Thursday, January 11, 2007

Hola, amigos.

My first Vietnamese class today slightly rearranged the relationship between sound and meaning in my brain. I'm taking the class at a language school way out in Beverly Hills -- it's super far away from Eagle Rock, but it was the only place in L.A. that I found that offered Vietnamese. Today was the start of a new session of classes, and the place was buzzing with activity when I arrived. It was sort of cool: all these people were checking in at different tables, registering for their classes in French, Thai, Korean, or Arabic, and being sent off to their assigned classrooms (there appeared to be about 25 classrooms at the school). Some of the classes, like French and Spanish, looked pretty large, with nine or ten students. I walked into my assigned classroom and found one student and one teacher (the Institute people had told me on the phone that they were planning to cancel the class for lack of students before I signed up).

We spent much of the class focusing on the basic six tones; our teacher did a good job of using a graph much like the one above to show us how to differentiate the tones. The curved lines (for the characters with the tilda and the question mark sign) represent the tones where the voice actually drops and then rises in tone; on the tone with the tilda, one is meant to slightly break one's voice as the tone rises again. The flat tone is a total monotone.

It was during some simple exercise, where I was supposed to pronounce "toi ten" in monotone, but kept on pronouncing them at different tones without thinking, that something clicked, and I began to visualize the six tones as six different levels, with the flat tone as the baseline, and producing the tones started becoming a bit easier. I realized that we constantly shift tones up and down in speaking English, sometimes to express emphasis, or to form a question, but often just to vary our speech, for fun, just so it doesn't sound too monotone. Through some repetition, I became a bit more conscious of controlling my tones.

A few hours later, I've probably already forgotten everything we studied today. It's going to be a long hard road.


Anonymous said...

That sounds like super fun.

julia said...

wow. i seriously admire your dedication, that sounds so hard!
tone (in English and many of the Latin-based languages, as far as I know - I can only speak French and Italian) is one of our main "guiding" tools in communication - how we clarify meaning and intention to our audience, how we hint at what is under the surface of what we are saying. and it seems as if we do this often by implying emotion (different levels of manipulation in tone to imply the emotion under the surface).
is it the same in vietnamese - i imagine it is different because the very tone you choose changes the meaning of theword, right? i might be totally ignorant and absolutely wrong here - but this is fascinating.

and, by the way, just wanted to say you are a master blogger - i've really been enjoying your entries lately.

and thanks for the x-mas card!

julia said...

one last question - is this why we have so many words in the english language - b/c each word has its own meaning regardless of tone?

hope that also isn't a dumb question.

i should read some basic linguistics books - but i'm so lazy.

Octopus Grigori said...

Hey Julia: I'm not sure why we have so many words in English. It may be because we don't use tones to indicate distinct meanings. I do think English is very rich in part because it borrows from so many sources: it's full of German, French, and Greek, some Italian (and Latin), some Spanish, a smattering of Hebrew and Arabic, etc., etc. English seems very happy to absorb foreign words and domesticate them. I know Japanese, Vietnamese and other Asian languages absorbed many Chinese words, largely because these countries adopted the Chinese writing system -- mostly taking the Chinese characters and adapting them to their pre-existing spoken languages (so, for example, the Chinese character for "tree" would be taken into Japanese, but the Japanese oral word for "tree" would be assigned to the character, but in many cases, taking the Chinese pronunciation for the character as well (in fact, most Japanese dictionaries of the Chinese characters used in Japanese show both the Japanese and Chinese readings for the characters). Perhaps English benefited from the rich mix of Romance and Northern languages in Europe, along with the infusion of Arabic and Mediterranean languages, that came with the languages of science and philosophy through the middle ages and the Renaissance. But I don't really know. Just my speculation, mostly.