Learning Tonal Languages (like Chinese)… is not difficult!
Many Asian languages are tonal. That is to say, a word like “ma” can have 5 or 6 different meanings, depending on the tone of voice you use to pronounce it.
To complicate things, many of the Asian words are monosyllabic. “ma” means mum in Chinese, but it also means “horse” in a different tone, and it means “scold” in yet another tone.
And so, many European language speakers find this really difficult to comprehend.
By comparing a new language to your original language and observing the differences, I don’t blame any non-native speaker for finding tonal languages difficult. But if you compare tonal languages to music… you will find that the tonal language should be significantly easier. This is how I suggest you think so that the concept of tonal languages become much simpler to grasp:
1. First, sing a song. You realize that even in a simple song, there are several ‘notes’ – at least 8 even in the simplest song. Tonal languages typically only have 5 to 8 tones, and should be significantly easier than singing a song, which you can do already
2. Next, consider the note ‘me’. You can go one octave higher, and one octave lower, and the ‘me’ sounds different. You can apply this common observation to understand how tonal languages work: when the same ‘note’ sounds different, you have a different meaning attached to the note!
3. Third, think of the notes ‘f-sharp’ and ‘g-flat’. Basically they are very, very minor differences in tone, but you can still rank them in order. As you get used to hearing the tonal language, you will be able to differentiate the tones, but it takes time. So if you initially get discouraged because you cannot tell the difference between one tone from the other, just tell yourself: it’s like f-sharp and g-flat. It takes a while to really tell the difference.
I hope I have just introduced you a good way to approach tonal languages. 😀 Maybe you can consider learning Mandarin, Thai or Vietnamese now!