When I was in high school, I excelled in my French classes – my ability to memorize lists of vocabulary and quickly distinguish between tenses allowed me to pick up the language quickly.
As I progressed to higher-level classes, however, I quickly realized that learning a language is not just about grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structures. Mastery of tone is one of the most essential skills to have on the journey to become fluent in a language, and is something that is often overlooked, aside from its relation to accent. These tones are different and unique in every language, but often the differences are so nuanced that you may not be able to distinguish them at first. I initially noticed how different languages sound because of tone (an entity separate from accent) when I was helping my American boyfriend with his Chinese.
You might be familiar with the four different tones in Mandarin Chinese that dictate the language; each one-syllable sound can be pronounced four different ways, and mean four different things. For example, the simple sound “ma” with the neutral first tone, the surprised second tone, the curved third tone, and the firm fourth tone all mean different things. If you have trouble conceptualizing this, open Google translate, toggle the setting onto English to Chinese, and type in the words mom, hemp, horse, and scold; listen to the different tones. In Chinese, each of these tones occurs as often as any other, and the language has a lyrical lilt to it that results from the combination of different vocal inflections.
English, on the other hand, possesses an extraordinary amount of words that are pronounced with the fourth tone. You can try this exercise yourself with any number of one-syllable English words; think of a word, such as horse, mob, mom, hemp, or curse, and try pronouncing these words with the first through fourth tones present in Mandarin. Shockingly, almost all English words are pronounced with the fourth tone! When English-speakers talk, they use the upward and downward inflections to indicate questions, statements, and confidence in the sentence as a whole, and there is not as much fluctuation in tone from word to word.
When I listen to my boyfriend speak Chinese, I notice that he has a knack for pronouncing words in the fourth tone correctly, but struggles with the other tones, which makes sense given the difference between English and Chinese and the way we learn language. We lose the ability to perceive subtle differences in language as we age. A baby at 8 months is able to distinguish between differing tones in Hindi, for example, but an adult who was never exposed to the language as a child is unable to tell the difference without long, extensive practice. Just as adults are able to hear fewer frequencies as they age, if they are never exposed to different tones in language, they become less and less able to notice the subtleties. There are hundreds of tones that we don’t even hear, because we can’t tell the difference! Don’t let this discourage you, though; with practice and exposure, you can easily master the skill of tone and speak a language like a native: it is only with our natural, base states that we are unable to tell the difference.
The interesting thing is that most of us go through the day without really listening to the subtleties of language: yes, languages sound different, but we don’t appreciate why or how. Each language has a musicality to it that is distinct from anything else in the world. Silbo, a language spoken in a little village called La Gomera on the coast of Spain, literally includes whistles that replace consonants! The next time you hear a language different from your own, pay attention to the different sounds. Language is beautiful: listen to it.