The Trouble With Tonals Posted by on Apr 5, 2017 in Archived Posts

Learning a tonal language is both frightening and very tempting. But which one to choose?

Man, I’m so glad I haven’t learned a tonal language yet.

Actually, I’m both glad and sad. I’m glad because from what I can tell (my brother Erik, who lives in Bangkok and speaks fluent Thai, and has learned some Mandarin and Korean and Hindi as well, wrote the comic above – he’s my Asia source) it “sounds” very difficult! Hah. Seriously though I’m not sure I would know what to do – it’s a whole other dimension of possible misunderstandings, miscommunications and just general awkwardness. It’s bad enough that there’s a wide cultural divide between me and most of the places where these tonal languages are spoken. Do we also have to throw into the mix slight differences in inflection which can result in completely different words?! It sounds like the challenge of a lifetime.

But that’s also what’s so furiously fascinating to me about these languages. As a devoted subscriber to the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (or “linguistic relativity” as it’s more accurately, but more boringly known), I believe learning new languages does change the way you think – and if not, it certainly provides a unique perspective on the world. There’s really nothing I love more than having my tunnel vision ripped open by foreign cultures and different ways of living life on Planet Earth. Language is a great avenue into those perspectives – by understanding how other people formulate words and thoughts, you understand a little more how they see the world and their place in it.

For that reason, tonal languages must be the ultimate perspective trip. So much about our own tones and inflections in everyday speech carries so much subtextual meaning that to bring those tones up onto the surface must be a totally fascinating brain-twister. I do want to take the plunge into a tonal language but I feel like I’m standing at the edge of a ice-cold pool of water. I’m suspended in hesitation.

So I’d like to reach out to you folks and your vast collected experience in tonal languages. I want to have my mind bent by a tonal language, but I don’t necessarily want to commit fully to one of the more difficult ones until I have a chance to be at least partially immersed in the culture. Should I pick an “easy” one and go for it? Or could I pick any of them and just learn the tones? Would that be enough to satisfy my hunger for changing cultural perspectives?

You tell me!

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.

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