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Thai Language Thai Culture: Singing and Saying English Tones Help with Our Thai

Thai Language

Singing and saying English tones will help with our Thai…

Thai tones are the bugaboo of most learners of the Thai language. I know they are my biggest problem. Some people blame their “tone deafness” for their difficulty, although only a very small percentage of people have real tone deafness.

Aside: For Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit players, here are some synonyms for tone deafness. Amusia, Dysmelodia, Dysmusia.

Tone Deafness is the inability to distinguish between musical notes and is thought to be congenital or possibly due to brain damage. Tone-deaf people seem to be disabled only when it comes to music and not tones in languages (they seem to be able to speak their own tonal languages). It appears to be genetically influenced although it can also be a result from brain damage.

I don’t seem to be brain damaged so why do I have so many problems with Thai tones?

You might want to test to see if you really are tone deaf.

My own test for tone deafness: Have someone hum the tune for Happy Birthday. Then have someone hum the tune for God Save the Queen (or the Star Spangled Banner). Can you differentiate between the two? If you can then you have enough tonal ability to differentiate between Thai tones.

But you might want to try a real tone deafness test; tonedeaftest.com will help you there.

So let’s say you aren’t truly tone deaf.

English is full of tones that we may not be aware of. Hearing and saying them will give us an understanding that we can really differentiate and say these tones (approximations to Thai though they may be). We can practice these sounds and after we understand how our voice mechanisms make them we can we can then try them out on real Thai words.

It is sort of like a golfer taking some swings at the driving range. It doesn’t mean he will hit the ball perfectly when he is on the course but it should give him an idea of how it will feel.

Please note that since we are comparing two different languages here the sounds are only approximations. Hitting balls on the driving range is merely an approximation of what real golf is like.

Listen to these English tones. See if you can make them too. You will realize that you have been using tones all your life. I hope these practice swings with tones will help some.

Falling tone:

In answer to the question “how are you traveling?” You can answer, “I’m flying.” with the emphasis on how you will be traveling. The word “flying” here will usually contain a falling tone.

Go to Google Translate, choose English for the first box, enter “I’m flying” and click on the speaker icon at the bottom of the box. You’ll hear a falling tone, especially in the “fly” part of the word.

Rising tone:

But if we have a friend who is afraid of flying and he says he is going to fly anyway, you may ask him incredulously “are you really flying?”

Go back to Google Translate, choose English for the first box as before, enter “are you really flying?” and make sure to keep the ?, then click on the speaker icon. Now the word flying has a rising tone, especially on the “ing” part of the word.

Many onomatopoetic English words, that is words which sounds like what they describe, keep their tones so as to keep the word sounding like the things or activities that they are depicting.

Here are some examples.

Low tone:

The sound that we say a clock makes is “tick-tock”. The second word in this expression is usually a low tone. Here we can hear it in a talking dictionary example, tick-tock (click on the speaker icon).

You can also hear the low tone in the term we use to say the sound that a horse makes when it walks, “clip-clop” or “clippety-clop” The “clip” in this recording (clip-clop) is a falling tone. So the English term “clip-clop” is an example of falling tone, low tone.

High tone:

The onomatopoetic English word “hiccup” which sounds like what it describes is usually said with a high tone on the first syllable and a low tone on the second. Listen to it here: hiccup.

Popular songs offer examples of tone practice. They can help us learn a number of tones.

Listen for the tones in these songs.

Falling tone:

Somebody Done Somebody Wrong, by B.J.Thomas

A really good example of a falling tone is the exclamation “hey!” said when you want to get somebody’s attention.

It used to be very common for little children in Thailand to call out “hey you!” (two falling tones) to any foreigner they would encounter. That would be the only English they knew and there were so few foreigners around that it at least gave them a chance to practice their English. That is one good thing about Thailand having lots more foreigners around today. You don’t hear a barrage of “hey you!” whenever you leave your house.

You can hear the falling tone in the word “hey!” in the song Somebody Done Somebody Wrong. Listen to how he says “hey!” He elongates the word and when it is drawn out the final “y” in “hey” pulls the sound down making for the falling tone. It’s the same with the word “play”.

Low tone:

A Summer Song, by Chad and Jeremy

The final word in each verse of A Summer Song is a low tone:

As we walked by
Just you and I
In the starry sky

And there is a great falling tone in the last word of the bridge in “wish you didn’t have to go – no no no no”. And interestingly enough the Thai word for “no” is also a falling tone ไม่ /mâi/.

High tone:

In My Life, by The Beatles

The high tone is very rare in English. In this song we get a close example of a high tone. The word “ever” in “forever”, in the line, ”some forever not for better” approximates a high tone.

I hope these practice swings at recognizing and making your voice mechanism create tones will help you create good Thai tones. I have to admit, after so many years of speaking Thai, my tones still suck (according to my wife). So I will be taking those practice swings along with you (P.S. My golf game also sucks).

Good luck.

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog
eBooks in Thailand
Thai Vocabulary in the News

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Hugh Leong loves explaining things. And during his 40 plus years of trying to learn Thai and its culture, he learned to love the cross-cultural aspect of living in a foreign country and speaking its language. His series, Thai Language Thai Culture, covers various aspects of learning Thai, and how the Thai culture influences how we say things.

4 Comments

  1. Hi Hugh,
    Thanks for this post and many others.
    An example of a high tone in English occurs when someone says something surprising or hard to believe and you answer
    “What?”

  2. The main concern with me wasn’t speaking tones properly, it was internalizing the tone rules. I went the only way i could think of to do just that. I used the principles of sounds shifts in Khmer and applied them to the tone rules. Khmer and Thai are unrelated, however when it comes to sounds and tones, they use the same principles. It’s just Thai aims for tones, while Khmer aims for sounds. The tone rules have now gotten much easier for me.

  3. Vanna,

    I don’t know any of the tone rules. Don’t have a clue. I simply hear a word said by a native Thai speaker, and repeat it back the same way I heard it. But everyone has their own way of solving this problem. Lots of luck.

  4. Gaelee,

    A Thai speaker says “What?”

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