Lessons Learned in Tone Class

 Tone languages are a result of the Fall.  When missionaries go to the field and determine their languages are tone languages, some seriously doubt their calling to the field.  – Various GIAL  professors.

So, I just finished an 8 week class called Tonal Analysis and I would like to explain it but I find it a little hard to do so.  Here is my attempt:  Some languages use vowels and consonants to construct words (like English) while others use vowels, consonants, and tone to construct words (like Mandarin).  Whether a pitch is high or low in some languages is as different to the speakers of those languages as ‘a’ and ‘o’ are in English.  And thus you need to get your tones right both in speech and in writing.
Needless to say missionaries from English speaking countries find this rather intimidating.  So much so that some have just ignored tone altogether (can you imagine a New Testament without vowels?!) and have thus produced very bad Bible translations.  Others (like the quote mentioned above) have doubted their calling to the mission field altogether when faced with tone.  I have heard these stories and have determined face this beast of tone and conquer it by taking a class called Tonal Analysis. 
But, it turns out that the tone beast is quite strong and when I started my tone class, I could not really hear the pitches, transcribe them, nor understand the concepts very well.  I went to go pay for my class and I told the financial aid advisor that I was scared of tone and he just nonchalantly told me that everything would be fine (really?!). 
He told me the story of a missionary linguist named Ken Pike and this story has sustained me these past 8 weeks:
Ken Pike was a missionary that went to a tone language and simply could not “get it.”  So he went up on a mountain and fasted and prayed that the Lord would help him to understand tone.  When he came off the mountain he then started re-looking at the language he was working on and was able to understand the way tone worked in his language.
But he was not satisfied.  He went back up on the mountain and prayed and fasted that the Lord would help him understand universals of tone that could be applied to many languages so he could help more missionaries.
He came down off the mountain and wrote a book on tone that I am reading this Christmas break and that is quoted still today. 
Clearly, the Lord gives grace to the humble.   So as I am floundering in tone, Ken Pike encourages me to seek the Lord knowing that heis the creator of tone languages and heis the creator of my mind.  Surely he can give me grace like he gave Ken Pike grace.  At times during these past 8 weeks, I was in my professor’s office almost daily seeking clarification for what I just was not getting.  I wrestled in this class probably more than I have struggled with any other class.
And did the Lord give grace and help me to “get it” like he helped Ken Pike?  Yes, I did learn a lot about tone and feel far more prepared to go the field, but the main lesson that I learned is that the Lord gives grace to the humble and that in every step of our translation journey, I need to look to him for knowledge.  It is an affront to the Lord for me to trust in my education or intellect and I am grateful for the periodic class that I have taken here at GIAL that have reminded me how desperately I need the Lord.  He is wisdom.  He is intellect.  He is knowledge and he also shares this knowledge with those who look to him.  I am so thankful to pursue a very intellectually rigorous life knowing that the Lord shares his intelligence with the humble.   I have a feeling I will learn and re-learn this lesson over and over again. 
For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. 
Proverbs 2:6

Author: Stacey Hare

Stacey is a servant of Jesus Christ as well as a wife, mom, linguist, and Bible translator among the Kwakum people of Cameroon.