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Language Learning Tools: Sound Triangulation (06/28/2020)
Oftentimes, we can use what we already know to learn more, and without necessarily forcing information to fit some preconceived notion about how it should relate. For example...
Our jaw, tongue, and throat are only capable of a certain limited range of motion. Therefore, the type of sounds that we can make are also limited to some extent. This is important when it comes to languages because it means that we probably know many of the sounds of any given language if we already speak at least one, and/or can narrow down the pronunciation of a new sound based on some combination of familiar ones.
First, it is helpful to know that the "vowel" sounds are those which are created pretty much entirely in the throat. Our vocal chords narrow to make a sound higher and open to make it lower, while the shape of our mouth alters it slightly. The "highness" or "lowness" of the same sound is referred to as its "pitch".
Try singing out "a", "e", "i", "o", or "u" to get a feel for the different vowels. Also notice that if we get a good breath of air, the vowel sound can be made continuously, without stopping.
Some languages, like Mandarin Chinese, are "tonal" (i.e.: the meaning of words will change depending upon whether the vowels shift up or down in pitch). There are four "tones" within Mandarin Chinese:
1st Tone - The vowel starts off high and stays high. It has a "sing-song" kind of quality to it, almost like singing out something happy.
2nd Tone - The vowel starts off low and steadily rises. It is almost like how we "inflect" upward at the end of a sentence in English in order to turn a statement into a question.
3rd Tone - The vowel dips down and then comes back up. It is similar to when someone whines with a long "Awwwwwww".
4th Tone - The vowel starts off high and drops sharply. It has an abruptness to it, almost like how when someone says something angrily.
It is a little tricky to explain all of these without any kind of audio recording, but hopefully they all make sense. If not, that is okay. The only thing that we want to emphasize here is that these unfamiliar "tones" all have similarities to things that native English speakers sometimes do, but they are done a lot more often and for a different reason.
To put it another way, instead of conveying some kind of emotion behind the words, these changes in pitch affect the actual meaning of the words themselves! If we are aware of this bit of information, then we can use it to our advantage when learning tonal languages. We have something familiar to compare them to.
Next, are the "consonant" sounds. Unlike the vowels, consonant sounds cannot be made continuously. This is because they are usually made by the position of the tongue and/or lips blocking the flow of air coming out of the lungs in some fashion.
Try saying "j", "ch", or "sh" and feel what your lips and tongue are doing. Do your lips pucker? Does your tongue touch the roof of your mouth right behind your top-front teeth? How open is your mouth?
Awareness of how these things are positioned (or "articulated") makes it easier to understand how to pronounce things. It also demonstrates why people sometimes speak with an accent (i.e.: they are trying to pronounce one language with positions that make sense for another language).
However, we can also use this fact to our advantage. Try saying the "r" sound. Notice that the tongue has to curl back slightly in order to make it. Using Mandarin Chinese as an example again, there is a unique consonant sound represented by the letters "zh". It is pronounced almost like a combination of the English "r" and "j" sounds.
Again, if this does not make sense, it is okay. We just want to point out that it is possible to get close to unfamiliar sounds by playing with the articulation of ones that we already know! In order to give this process a name, we will call it "sound triangulation". Generally, "triangulation" is a method of finding the location of something based upon the positions of other things.
We hope that these ideas can be of help to you when learning other languages. They apply to any combination of languages, not just English and Mandarin Chinese.
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