Finally Learning Lao Tones - It Just Took a Little Hard Work

Lao is the toughest language I've ever tried to tackle. It has it's own unique alphabet. There are no spaces in between words. The number of cognates with English are pretty low. But the hardest thing for me has been learning the Lao tone rules.

I tried and tried to learn the tone rules, but it was like I had reached a brick wall in my Lao studies. I did eventually break through that wall. Here's how I did it.

First, a couple notes about tone rules

Lao tone rules are important. A Lao syllable can have a high tone, a mid tone, a rising tone, a low falling tone, and a high falling tone. (And to make things more complicated, not all the experts agree on the number of tones and when to use them.) If you use the wrong tone, the meaning of a word changes completely.

For example, the word Khao spelled ເຂົາ has a rising tone and means "they" or "them". The word Khao spelled ເຂົ້າ has low falling tone and means rice.

All the stuff that I tried that didn't work for me:

Learning the tone rules has been very frustrating for me. For one, I found several explanations of the tone rules, and they don't agree with each other.

I watched 52 minute video on YouTube about Lao tone rules by Thomas Kallas. The video was great. I took notes. I understood the basics of Lao tone rules, but I couldn't for the life of me remember any of them when I came across a written Lao word.

I found several different tone charts online and in books. They were all at least a little different. I finally picked the one on thailao.net as the one I chose to believe.

I studied the chart. (By studying, I mean I read it several times.) I read the tone rules examples on thailao.net. I grasped the concept, but I was not internalizing the rules. I still couldn't know what tone to use when I came across a written Lao word.

Frustrated, I really slowed down my study of Lao. For the most of October and part of November, instead of studying every day for at least fifteen minutes, I would study once of twice a week for a few minutes.

And when I did study, I was worried I was learning the words wrong. I didn't want to memorize a bunch of Lao words incorrectly, and then have to re-learn those words correctly. Practice doesn't make perfect if you are practicing incorrectly.

But I didn't want to be defeated. I decided to work a little harder, and finally figure out this one thing that was preventing me from learning Lao.

I started by using my beginner Lao flash card deck on Anki. On each word in my flash card deck I would look up the tone on the tone chart. Wrong approach. For one, it got old really quick. For two, the next time I came across the same word I looked at the day before, I still didn't remember the tone, and had to look it up again.

Another important thing I did here was check my pronunciation with forvo.com. I first learned about Forvo from Dani at isimplylovelanguages.com and I can't believe I've been trying to learn languages for years without it.

What Forvo is, for those of you who don't know, is a website where people can upload recordings of words spoken in many languages. Currently, Forvo has 136 pronounced words in Lao. (Most languages have even more.)

I would read a word in Lao, look up it's tone rule, and then try to pronounce it. Then I would listen to the word on Forvo and see how close I was.

The next thing I tried was to create my own grid version of the tone chart. (I uploaded a pdf version here of the chart I created.) There was plenty of space to write words on the chart. I looked up words, and but them in the correct box on my printed tone chart.

My Lao tone chart
My Lao tone chart. Here's a downloadable version.

I was hoping to see patterns. One resource I found from an outdated Lao course from the 1970's suggested instead of learning tone rules, you should learn "token words" instead. This means instead of memorizing a rule, memorize a word that fits that rule, and all other similar words will have the same tone.

Yeah, great idea, but didn't work for me.

There aren't very many great online resources for learning Lao. There are sites with their version of the tone rules, but no one had a great way of learning the tones.

There are some great sites about learning Thai, however. Thai and Lao are very similar languages, and they have similar tone rules. So I searched on my favorite Thai learning blog womenlearnthai.com, for "tones". I found a few articles from successful Thai learners with advice to learn Thai tones.

One unique suggestion that I found interesting was to hum new words. When you learn a new Thai word (or Lao word) you would hum it with the right tone. Seemed interesting, but I was really interested in learning the rules. Another suggestion from someone else who figured the shortest number of questions to ask yourself to determine which tone rule to follow for a given word.

So, what did I actually do to learn Lao tones?

What finally is working for me (I'm using the present tense because I still am not a Lao tone expert) was to memorize the tone chart.

Here's how the tone chart works. There are three rows and five columns.

The rows represent the consonant class of the initial consonant sound of a syllable. Consonants can be high-class, mid-class, or low-class. So to really understand the tone rules I had to have the Lao consonants down really well. Luckily I had already made myself some paper flash cards. It took me less than half and hour to review the consonants.

After you know the consonant class, you fit the syllable into one of the 5 columns, depending on things such as vowel length, ending sound, and whether or not there is a tone marker written above the syllable.

Once I had the column headings memorized, I memorized the what fit in the actual boxes. I did this by writing abbreviations of the different tones on the back of a business card.

My custom made, business card sized, tone chart.
My custom made, business card sized, tone chart

On my break at work, I sometimes walk laps in the parking lot. I took my Lao tone business card with me, and memorized each column. Starting from the left, I would quietly chant while I was walking "Rising, Rising, High." Once I felt comfortable with that I would chant the next column. "High, High, Mid." Then I combined column one and two. I then memorized column three, and combined it with the other two. I did this until I had all three columns memorized.

I'm sure I looked really stupid walking around the parking lot, looking at a business card, and quietly chanting the names of the tones, but it worked. I memorized the tones.

I then combined this method from one of the suggestions from womenlearnthai.com. Instead of saying the names of the tones, I hummed the tones. For the third column, for example, I hummed a low-falling tone, a low-falling tone, and then a high-falling tone. I then went back to the English names of the tones, but pronounced the tone names using the corresponding tone.

Finally, I had the tone rules memorized.

To make it perfectly clear, I'm still really slow at it, but I still feel like I've accomplished something. I can look at a Lao word, and imagine in my head where it would fit on the tone chart, and pronounce it with the correct tone. I still sound like an American, but at least I don't sound like an American who doesn't understand the tone rules.

And I do want to re-emphasize using Forvo. Listening to examples on Forvo helped me to hear what a low-falling tone word sounded like compared to a high-falling tone word, for example.

What about you?

Have you come across any brick walls in your language learning that you were eventually able to break through? Let me know in the comments.

Comments

phinphana ward 28 January 2015

Hi Kent,
I strumbled up on your site since I am researching on how to make flash cards for my Lao lessons . Anyhow love your site. Can I use your video regarding Lao Lessons on my blog?

Kob Jia Liah Liah

Phinphana

www.iheartvientiane.com

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Kent 28 January 2015

Hi Phinphana,

ບໍ່ເປັນຫຍັງ! That's exciting that you are starting to write your own Lao lessons on your site. Feel free to embed my video on you blog. Good luck! ໂຊກດີ!

Kent

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phinphana ward 28 January 2015

Hi again Kent,
Thats fast response! Thank you I'll post the link when I am done with the post.

Kob Jia Liah Liah

Phinphana

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Ralf 2 April 2015

Hi Kent,

Some of my language experience with a tonal language: I started with Vietnamese a few years ago. I do exactly know about the difficulties at the beginning of learning a tonal language. Vietnamese with its six tones, and I can tell you that many times it brought me to the verge of despair. I always want to stop because I believed that I would never be able to learn such a complicate language. My success bringing method was “listening, listeing, listeing" to native speakers and repeating their pronunciation like a parrot and trying to figure out the difference in tones, while speaking and listening. Simultaneously I learned Vocabularies and Grammar rules. In the beginning when I came to Vietnam, people did not understand me, my pronunciation was obviously not correct. And the people on the street and in the market spoke so fast, that I could not understand anything. It was really frustrating. But I didn’t give up. One day, it came over night, suddenly it made “click” in my brain. Suddenly I understood the differences of the tones, and suddenly, really amazing, I was able to understand all these differences while listening and I at the same time, I realized how to articulate the tones and to pronounce all these fine differences, so that even native speakers could understand what I was saying to them. This was really a break though, overcoming this big hurdle, which caused me frustrating feelings so many times. Nowadays, I love Vietnamese language and I may mention that I am also a little bit proud not to give up at an early stage. Well, now Kent, you make me exciting to start a new language, this will be Lao. Thanks for motivating me though your Blog.

May all language learners do not give up. Tonal languages can be learned.

Best wishese
Ralf
(from Germany)

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Matthias 6 June 2016

Hi Kent,

another German here, currently living in Laos and struggling to learn the language. It's probably a bit late now that you've mastered the tones (I still haven't) but maybe you'd still like to take a look at my "Coloroke" project that I hope will be useful for the task: http://coloroke.towiski.de/
There's a little script behind it that determines the initial consonant, vowel and potential tone mark from a syllable and colors its background according to the resulting tone. After I came up with the idea I found one book that employs a similar method for teaching Chinese but haven't seen it used for Lao. It's still a work in progress, especially automatic syllable splitting will have to be implemented to make it generally useful.

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