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28lorelei's avatar

Why can't people from Western countries hear "tones" in tonal languages well?

Asked by 28lorelei (2514points) April 15th, 2010

I have taken Chinese for a while now, and am able to hear whether the tone is neutral, goes up, down and up or just down pretty well, but most Westerners who I know have taken Chinese or another tonal language usually can’t hear it well. Why is this?

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14 Answers

bob_'s avatar

A linguist friend of mine explained it by saying that we grew up associating tone with emotion, so when words actually mean something completely different, it messes up with our brains.

wundayatta's avatar

You need to be trained to hear pitches. There are many more people with perfect pitch in societies that have tonal languages (I forget where I heard that). Western languages don’t use tones and so we never learn to pick them up, and that makes it difficult for us to hear them and produce them if we try to learn a tonal language later on.

The ear has to be trained. Sounds that are important are different in different cultures. If we don’t have to hear something, we don’t learn to hear it, and, in fact, often we can not hear it.

People can become tone deaf if they never attempt to do any kind of tonal music making. However, you can take a tone deaf person, and, with enough training and practice, teach them to carry a tune. Most folks just decide they are tone deaf and believe it is a hopeless state. It can’t ever change. So they never even try. But it’s a myth that tone deaf people can’t learn to carry a tune. One organization, Music for People, does teach the tone deaf how to sing. The main barrier, it appears, is the idea that hearing pitch is something innate and not something that can be learned. Once you get over that idea, it gets much easier to start learning to carry a tune.

Factotum's avatar

My understanding is that we are hardwired to learn language as babies/infants (and possibly fetuses) but that the natural intake of ‘correct sounds’ diminishes over time, such that distinctions not made early are harder to make later.

grumpyfish's avatar

The opposite is a similarly interesting thing to look at. The sounds “L” and “R” in the english language (like “Fried” and “Look”) are pretty clear to your ear? To a native chinese speaker, they’re the same sound.

Say it and think about the shape your mouth makes: “Fried” “Flied”—They’re almost identical, except for the position of your tongue.

This is very similar to the difference we westerners hear in tones—they sound the same to us because our brains filter it out. You can learn to hear it.

A more mechanical example is welding—if you don’t know how to weld and don’t know anything about welding, it just sounds like buzzing/spattering. However, I’ve spent enough time MIG welding and around people who are MIG welding that I can tell if someone’s settings are wrong just by the noise. Supervising a shop, I’ve literally walked across the room to tell someone their wire speed was too slow. It’s a matter of learning the sounds.

davidk's avatar

You’re spot on here. The inclusion of the MIG welding example is brilliant…or should I say “blirriant?” :)

the100thmonkey's avatar

@wundayatta: here.

Tone is a morpheme in tonal languages. English doesn’t use tone morphemically, so we’re not used to hearing it – it literally passes us by until our brains are trained to pick it up.

Here and here are a couple of interesting articles that go some of the way to explaining the phenomenon.

wilma's avatar

thank you all I learned something new today!

morphail's avatar

“The sounds “L” and “R” in the english language (like “Fried” and “Look”) are pretty clear to your ear? To a native chinese speaker, they’re the same sound.”

Depends on the language… Mandarin has both /l/ and /r/.

grumpyfish's avatar

@morphail I thought they were different phonemes than the english ones?

morphail's avatar

@grumpyfish No they’re pretty much the same. According to wikipedia, /r/ is phonetically [ɻ], the same as English /r/. It sounds like English /r/ to me.

Factotum's avatar

English does have a rising tone which we use to indicate that something is a question. The Chinese use it to make one word different from another syllablically (not a real word) identical one – actually _several_different ones.

On a side note, California ‘Val-speak’ uses the rising tone at the end of sentences that aren’t questions and many people find it grating.

grumpyfish's avatar

@morphail Ah, cool! So then why do many Asian language speakers (including mandarin speakers) confuse /r/ and /l/, including in spelling english words?

morphail's avatar

@grumpyfish I think that other Chinese languages, and also Japanese and Korean, don’t make the distinction. If you know of a Mandarin speaker who gets them confused, you should ask them.

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