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.