Still having trouble hearing those tones? Did you ask for a pig instead of a soda? Do your questions sound like proclamations? Join the rest of us happy language learners!
How can you learn to hear the difference between high-high-low-high-fall and high-low-rise-high? By listening. But the problem is you can't hear. By listening. But it is so frustrating and tiring. By listening.
You can listen in situations when you don't have to respond. Attend meetings where you are not on the program. Sit in on Bible studies led by your national pastor or friend. Listen for the flow of the language, the up and down.
Listen hard in meetings, classes, worship services and cafes. Cafes? Yes, don't overlook the informal resources just made to order, waiting for you to happen along! Tea time is learning time, listening time. Listen actively some of the time, and passively some of the time.
Active listening in situations like those listed above will help. The more you listen, the more you can hear. The more you hear, the more distinct their tones become to you. In active listening you are concentrating on a particular feature, in this case tones. Don't write down new vocabulary words. Write words when working on vocabulary. Listen to tones when working on tones.
Then there are passive exercises, too. These involve listening without concentrating. One of the fallacies of the US school approach to learning is that we can't learn unless we are concentrating. But we do some of our best learning when we are not concentrating. So how do you learn without concentrating?
Radio and TV! Just keep them running in the background, while you are doing something else around the house. Let your subconscious learn while you do something else!
Watch the news on TV, because it is supported by pictures. And you will have some idea what is going on. You may even understand what is being said. But remember, you are not working on comprehension, but tones!
Just let it flow around you. Just listen to the music of the flow! Don't try to capture it! Just let it flow!
The crowds. Every society has crowds. Just go out into the street. Walk through the market. Loiter in cafes. Listen to Muslim street preachers. Just put yourself in situations where the language is going on around you.
Most of us catch ourselves singing or humming a tune, and then wonder where we heard it. “It sounds familiar, but I can't place it.” But we were singing/humming it! Tones are the same way. As you hear the music of the language around you, the patterns come together, not in your concentrating consciousness, but in your free-learning sub-conscious! This means you must be where you do hear the language all around you!
Music itself is an additional benefit. Popular and folk music follows the tones of the spoken language. And remember, you are not listening for entertainment – you are listening for tones!
With coffee-shop conversation and radio and music, you will get a valuable cultural flavor, and the models you pick up will serve as subconscious input to your own production. TV or live drama are also good sources for tones and intonation. You will get a mix of styles from drama and radio: conversation, formal news or public speech, interviews.
Keep in mind the concept of model. You must have an adequate model if you are ever to produce acceptable speech. So you need to focus on hearing models of that speech. The input model is the foundation of the production output!
Hear and internalize (passively and actively) in order to produce naturally and fluently.
Accent, Dialect and Language
Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
I'm Tone Deaf
Mastering the Models
Tunes and Tones: Singing the Language
What Makes a Dialect a Dialect?
Original version of this article published in "Techniques" series, Focus on Communication Effectiveness, April 1994
This version written 20 October 2005
First posted 28 October 2005
last edited 7 December 2011
Copyright © 1994, 2005 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.