Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Musicality of Vietnamese Tones

Daily conversation in Vietnam "resembles the singing of birds", wrote Alexandre de Rhodes.

Vietnamese tones are one of the most complicated aspects of Vietnamese language to understand, hear, and speak for foreigners, especially those not used to singing.

Take it from me! I've actually quit Vietnamese lessons twice before I got to this current point - tones and weird vowels plus a very relaxed dialect in the South have made it exasperating at times to speak and, especially, hear. Fortunately, I've been able to grasp a little more this time around, which I attribute entirely to simply living around and among Vietnamese for almost 4 years.

One of the keys to my (limited) success in the language is that I've changed how I think about tones.

In my mind, there are two components to nailing tones: mental and physical. You need to think in them and feel them (hey, here are my acting class lessons coming back again!).

Mentally, the crucial intellectual leap is that a slight change in intonation can completely alter a word or trash a sentence, rendering your attempt at language either hilarious, totally incomprehensible, or both. Just try communicating with anyone here, and you'll quickly get a feel for how slippery the language really is (...very).

Physically, you gotta rid yourself of your desire to communicate non-verbally through empathetic noises and intonation. These all mean something different here. You must eat, breath, and live the tones, and feel them in your throat, mouth, ears, and skull. (I've even taking to describing pronunciation of some of the strange vowel diphthongs as "saying them on the inside of your face," for those of you wondering how far down the rabbit hole I've gone.)

This is the first part of my guide to tones. Your body is an instrument, and Vietnamese is your music!

Sometimes you just have to memorize. English language learners realize this quickly - there are a billion rules in English, but there's almost always an exception or 20. Vietnamese has flipped it on its head: the grammar is absurdly simple (seriously, you don't even really conjugate verbs!), but pronunciation is TROUBLE and notoriously difficult to master... and I'm not even counting the extra vowels.

There are six tones in the Vietnamese language: neutral, up, down, staccato down (or base, or dot), hook up, and tilde up.

Here are my musical representations of the various tones (where B is your neutral voice). Try moving up and down on your own scale as you practice - the notes aren't important, but the spaces between them are essential. It's all relative, and these are essentially all just messy slides up and down the musical staff.

This type of notation works fairly well, as Vietnamese is a single-syllable (in theory, at least) language. I've assigned a single quarter note the space of one syllable, so that you can see how the tones that require vocal finesse squeeze into this format.

I'm fairly lucky in that I've had experience singing vocal jazz. For those of you unfamiliar, it involves a lot of bouncing around the staff, and requires a bit of comfort improvising. I'm also the type of person who makes weird sounds all the time (this must run in my family) - beep boop! So, in a way, I was already a little prepped for understanding a tonal language - or at least as prepped as a foreign adult with little language experience can be.

For this experiment I've transposed some Vietnamese sentences onto a musical staff. See if you can read along up at the top of this blog! The phrases (heh... music joke) at the top of this post are a few simple examples

(On a side note, did you know that native speakers of tonal languages are significantly more likely to have perfect pitch? I didn't know this before I started this post, but I certainly believe it!)

Below is a longer piece, with me saying a little bit about myself. You can see that you're constantly modulating your voice - it's an exhausting language, at first. My brain is fried after my two hour Vietnamese classes, and if I'm tired already? It just becomes a mushy, incomprehensible mess, with me kind of flailing my hands around and making embarrassing faces.

You can see that there's not a lot that connects the words - unlike English, with all its pesky articles and conjugations - it's a very literal and functional language ("I like eat sticky rice mango!" about says it all).

Nothing but practice can bring this level of rapid modulation to your Vietnamese, but the good thing is that these are repeatable. Just like the lyrics to a song combined with the notes (you memorize both at the same time), you can train your voice and mind to recognize and incorporate these tones as you see them represented in words, no matter if they're next to the notes or not. It's really just about practice, I'm sad/happy to say.

Stay tuned for the second half of my exploration - the physicality of Vietnamese tones, headed your way!

P.S. If you're curious: I used noteflight's music writing service for this post, and it's AWESOME and FREE.

What's the hardest new language you've ever learned? What were your personal hacks to success?


  1. Wow, I just found out that Ben has music talent! Pls present on Soundcloud or Youtube, sir!

    1. Hey man!

      Hmm not a bad idea! Maybe I'll try and record a conversation of me actually speaking vietnamese with friends... (still so bad...)! But it would give a better idea of what's actually going on for singers. Thanks!

      Thanks so much for stopping by! We still need to meet up in HCM someday.


Hi! Thanks for speaking up! :) - Ben