Tone and Color in Chinese

11 Aug 2009

In his book Chinese through Tone and Color, author Nathan Dummitt presents his system of color-coded tones. In his own words:

> 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:

Perceptual Tone Contours in Mandarin Chinese

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.

The results:



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 (, , 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.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. We’re going to be doing this on Skritter as well, and will follow the standard Dummitt has set. It is a bit too bad, because I’d think of fourth tone as red, too. But I’m probably too set in my tonemark-reading ways to internalize the colors myself.

  2. Indeed, the trend for adding color tones is growing. Loqu8’s iCE popup translator/dictionary also features color tones.

  3. I love this idea of associating the colors with the tones and will start incorporating it into my studies. But I have to point out how backward Dummitt’s colors are according to basic color theory. Is it too late to prevent yet another bad and awkward “standard” from being applied to Chinese language studies? I would suggest this, which seems simple, obvious, and correlated with all our visual and spacial instincts:

    • Blue: Sky: high: First tone
    • Green: Mid-level: vegetation: trees and plants grow up: Second tone
    • Brown: Earth: rolling hills; downs and ups: Third tone
    • Red: Action: Anger: Striking: Force: Fourth tone

    I’m no academic… merely a former Art Director who lived, breathed, and applied color theory every day of my working life. The Dummitt color scheme fights against our nervous system — isn’t learning Chinese confusing enough? Oh well, I’ll just do it my natural, no-need-to-memorize-a-system way for myself… in the end, learning the language is all that matters and we all have our own methods. Thanks for introducing me to the idea, John!

    • I agree almost exactly! I knew right away that 4th tone was red. 1st has to be flat and blue like the sky, 2nd is grass or trees bending in the wind. The only difference is I picked orange, not brown for 3rd tone, imagining the sunrise sending out perpendicular rays of light. I’m likewise annoyed that all these major websites who decided to color code their tones did it without thinking about any of the associative properties of colors. How is red anything but angry old 4th tone? I really hope someone at Skritter sees that and allows users to assign their own colors to tones so they make sense to them.

    • Hey Carl, i’ve only recently thought to add colour to tones, and since there is no rule book, I have chosen your colour system as the settings for my pleco dictionary. It seems to make the most sense. Cheers for the info.

    • This is the exact system that I use (with my brown being probably closer to a dull orange). I think it makes much, much, much more intuitive sense.
      * Red is angry (骂人)
      * Blue is the sky (天)
      * Green is growing (活)
      * Orange/brown is like dirt (土,土地)

      As mentioned earlier, I think the real tragedy of all of this is that the whole point of using colors is to help people memorize a tone. To the extent we can’t agree on a system, means when I look at different color system, now I get confused…

    • The website I listed is owned by Dr. Terry Walts, an expert of TPRS teacher. She has Tonally Orthographic Pinyin where the five tone marks are colour coded.

      Blue: Sky: high: First tone.
      Green: Vegetation, trees…: Second tone.
      Black: ground, dirt: Third tone.
      Red: Action, anger, striking, force: Fourth tone.
      Grey: natural, between black and white: Fifth tone

      I wonder if you can use the similar colour for character or unify the colour codes. That would be easier for all Chinese language learners across the world.

  4. Why use colors instead of tone marks? Anyone? Both are visual. I’d say the tone marks more so since they visually indicate the tone/direction of your voice.

    Personally, I don’t care for the use of color to represent tones. However, I would definitely agree w/you that the 4th tone is RED.

  5. @Lin, personally, I think it’s an aesthetic thing — tone marks over characters are just… unattractive :).

    I mostly use the tone colors on the definition side of flashcards when there is a character I know how to pronounce but whose tone I always forget. It seems more pleasing than adding pinyin in brackets or something like that.

    I started off using my own color scheme (RGBO), but have since switched to Nathan’s because as you indicate it has been adopted widely. I personally doubt the choice of colors matters at all, and that as long as you adopt a single scheme and stick with it you’ll pretty quickly make the mental connection between the tone and its color, though some study backing it up would be nice.

  6. Nathan Dummitt Says: August 11, 2009 at 11:57 am


    Thanks for the interesting criticism! I use the color scheme in my high school classes, and over the years I’ve come to realize that there will always be students who feel strongly that the colors I chose are simply wrong, either because of the points you mention above (I can appreciate the red-anger-tone 4 association) or because they are actually synestheticand see certain sounds in certain colors.

    I chose them arbitrarily, at the time following the color wheel you posted above clockwise from red in numerical order. A red-orange-green-blue set is also fairly high contrast (roughly on the four ‘poles’ of the color wheel) and easily identifiable for younger students or for students adapting the system in their own studies (it can be hard to find “traditional chartreuse” on a Word document). That said, there is plenty of room for criticism and you make some very valid points. I’m not so sure about the reviewer who claims that all of China is poorly-lit (?) and therefore an impossible environment to distinguish orange and red.

    As for the reason I chose color, I wanted something quick and easily identifiable to use in the classroom – Pinyin diacritics are sometimes hard to distinguish when the fonts are small, and once a student “graduates” from Pinyin annotated text to only Hanzi, the characters can maintain their colors to provide somewhat of a crutch. Also, if students eventually come to think of 国, say, as an “orange” Hanzi, it is my hope that they will make fewer mistakes in speaking. I wrote my master’s thesis on this idea, but have zero empirical data to back up this intuition. I would love to see an experiment done someday.

    As Nick mentioned above, if my system gains more traction in other platforms, I’m all for standardization. It could also of course be applied to other tonal languages as long as there were not too many tones to distinguish – Cantonese for example might be problematic. If it helps even a few students improve their tones (a vital and yet sometimes woefully neglected area of CSL education – especially at the high school level and below in the States), I’ll be happy.

    • Crutch it is, using colors is a useless addition to an already complex language. Overall, 100 or 118 characters is nothing in the scale of literacy. And then there is the issue of tonal shift patterns and if you write a sentence with five first tones ending in a particle, none of the tones will be correctly color coded.

      Furhtermore, it cannot be adapted to writing with a keyboard. It would be idiotic to color code characters as one writes. Really what this color thing represents is failure to teach the lesson as a language, if people practice speaking they do not need color association.

    • John has a very intuitive color scheme for me and it just fits. The other ones are not emotionally pleasing to me. But i would hate to learn a system and then find out it is not the one in all the text books and then i would have to start over and re assign colors! So my questions are. Is there or will there be a standard system and if so which do you think ? and also what color do you use for neutral tone?

  7. Carl,

    Nice suggestion! I tried to be somewhat objective (or at least systematic) in my approach, but in the end, it did boil down to a “4th = red” subjective decision. Your scheme is good because it uniformly applies a subjective approach. I like it.

    I especially like 3rd = brown, because to me, third tone sounds kind of ugly, and brown would be the ugliest color in the set. Also, when you look at the dip in the pitch contour, you think “trough,” which brings to mind dirt as well.

  8. Lin,

    Good question. I also always appreciated the way the diacritical marks imitated the pitch contours of the tones. I do like them, but I think color has more potential for making unconscious associations with tones through repeated exposure. Somehow tone marks always need to be “processed” by the brain (same for numeric pinyin), whereas color is different.

  9. Nathan,

    Thanks a lot for the comment!. I never thought about the synesthetic angle; that’s pretty cool. (Is there any consistency between people in synesthetic perceptions?)

    I think your system is already gaining a lot of traction. If there were to be any changes to the system, it’s probably best that they came from you, and that they happened ASAP.

    That said, I want to reiterate that I think in the final analysis the colors chosen don’t make a huge difference; it’s just a bit of cognitive dissonance for students first getting used to it.

  10. This is interesting – like John, I’d like to know if there’s any theory on memory or cognition that indicates this would be more successful. I’ve explored some ideas in the past to use colour and spatial information to learn words (for gender, not tone) and think there’s some promise there.

    How about I put this to the test? I could make two lists of 50-100 new words, one with colors and one with tone marks, and review the flashcards for a week. Assuming there are enough words and they are randomly assigned to the lists, the final scores after a week would give a good way to measure if there was a difference. Will I remember a word as red-green more reliably than up-down?

  11. Coljac, I’ve read of studies where the word for a color is displayed in a different color (i.e. the word “blue” is shown in yellow). It creates a lot of cognitive dissonance and is hard for the brain to process. Not sure if that’s what you were asking about…

    Nathan, thanks for your response — and thanks for putting this whole idea out there. I know I’m one of those who feel strongly that the colors are wrong, but I think the basic idea is wonderfully clever and extremely useful. I do think that if you polled the designers whose work is featured in magazines like Communication Arts, most or all would agree with me. As would the authors of Made to Stick. But I could be 100% wrong about that! I’d love to know.

    As John says, it probably doesn’t matter much in the end, it’s just a tool. But I’m very glad to have been introduced to it. I have a very hard time remembering the tone for zou, for example. With this mmemonic system (doing it my way, of course ;-> ) I was able to imagine walking up and down some hills — and now I think I’ll always remember that zou3 is the zou that means “to walk.”

  12. Commodore Says: August 11, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    Just like the joke “Why doesn’t onomatopoeia sound like itself?”, I always get confused with 2nd and 3rd tones when they are described in Mandarin (di er4 sheng & di san1 sheng). Fortunately yi1 and si4 are perfect.

    As with colours, why not try those that are said in the corresponding tones (although some might not be practical, like white or black).

    1st – black (hei1 se), gray (hui1 se)

    2nd – white (bai2 se), blue (lan2 se), yellow (huang2 se), red (hong2 se), orange (cheng2 se – perfect!)

    3rd – purple (zi3 se – almost blue)

    4th – green (lu:4 se)

    Ideally the 5th tone should be gray for neutral, but that’s the only 1st tone colour that is not black.

  13. Funny, I’ve been revising my Chinese and I looked at the Michel Thomas method to see if it helped me remember the tones. The CDs associate a hand movement and a colour with each tone.
    First – green thumb out sideways
    Second – blue finger pointing up
    Third – red V sign
    Fourth – black finger stabbing down

    I don’t always think of the colours, though, and the thought that there are several other colour systems around makes my brain hurt.

  14. @Carl – I’ve seen that sort of thing before, it’s indeed confusing. But doesn’t follow that the parts of the brain associated with color are more closely connected to the language centres than those that deal with shape (tone marks). Making the finger moves seems promising – it involves a whole new part of the brain (c.f. Total Physical Response).

    I’m certainly skeptical that any color scheme is better than using audio in your learning experience, but of course you can’t get far without reading books.

  15. Nathan Dummitt Says: August 11, 2009 at 4:41 pm


    I think the test you’re referring to is the Stroop Test. Interesting, but probably unrelated to tone-color in Chinese. I like your image for 走 – it sounds like the kind of mnemonic that will stick.


    As a language teacher, I’m more skeptical than hopeful about TPR, but if it results in better pronunciation for certain students, I’m all for it. Most of my first year students spend at least a little time in the phase where they bob their heads and/or hands as they pronounce tones.

    It always comes down to what works best for you as an individual learner. If a certain student finds that wearing pink underwear and batting their left eyelid as they speak results in fluid, perfect tones, great. The tone/color method I use in my classroom is certainly no panacea, but I’ve found that it helps a majority of students:

    1. be more conscious of which tone they are using with individual words (an extremely important part of first year Chinese that often seems to be brushed under the rug – simply trying to absorb “the music of the language” doesn’t cut it), and

    2. to have fewer problems with remembering the pronunciation of a word, but not its tone – a problem that John B touched on above that I think plagues all learners at some point in their study a language with so many homophones.

    My tests on quizzes are all in black and white, and obviously any learner will have to wean themselves off of a system that relies on coloring text, but I’ve found it to be a useful tool in my classes.

  16. If nothing else, it looks like a fun a colourful way to advertise the language. My first Chinese book had no colour and was small and kind of pathetic looking.

    I’ve tried my own colour scheme before, I found it sort of got in the way with tone changes (不,一 etc…) I would have a word in a certain colour but would mix it up when recalling it, does this book have a solution for these tone changes?

  17. I have just started learning Mandarin myself, and have started blogging about it.

    I find the idea of colour an interesting one, because it probably would help me remember the homophones’ different tones in another way more easily than the standard characters/pinyin only because the colours would stick in my mind and would then forever be associated with that colour.

    One thing that does strike me intially though, colour tones probably should not take over completely, (what about colour blind people: for example) and I personally think that colour combined with pinyin with tonal marks may be a better way forward for the learner, and then slowly remove colour as you get better. As throughout other text(books, online), conversations through texts and emails, most people wont be using colour when communicating.

    It does however interest me, and I will be looking into this more as a memory aid for the characters. Thank you for bringing this up, it is very interesting.

  18. I think this is something that could be good for beginners but becomes less useful as one gets used to the tones. Surely once one can easily differentiate the differences between tone by ear, then the easiest way to learn them is by their sound; the same way Chinese people learn them.

  19. Surprised you didn’t mention the Tone and Color Firefox plugin:

    It takes a few seconds to process the entire webpage and colorize the characters appropriately, but is quite a useful tool. Anything that layers additional phonetic meaning onto characters is helpful.

  20. Nathan Dummitt Says: August 11, 2009 at 8:16 pm


    Hey Dave –

    Sorry about that. But the plug-in does need to be updated for the latest version of Firefox.

    It’s of course highly recommended once it has been updated. 🙂 I agree that any clues to help the beginning learner especially internalize tone are useful.


    Of course once you get a little more advanced in your Chinese studies, you can’t be pausing to color everything. I agree that at a certain point, a CSL learner should be able to distinguish and categorize the four tones by ear subconsciously. I don’t think that’s any more unrealistic than a native Japanese speaker internalizing the r/l distinction, and that’s obviously possible.

    • 大毛猴子 Says: January 28, 2011 at 8:51 pm

      Really, it is a stupid idea to assign colour. It simply doesn’t work and complicates learning. You may think it works when you are only trying to teach 100 characters. So, Dummit, assign your colours below and explain to the audience why your system does not work.


      there are six third tone characters, yet the third tone is not preserved in any of them. The tone of 一 goes to fourth tone. So, of 9 characters, the neutral tone of 了 is preserved and the tone of 听 is preserved.

      And if you or your readers are American this is a very important sentence for you.

  21. […] Another interesting post over at Sinosplice today on the subject of using colour to learn tones in Mandarin. It seems plausible, but not proven, that colour might be a better way to encode tone information visually than he traditional tone marks – plausible, but not proven. […]

  22. No worries (thanks Nathan and John). Have just upgraded to make the plugin compatible with Firefox 3.5. Should actually have taken care of that earlier.

    @tzm – i still find it useful on occasion. Context often gives the definition, but I’ll still find myself looking up unknown words to confirm tones, especially with 书面语. The color-tone mapping is useful, although I like it toggleable since it can be distracting otherwise.

  23. trevelyan,

    Sorry about that, man… I thought I had heard something about a tone and color Firefox addon, but I wasn’t sure, so I did a search on the FF site and turned up nothing. Shouldn’t it be in there? Confused.

  24. […] a system he created while he himself was studying Chinese. Read an interview with Dummitt here, and a critique of the book by a fellow linguist. […]

  25. Tone colors for each character. Interesting concept. Any tool that facilitaes language learning is great ! Are there any scientific studies that validate this ? Also, some characters can have more than one tone (I estimate about 10%), depending on the context. Would we have a multi-colored system for these ?

  26. Cool topic.
    I think writting tone marks beats the hell out of numbering, which really makes no sense at all (why is straight first). But on the other hand if i ask a chinese for a tone, they will reply in number form, not often direction and never colour. So i think numbers are sometimes needed.

    For colour, on paper writting everything out in colour would be a pain in the arse, do you use 4 different pens all the time? I understand you could learn electronically or off palm cards or pleco (which incidentially also has an option colouring system) but I learn charaters through writing them out a million times and tones through grabbing a news article and drawing the tone directions for my tutor to later check. In other words, i need to nut out tones on paper as well as on the screen, and tone marks are more logical than colour there. But i guess number, direction and colour systems could all co-exist. BUt as previously mentioned, if there were different colouring systems floating about that would be bad.

  27. This reminds me of a musician friend of mine, whose father as an experiment painted the keys of his piano in different colors in order to provoke association between the sound of a note with a color. After years of playing this piano my friend could actually very accurately tell you the name of a note he heard because he could “see” the color that the note was related to.

  28. I’m happy to see this post on tone and color association! When I first started studying Chinese, my friend and I used highlighters to color code the tones (which obviously narrowed/influenced our color choices) but nevertheless, we had a little method to our madness as well. Our choices and reasons for them are as follows:

    1st tone – Yellow (first tone is happy, clear, sing-song, SUNNY!)
    2nd tone – Blue (reaching up to the SKY)
    3rd tone – Green (dipping down to the EARH – I suppose brown also makes sense, but no brown highlighters!:)
    4th tone – Pink (I agree with the author of the post and many of the commentors that red/pink just FEELS RIGHT as fourth tone, i.e. striking down with PASSION)
    *neutral tone – White (white is not a color – so it is by definition neutral!)

    My color choices are practical for students who prefer to study using books/paper more than online (both have their merits). If you arm yourself with these four common highlighter colors, you can color code whatever you’re reading!

    As the color system slowly becomes embedded in your mind, your tones will start to become more instinctive, natural, and accurate.

    Once you’re confident enough, you can wean yourself off the colors!

  29. I’ll probably always remember tones through numbers; too old to switch to colors now. The colorization of tones is an interesting idea, but the firefox plugin is a fantastic idea and makes the system much more practical. On the other hand, I’m a big believer in making my own study aids. Am I really expected to switch font colors for nearly every character I write? Aha! But the answer supplies itself: post what I write on to a webpage (doesn’t need to be public) and then the firefox plugin does the rest. Fan#$%ingtastic. Alas, I tried to paste the resulting colorful text back into Word and the color was lost. Bummer. Trevelyan, any fix for this?

    By the way, I think Commodore’s idea for choosing colors is the best – by the tones the words for those colors have in Chinese. It’s just unfortunate that the choices for first tone are only black and gray while third tone just has purple. I do think red (danger) can be associated with the 4th tone, but I like the violence of the 4th tone ü in words like 绿茶, which is still the sound I have the most difficulty making.

    I was already thinking about Cantonese before Nathan mentioned it. But I think I overheard too many mothers berating their kids when lived in Hong Kong, so I’d make most of the tones harsh reds, purples or blacks. Or puke green ; )

  30. 大家注意。说话用太多第四音很容易上火。小心!

  31. There’s been some good debate on this post, so I’ll make a slightly different observation … note how he chose his example words to (subconsciously?) make you believe that his system makes sense!

    • For example – he uses the word gao=high to show the ‘high’ first tone. Hmmm, makes sense. Even the hanzi looks high!
    • For the second tone, the ren radical of shen looks like the increasing-stroke of second tone. Again, he cleverly makes that lookjustright !
    • And the colour for 4th (decreasing) tone includes a downward stroke in it. V clever.

    Almost convincing enough to make you think it’s the only meaningful colour-coding! 🙂

  32. I too use a colour tone system for learning flashcards with the Pleco dictionary on my mobile phone. Although Pleco has a default set of colours, I found they didn’t work for me so I chose my own. Coincidentally, I ended up with the same colours as Carl, with similar reasoning.

    From my experience of using colours over the last few months, they have the several benefits:

    • Like many people, I previously had problems remembering the tones for characters, even though I could remember the pronunciation OK. Using the colours has improved my memorisation of the character+pronunciation+tone.

    • I think that people who have English as their first language are simply not used to reading/memorising words with diacritic marks, so while you can often easily memorise the pinyin ‘word’, the marks above the characters often do not seem to stick in your memory. (In fact, I previously used tone numbers on the end of pinyin words as I found these tended to be easier for me to remember that the tone marks.)

    • With the character itself being in colour, I find it does make me associate a tone with a specific character much more strongly than having to look below at the pinyin to find the tone.

    I do feel that any computer/web service offering tone colours should let the user customise which colours are used, rather than imposing any “standard” colour system on it’s users (of course this isn’t possible for printed material!).


  33. […] setting is not Dummitt’s scheme; it’s Pleco’s own scheme, more similar to the tone/color scheme I proposed. But the colors, like most everything in the app, are […]

  34. Just re-reading the wikipedia entry on synaesthesia:

    ‘synesthetes show the same trends as non-synesthetes do. For example, both groups say that louder tones are brighter than dull, soft tones, whereas higher tones are smaller and lighter than low ones. Low tones are both larger and darker than high ones’

    For me this keys directly into the fact that, as Goethe guessed 200 years ago, all sounds and colours are forms of vibration. Of course since everyone’s tones are different – as are our perceptions of sound and colour – there cannot be a universal correlation of tones and colours.

    My personal colour scheme links in with the natural world/elements. (The colours I use are at variants with the traditional Chinese elemental colour scheme, but then that tradition predates the mandarin tones)
    I favour bright colours – they ‘stick’ in the brain better. This scheme works better on a black background , the colours jump out at you, light colours aren’t washed out. on a PDA.

    1st Tone: Bright Gold/yellow (yellow best on black background)
    (GOLD high, like the sun)

    2nd Tone: Bright red (FIRE rises, as does a red rocket)
    (I personally think the 2nd can be the fieriest tone, it can get louder as it rises, but then I learnt my Chinese in Sichuan, so I’m just plain confused).

    3rd Tone: Is really a low, sometimes croaky tone – a mid brown and in bold (don’t make it too dark, dark doesn’t ‘stick’ in the brain). EARTH or mud (wallowing low in the mud).

    4th mid blue. (for me fourth tone can be aggressive, but equally it can just taper-off, so blue not red for me). WATER (diving into the sea)

    No-tone grey, obviously.

  35. I don’t know who first invented this “tone and color” thing, but Joel Bellassen, a French Mandarin teacher has been using it for quite a few years in the text books he writes.
    His set of colors is different from Dummitt’s and yours :

  36. I use the color-coding system, and I find it works very well. I never have to even think of what tone a word is, I know it right away. That said, my pronunciation is not perfect, I do make mistakes, but I never have to ask,”O, what tone is that?” I can also hear the tones pretty clearly now, and when I hear a new word I can usually correctly guess the tones. This I cannot promise is due to the color-coding. (But I think the color-coding has had an effect, as I am much more “attentive” to the tones than some fellow Chinese learners)

    I have heard a fellow student mention that he thought the color-coding was a crutch, but I do not understand this argument at all. True, it is more work when writing in 4 colors (or highlighting a book), but it is not at all a crutch. On the contrary, I read many things everyday without the use of colors (novels, signs, subtitles, etc etc etc). The difference is I can pronounce the words with which I am familiar far more accurately that if I did not use the color-coding system.

    I may make a suggestion, and I think it’s important, but I don’t have any scientific proof to back it up… One of the colors, (I argue it should be first tone) should be black. The “No tone” is also black. 4 colors is a little cumbersome, and will not “stick” in the brain as well.
    In my experience (as well as some other language learners who have used this method) there is no confusion between the 1st tone and the no-tone, which for me are both black.

    My personal colors : 1st black, 2nd blue (towards sky), 3rd pink/red, 4th green (towards the grass).

    I agree that the colors should be chosen according to the individual.

    But I must say unequivocally, color-coding is an excellent way to learn spoken-chinese and improve your tones.

    thanks, m.

  37. I am a visual learner and can remember things much easier with colors and pictures. I used The same colors as you did, based on Red=4th then everything fell into place 1=yellow 2=green 3=blue. However I still can not find a correct color for the neutral tone. Right now it is grey! Do you have any suggestions for the NEUTRAL TONE! please help me color my world appropriately!

  38. […] [Amazon Link], you’ll probably see that it’s slightly counter intuitive (image from Sinosplice, a website which I recommend):Yes, this infamous colour system that is used in the Anki plugin […]

  39. Quite old thread, but I had to comment that these colors are great for memorizing tones. We can make visual associations. For example, if I have difficulties to remember that gou (dog) is 3 sheng, I imagine a green dog. And so on…

  40. After reading these comments, now i try a system requiring only a 4 colors pen :

    My personnal-color-symbolism is :

    1 Blue/high
    2 Green/grows
    3 Black/earth
    4 Red/a blow
    5 Grey (softly written)/no tone

  41. […] use Nathan Dummitt’s “Chinese through Tone and Color” tonal representation system for mandarin Chinese. You might have seen this system used somewhere […]

  42. […] (If you’re not familiar with what tone colors are, please see John Pasden’s review of  Chinese Through Tone & Color by Nathan […]

  43. […] kolorystyce. O kolorystyce chińskich tonów i pewnych kontrowersjach można przeczytać na Istnieje bowiem wiele schematów kolorystycznych, co może wprowadzać pewne zamieszanie dla […]

  44. The color scheme I favor starts with how “tonal” color words in English seem, which is the best intuitive reminder for me:
    first tone – green (think grEEn)
    second tone – red (think rEd)
    third tone – blue (think blUUUE)
    fourth tone – black (think blaCK)
    neutral – black or gray.

    The word “green” lends itself to a first tone pronunciation. “Red” can be thought of as a rising tone. Blue can be thought of as falling-rising.

    This association of four tones with colors thatcan be linked to a pseudo-tone with the English word for the color works best for me.

  45. Dear fellow student,

    I also use 1 colour per tone. I would like to share my visual aids for the most common Chinese characters with you (help for writing + tone). Check it out:

    1st tone – red for high like lanterns floating high in the streets

    2nd tone – yellow for rising like rising sun rays

    3rd tone – green for falling rising like grass waving in the wind

    4th tone – purple for falling like rays of light flowing down from the stars

    5th tone – grey for neutral

  46. […] Chinese through Tone and Color. The specific colors he chose are apparently the subject of some controversy, and the fact is that Pleco (to my mind the gold standard of Chinese dictionary apps) chose a […]

  47. […] Tone and Color in Chinese […]

  48. As much as I love the written Chinese, I’ll never be able to read and write this language and I’m not spending what little time I have on memorizing the glyphs. My goal is to speak the language moderately well and pinyin is perfect for that. Color coding the pinyin for each character makes it so much easier to distinguish tones especially in small print/font sizes.

    Back on January 28, 2011 at 8:51 pm, someone posted a criticism of the colors because they would mislead you when reading sentences, since tones often shift when characters are spoken in linked sequences. But that’s just as true for standard pinyin tone marks. If I’m going to get anywhere, I have to burn each character’s tone into memory as well as practice speaking characters in sentences, as they’re really spoken together. The colors help a lot with the former task and I can’t see how they get in the way of the latter.

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