hear it!  Listen actively some of the time (trying to see what you can understand), and passively some of the time (just letting the general flow surround you).  Listen to the musical flow of the natural hubbub.

The more you listen, the more you can hear.  The more you hear, the more you listen and the more often you listen – the more distinct their tones become to you.  And don't write down new vocabulary words. This is ear and brain practice, not word-capture practice!  You are working on sound, flow, melody, the music of the language, not the meaning segments!

Radio and TV!  Talk radio or TV news are great resources for hearing tones and intonation! But remember, you are not working on comprehension, but tones!

And you are not practicing, you are just listening!  You are building context.  You are trying to familiarize your sub-conscious with the ambient sounds of your target language.  You are building your internal context.  But that can only happen if you are out in the real-world context of that language.

As your sub-conscious builds its store of the sound patterns of the language in society, those patterns become a part of your working model.  In a natural way, your “language melody context” grows.

With coffee-shop conversation and radio and music, you will get a valuable cultural flavor, and the models around you become subconscious brain fodder for your own production.

Tonal Model
You just want to establish in your brain the tonal model of your target language.  This becomes part of your automatic reference bank when you converse.  The higher the account in your automatic tone bank, the more natural you will sound, and the less you will have to consciously focus on tones.

This theme is also addressed in the related articles:
[TXT] Tone Deaf
[TXT] Stressful Words and Sentences
[TXT] Working on Tones

Also related:
[TXT] Accent, Dialect and Language
[TXT] Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
[TXT] Mastering the Models
[blog] What Makes a Dialect a Dialect?


Written and posted on OJTR 7 October 2008
Last edited 7 December 2011

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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