As a native speaker of a Slavic language, I know about foreigners trying (and sometimes failing) to use proper case for a situation, or using wrong gender declension, or an adjective non gender-matching the noun. Such sentence is technically wrong, but such mistakes does not prevent me to understand it (especially in a context), so it is not a big problem in the communication.

How important are correct tones to understanding a whole sentence (words in context) in tonal language? If I use mostly right tones, but use few wrong tones, will be native speaker able to decode and fill the right tones? Or even few wrong tones will make the sentence beyond comprehension?

Specifically I am interested in importance of tones (and recovery from wrong tones) in Thai language.

I found this question about tones in Chinese and obviously if a minimal pair is wrongly used in a sentence, it might make the sentence mangled beyond comprehension.

I know that learning proper tones of a tonal language is important. Are there some other possible strategies to deal with this problem? Or to make it less of a problem? Can I expect that natives will fill-in proper tones where I used wrong ones?

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    It seems as native Chinese speakers still understand foreigners when they make some tonal mistakes. I was surprised by that given a large number of homophones in Chinese.
    – Vitaly
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 17:37
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    @Vitaly Please answer in answers, not comments.
    – Tommi
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 20:36
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    @Vitaly It is against SE good practices to answer in comments, so you should remove your comment if you do not see it as valuable. If you do see it as valuable, then you should write it as an answer.
    – Tommi
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 21:20
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    @Vitaly rpg.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/6533/…
    – Tommi
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 6:26
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    @TommiBrander I don't see how Vitaly's comment is sufficiently detailed to qualify as an answer.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 9:51

5 Answers 5


I'm Thai and living in Bangkok, so I'll answer specifically for Thai language.

How important are correct tones to understanding a whole sentence (words in context) in tonal language? If I use mostly right tones, but use few wrong tones, will be native speaker able to decode and fill the right tones? Or even few wrong tones will make the sentence beyond comprehension?

  • I think correct tones have less importance than correct consonants and vowels in sentence comprehension; the contrast made by the choice of consonants and vowel in a syllable, along with the surrounding syllables (as many Thai words aren't monosyllabic[citation needed]) and sentential context, can facilitate the interpretation of ambiguous words.

Are there some other possible strategies to deal with this problem? Or to make it less of a problem? Can I expect that natives will fill-in proper tones where I used wrong ones?

  • From my experince, most native Thai people can fill-in the proper tones when speaking to foreigners (I think it's possible to understand what they're trying to say even when they speak flatly, e.g. as in English, if they pronounce the intended word with correct syllables, consonants, and vowels)

extra : try search for "pim thai mai dai" or "pasa karaoke" for example of (millennial,texting but also disapproved) Thai language without tones

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    Thank you (khop khun krap) you are my go-to expert on Thai now, please stay around! :-) If I understand it correctly, what "pim thai mai dai" writes is perfectly comprehensible to (millennial) Thais, even if text has no tones. Pure gold. Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 21:40
  • No problem, but I'm no expert. Before answering this question, I was about to post a request for Thai learning materials because I want to know how foreign,successful Thai learners achieved the process. And yes, but it's like you need to rewire your brain a bit to be able to actually read it fast lol.
    – Magistel2
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 12:46
  • I assume that "pasa karaoke" (pasa == language) is a language used to write songs in karaoke to sing along? Are there some materials about it, or for "pim thai mai dai", or it is just informal grassroots initiative? How different it is from the Thai used to transcribe names of cities on street signs? I was surprised how many different ways (dozen or more) are there to romanize Thai script. Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 14:38
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    I believe this blog post can answer your questions : blogs.transparent.com/thai/how-to-readwrite-in-karaoke
    – Magistel2
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 17:48
  • Please do post your question/request about Thai learning materials, and probably a self-answer. And yes, trying to read Thai alphabet, with all the vowel parts scattered above, below, before, or after a consonant (or completely omitted) makes reading really challenging to a person used to a Roman alphabet. Commented Sep 17, 2019 at 13:41

I speak both Mandarin and Cantonese, and I can tell you tones are pretty important, because it is like singing, if you sing on the wrong tone, sometimes we might be able to guess what you sing, but it won't be beautiful, and it might be misleading. Also it depends on how many words are off tone.

When my Cantonese was not good enough, one of my friends had a hard time understanding me. She is native Cantonese speaker. Some people can repair better for you, but most people won't be able to. I also find it easier for Mandarin speakers to guess your meaning than Cantonese, maybe because there are only 4 tones in Mandarin but there are 9 tones in Cantonese. Subtle differences can make a bigger impact in Cantonese.

  • I see. Tones are more important if language has more tones (so it is harder to backfill the correct one). I am mostly interested in Thai. Thai has 5 tones, which is more than 4 in Mandarin. As @Magistel2 said, most Thai can "fix" wrong tones, or flatly spoken speach. Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 16:40

I lived in Taiwan for two years speaking Mandarin Chinese (as a missionary for my church, but that is another story). Sometimes, I would speak funny to children on purpose to see if they could understand me. For example, I remember saying, "Ru4guo4 wo4 yi4zhi4 yong4 di4 si4 sheng4 gen4 ni4 jiang4, ni4 hui4 ting4 de4 dong4 ma4?". Which should be, "Ru2guo3 wo3 yi4zhi2 yong4 di4 si4 sheng1 gen1 ni3 jiang3, ni3 hui4 ting1 de2 dong3 ma?" That means, "If I only used the fourth tone to speak with you, would you understand?" Usually, the children would respond, "Wo4 hui4 ting4 de4 dong4!" or "I would understand!" but spoken all in fourth tones. For many informal conversations, they could fill in the appropriate tone or purposefully mix tones as a word game without losing comprehension. But as you said with minimal pairs, there are times when a missed tone can completely halt understandability.

In general, tonal language speakers can fill-in the right tone if you misspoke, but in tonal languages with a high number of distinct minimal pairs in the same part of speech, it becomes more difficult. For example, in Chinese 主教 (zhu3jiao4) means Bishop, but 助教 (zhu4jiao4) means Teaching Assistant and 猪脚 (zhu1jiao3) means pig's foot. Or 语言 (yu3yan2) means language, but 预言 (yu4yan2) means prophecy. These are all nouns and could all (potentially) be valid in the given conversation, but there is no way to correct the tones in the speaker's mind without additional information. Consider someone asking what your friend does for a living and you respond that he is a Bishop when you meant to say teaching assistant. Context can only get you so far in conveying meaning, but it does help a lot.


Most tonal language speakers can "fix" your incorrect tones in their minds with enough context and fewer numbers of minimal pairs in the language. But it depends on the individual speaker and what you are talking about.

  • Thank you. Amazing is that children were able to answer in same fourth tones (and you were also to understand the answer). So wrong tones IS something similar to wrong/non-matching genders. Common way to impersonate a foreigner in a joke in a Slavic language would be using wrong genders. Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 19:43

My go-to analogy for this is:

How important are final consonants in languages that have consonant clusters?

I'll refrain from giving an "eye-dialect" rendition, but it is true that, depending on exposure, English speakers do understand "a lot" when the interlocutor drops most of their final consonants. However, how much is "a lot"? More importantly, is it enough for their purposes? Buying vegetables at the supermarket? Communicating at the post office? Going for a job interview at a multinational company? Debating with educated speakers for the media?

It comes to how much load does the speaker want to burden the listener with, and how much burden does their background allow them to take on?

So back to tones:

From my experience, in Mandarin Chinese, tones are the most consistent part of the accent across the Sinosphere. Mandarin only has four tones, which for southern China is not much - therefore, it is amongst the easiest parts of the language for the speaker of another Chinese topolect to learn, and easiest parts to pick up. It is also the most immune to errors by natives.

When the tones are different (across large parts of the north and the southwest), the tones are consistently different, even when there are exotic tone sandhi laws. Depending on the ear of the listener, it can be very easy to pick up what they are saying: e.g. "红" is usually going to have the same tone pattern as "糖", even when in sandhi.

These are all cumulative factors. There is plenty of evidence that the more errors are accumulated, the less understandable it is. But this also varies between populations: Cantonese had a greater sensitivity to "word-nonword difference" than (Taiwanese) Mandarin.

What is often forgotten about tone pedagogy is that it is a feature of the syllable final, the "vowel bit". A quote from some research:

To a Mandarin listener, the nonword che2 is much more like che1 than she2 or chi2, but crucially, che2 is more like she2 or even de2 than chi2 or cha2.

If you then add a few non-standard initial consonants, the wrong vowel here and there, by the time you've made a vocabulary or grammar error, the context might not be able to save you anymore. Thus, tone practice should be part of your general listening and speaking practice.


Tones are essential to the meaning of a tonal language. Two words that sound the same to a non-tonal language have a completely different meaning.

For example in Vietnamese, ma, má, mâ, and mà among others all have completely different meanings. That is why the language is called tonal because the tone of the word changes its meaning.

A similar analogy can be found in the words desert and dessert (though spelled differently) do have a slightly different tone, but they have a completely different meaning.

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    I already know that tones are essential, as I stated in my question. But if if someone asked me for another piece of desert, it would be obvious he is asking for a dessert, wouldn't it? That's what I am asking: are native speakers able to "repair" wrong tones and understand the sentence in context? I am not asking words (obviously for words without context, wrong tones are crucial). Vitaly's comment in OP suggest that native speakers are able to overcome few wrong tones, do you disagree? Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 20:37
  • I'm assuming that there must be quite a few very funny jokes that are quite "dirty" in tonal languages by modifying the tone. Context must enable the meaning, when mistakes are made. Unfortunately, I'm not expert enough to provide a definitive answer. Sorry if I misunderstood.
    – Karlomanio
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 20:41
  • No problem. Vitaly has first-person experience in communication in tonal language (Chinese), do you? You are right that using such wrong tones might be quite funny and possibly offending. Well, foreigners are expected to make mistakes. Let me assure you that using wrong case or gender by foreigners in my language can be funny and/or offending, but rarely would prevent from understanding the original intent, as I said in my question. Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 21:00
  • Sorry for scorning your first-hand knowledge of tonal languages, you very obviously do have the knowledge of Vietnamese. Do you have experience of using wrong tones similar to what callyater mentioned in his answer? Or in your experience, Vietnamese are less likely to fill in correct tones? Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 20:29
  • No worries. I don't know a lot. I'm trying to learn Vietnamese because it uses Latin characters. I'm starting to get the hang of recognizing the diacritical marks that indicate the tones, so I'm not quite to the point that you ask. I do have a Vietnamese girlfriend to ask, too. :)
    – Karlomanio
    Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 15:40

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