Tone and Color in Chinese
11 Aug 2009
> I hope that my system gives a context, even for non-visual learners, for distinguishing between the four tones in Mandarin and providing a mnemonic system to help them remember which tone goes with a particular word.
From the moment I first heard of this idea, I was intrigued by it. Associating tones with colors does open up a lot of possibilities. Once the system is internalized, you can drop tone marks and tone numbers altogether, and you can tone-code the Chinese characters themselves using color. (The best non-color approximation to this would be writing the tone marks above the characters, which you will find in some textbooks and programs.) So I was very receptive to this idea.
Despite being very open to the concept, when I saw the actual colors chosen to represent each tone, they just felt wrong to me. The pairings Dummitt chose were:
Why would these colors feel wrong to me? How could the tone-color associations be anything but arbitrary?
The reason that the colors felt wrong to me was that I had already thought about the relationships between the tones and my own perceptions of those tones. I had even (briefly) considered color when I sketched my “Perceptual Tone Contours” idea:
Specifically, I felt that first and fourth tone feel similar, and that second and third tone feel similar. I believe that perceived similarity is strong enough that it affects both listening comprehension and production. This is why I purposely colored first and fourth tone red in my diagram, and second and third tone blue.
An Alternate Color Scheme
OK, so now we’re getting down to the point of my post. As a thought exercise I asked myself: If I had to assign colors to the four tones, which colors would I use?
In answering this question, one has to believe that there are underlying principles which, when followed, might produce better results. Otherwise, arbitrary assignment is fine. So what are the principles? I have two:
1. The colors need to have a high degree of contrast so that they will stand out on a white background and not be confused with each other.
2. The colors chosen need to reflect the appropriate perceptual similarities.
There are other considerations you might take into account if you want to be super-thorough, of course. From an Amazon reviewer of Dummitt’s book:
> If a person was going to design a color code tone system they would probably want to avoid using red and green in the same color scheme. Red – green color blindness causes an inability to discriminate differences in red and green. Hence the testing when you get your driver’s license. 5 to 8 percent of males have this color blindness.
> Using red and orange in the same scheme is also not very bright. Much language learning is done on buses, trains, planes and their attendant stations. Lighting is sub-optimal in all these situations and much worse in China. Low light intensity impairs the ability to discriminate red from orange.
These points have some merit, I suppose, but I’m not sure what colors they leave. I’m sticking to the two principles I listed above. I don’t see how you’re going to avoid either red or orange altogether if you need easily distinguishable, high-contrast colors.
Regarding the principle of high contrast, I can’t disagree with Dummitt’s choices. You can’t choose yellow, and the ones he chose are easy to distinguish quickly.
As for perceptual similarities, I would reflect these similarities by grouping the four tones into two warm and two cool colors. In my Chinese studies over the years, I have often associated fourth tone with aggression or anger, both concepts which I would associate with the color red. Red = fourth tone is the strongest association I have, but from there, all the others fall into place. You can’t use yellow (poor contrast), so orange is your other warm color, going to first tone. My diagram has fourth tone and second tone diametrically opposed (falling versus rising), and green is directly opposite red on the color wheel, so I would go with green for second tone. That makes third tone blue.
By following certain principles, you can arrive at a certain color scheme in a non-arbitrary way. Still, my choices were based on an initial personal judgment that fourth tone is red, after which everything else fell into place. If you don’t agree with that, then the other the resulting choices probably don’t make sense either.
You might find that the example characters I gave work quite well for red and blue, but not so much for orange and green. I think you’ll find the same for any color scheme you choose. Orange especially, and green to a lesser degree, just don’t seem to associate as readily with either concepts or real-world objects (exception: green to plants). Why this is, I have no idea.
It would be nice if the tones of the Mandarin words for the colors matched up well, but they just don’t. Of the colors considered above, all are either second tone (红, 蓝, 橘黄) or fourth tone (绿). Dummitt’s original scheme matches only on second tone (orange), and not for red or blue (the important ones). Mine doesn’t match on any.
Implications for Pedagogy
The obvious question I’ve been avoiding until now is: does any of this matter? Is this worth putting extra thought into? Is the tone-color system actually going to be adopted?
I really have no clue whether or not the use of color to indicate tone will make a significant impact on a new learner of Mandarin Chinese. I would love to see a longitudinal study putting it to the test. Whatever the case, though, I doubt that it will see wide adoption in textbooks used in high schools or universities. The leading textbook publishers are set in their ways, and the added hassle of always having to print in color doesn’t help.
Where tone color coding could be easily implemented, however, is on the web. Printing, paper, and stubborn institutions are no obstacle for electronic media, and technical implementation involves only minor tweaking of basic style elements. As more and more people learn from a computer screen rather than off a dead tree, this change could make a (small?) difference in the way a new generation learns Mandarin.
I bring this up because tonal color-coding is already built-in to Anki‘s pinyin plugin. Popular online dictionary MDBG has added the color-coding as an optional setting. I hear other browser plugins are adding the feature too. All of them are following the colors set forth in Dummitt’s Chinese through Tone and Color. As one commenter on Laowai Chinese has noted:
> Colors match those used in the book Chinese Through Tone & Color; I’m guessing a convention is already forming around these colors. This is great!
A common standard is indeed a good thing. In the end, the tone-color assignments shouldn’t make much difference. It will be interesting to see how far this goes.