What Is a Tonal Language And How Do You Learn One?

So you’ve decided you want to learn a tonal language. That’s great! But where do you even start? What even is a tonal language, for that matter? Let’s find out! 

A tonal language is one that uses the pitch of your voice to change the meaning of a word. This often means that words have four or five different meanings. Learning a tonal language requires patience, immersion, and the help of some language-learning software.

What Is Tone?

Simply put, tone in linguistics terms is the use of pitch to inflect meaning on a word.

This inflexion can be lexical or grammatical—or, the meaning of a word itself or the meaning of the sentence as a whole.

Believe it or not, most languages in the world use tones to some extent. Ever notice how when you ask a question in English, your pitch rises at the end of the sentence? That’s just one example of how tone works. There are other examples, such as where the stress goes on any given word or whether your pitch drops or raises. But we’ll save those for another day. 

What Is A Tonal Language?

A tonal language, then, is a language that uses distinctive tonal patterns called tonemes to distinguish words. Phonemes, by contrast, use distinct sounds to distinguish words. Take the English words pat and bat or dog and log, for example. The consonant sounds at the beginning of each word distinguish the difference between them. 

Now consider the Chinese phoneme “ma,” perhaps one of the most common example of a tonal language. Depending on which intonation is inflected on the phoneme “ma,” it can have up to five different meanings. It is these intonations that turn the phoneme into a toneme.

The two main distinctions that differentiate tonal languages from other, non-tonal languages are:

  1. The inflexions happen on a syllabic level, and
  2. The meaning of the word is dependent on tone. 

When you think of tonal languages, the first ones that come to mind are typically Chinese, Vietnamese, or Thai. But you can find tonal languages spoken in almost every corner of the world. Believe it or not, as many as 70% of world languages are tonal! 

Types of Tonal Languages

While the exact details of what defines a tonal language are widely debated amongst linguists, there are two generally accepted types of tonal languages.

Complex Tonal Languages

The first type is the complex tonal language. These languages typically use multiple different tones (often called “tone contours”) to differentiate between words. Other than the examples named above, this type also includes languages like Yoruba, Igbo, Punjabi, even Navajo. 

Simple Tonal Languages

The second type is called the simple tonal language, or the pitch-accent language. Pitch-accent languages typically only use two tones—one high and one low—and use these pitches rather than stressing syllables in words. Some examples of pitch-accent languages are Japanese, Swedish, Turkish, and Tagalog.   

So now that you know the basics of what tonal languages are and how they work…how do you go about learning them? 

Learning Tonal Languages

1. Learn the tones before you learn the words

This may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many language learners skip this step.

Learning words in tonal languages will get you nowhere if you mispronounce them and no one understands you. Learn the alphabet of the language first, including which tones are associated with the appropriate marks.

Sometimes these tone markers are independent of the letters, and sometimes they’re restricted to certain letters. Building this foundation will help you pronounce words correctly, regardless of whether you actually understand the word. 

The clear exception to this rule is Chinese. While Chinese speakers do use pinyin to aid in teaching pronunciation, it will not get you anywhere when learning vocabulary. You can still use pinyin to learn tones, but you’ll have to learn words and their pronunciations the hard way. There’s no “spelling it out” in Chinese.

When learning tones, you may find it helpful to assign motions to help you associate. You might move your hand in the direction of the tone markers in Chinese. Or you might make faces to help you associate certain feelings to the tones in Punjabi. There’s really no wrong way to go about this—you’re literally creating muscle memory this way!

2. Learn one tone at a time.

You don’t want to bite off more than you can chew.

When you focus on one tone at a time, you’ll give yourself the advantage of learning how to distinguish it from other sounds. 

Let’s say you’re learning Chinese, and you can’t distinguish between and at first.

You decide to focus on learning the tone for . After a week or two of focusing only on the tone used in , you’re presented with all five Chinese tones. You would be able to single that one tone out, even if you couldn’t distinguish between the other four. All of this without even knowing a single definition. It’s just learning the sounds!

From there you would build upon that tone to the next, and then to the next. Once you’ve learned all the tones in a language and how to reliably recognize them, then you’re ready to start tackling vocabulary. Luckily, most languages seem to cap around seven to eight tones.

3. Listen, listen, listen!

More than any other language, tonal languages pose a particular challenge for listening comprehension, especially for adult learners.

Children actually have an easier time with language acquisition because they listen to the world on all frequencies simultaneously. We adults, on the other hand, tend to compartmentalize the sounds we hear. All of this is to say, listening is important! 

You’ll want to listen as much as you can as often as you can. Ideally, immersing yourself in a language by going to where it is predominately spoken would be the first choice. Then you’d hear the language around you all day, every day! But that’s not an option for everyone, especially not in the current climate. 

We suggested some ways to immerse yourself in a language in our polyglot article, but to summarise: 

  • Watching television or films in your target language is a great way to expose yourself to different tones. 
  • Childrens’ songs are a fantastic resource; they’re fundamentally easy to comprehend and repeat. 
  • Listening to radio and podcasts with a wide variety of narrators will get you used to how different natives speak in casual conversation.

That being said—music in this case may be more of a hindrance than a help. That’s because music tends to ignore tones in favour of the melody, especially in modern pop music. For most native speakers, this doesn’t present a problem as they can usually suss the meaning of the lyrics out by context. For learners, this will likely complicate your learning and probably leave you frustrated. 

Final Thoughts on Learning Tones

It’s easy to find the thought of learning a tonal language intimidating, especially if your own native tongue isn’t tonal. Give it enough time and effort and achieving tonal language fluency is totally achievable. The important thing is to give tones the diligence they’re due. It’s an added element of difficulty to any language, certainly, but no less attainable.

Respect those tones!