What goes into learning a language and a culture? How do you even start? That is what students have been talking about in Emanate’s Culture and Language Acquisition (CLA) class. We discuss helpful tips, practices, and techniques that will assist us in learning – and then we practice them with an actual language!

Many foreign language speakers – both campus staff and members of the community – invest their time in working with the students and teaching them. This semester, students are learning Spanish, Cantonese, Ilocano, and Thai. All languages have their own difficulties, but Cantonese and Thai in particular have been exposing students to a completely different way of speaking; these are tonal languages.

In English, we use changes in our tone to express emotion, end statements, or ask questions. It changes the meaning of the sentence, but not the meaning of the words themselves. In both Thai and Cantonese, the tone determines the meaning of the word itself. You can have a word that has the exact same phonetic sounds, but the pitch you use (or how the tone changes) makes the difference between two or more unrelated meanings.

For instance, in Thai, the word “kaao” has four different meanings depending on the tone. In the middle tone it means “fishy”; in the low tone it means “news”; with a falling tone it means “rice”; and with a rising tone it means “white”.

The students learning these tonal languages aren’t just learning to hear and speak different sounds from what they are used to; they also have to learn how to differentiate between identical words with (sometimes slight) differences in tone. Speaking a tonal language involves thinking in a completely new way and pretty much re-learning everything they know about how to speak! Their brains are getting some good training.

Examples of the 5 tones in the Thai language

This use of tone is not uncommon; a variety of languages around the world use tone to communicate. Since there is a good chance students will end up in a setting where tone plays a significant role in communicating meaning, this is a great opportunity to start gaining exposure.

This exposure helps the students be prepared for challenges they may face in communicating with people from a very different language and culture than their own. Any new language is going to be hard to learn, but it will be worth the hard work when they are able to teach the Word of God to those who have never heard it.