STEP 3 – Happy Hanoi
Now for the final piece of the puzzle. Let’s compare word stress in English and tones in Vietnamese so we can get a clearer understanding of the role that tones play.
In English we use word stress. Every word has a specific stress pattern. For example, a 2-syllable word must have stress either on the first syllable or the second syllable. Sometimes changing the stress pattern can change the meaning of the word. Think of the word “record” (RE-cord and re-CORD have different meanings).
If you’re a native English speaker, you use the correct word stress in English automatically without thinking about it. Non-native speakers (depending on their mother tongue) may find word stress difficult. For example, French speakers tend to stress the last syllable in words and this makes it easy to recognize when someone speaks English with a French accent.
Word stress in Vietnamese uses 6 tones. Every syllable and must have one of the 6 tones. Changing the tone almost always changes the meaning (there are a few exceptions: “cám ơn” and “cảm ơn” both mean “thank you”). A few words in Vietnamese can carry all 6 tones (for example “ma”) but most words can only carry a few of the tones. In Step 2, we already saw a lot of words that can only carry the rising tone or the dot tone: “sách” means book and “sạch” means clean. “Sach” can not carry any of the other tones.
Native speakers of Vietnamese don’t have to think about which tone is correct when they speak. When someone doesn’t use the tones correctly, it’s difficult to guess what they are trying to say.
Luckily for us, the tones are written on the words. You don’t have to memorize rules about which tone to use. However, if you want to use the word and it’s not written in front of you, you have to remember which tone it carries. Remembering the tones is hard at first but over time it gets easier.
You may be wondering how people can sing songs in Vietnamese with all these tones. Actually when you’re singing, you don’t have to adhere strictly to the tones. If you can incorporate the tone into the word without messing up the melody then go for it, but if not, then just sing without the tone.
Practice the Tones