Memorization Chinese tones:
color-coding mnemonics technique

published: June 3, 2018

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Briefly about the mnemotechnic Pinyin color-coding

Associative connection with color is one of the most effective mnemonic technique. For memorization the tone of the Chinese language, you need to select five colors, where each color means its own tone. There are a lot of different color schemes and there is no single standard, so everyone can choose for themselves – how to match colors with tones and what kind of association relationship to build between color and tone.

CNVocab materials use rainbow colors scheme and below you can find out the associative logic of this colors choice. Also at the end of the article, you can explore the original method of coloring tones - Chinese Tones Marker Highlights.

Tonal categories

The following table shows color-coding technique for the four main tones of Standard Chinese, together with the neutral (or fifth) tone:

tonal categories table, pinyin color-coding Download Chinese tonal categories PDF poster

  1. First tone, also known as high-level tone, is a flat high pronunciation. This tone sound produced as if it were being sung instead of spoken. In Chinese first tone called 阴平, so for the associative color, I chose sea blue, like a calm flat surface with deep navi color.
  2. Second tone, or rising tone, or more specifically high-rising, is a sound that rises from middle to high pitch (like in the English "What?!"). In a three-syllable expression, if the first syllable has first or second tone and the final syllable is not weak, then a second tone on the middle syllable may change to first tone.
  3. Third tone is often demonstrated as having a rise in pitch after the low fall; so we will assign it an orange-yellow, transitional color between red and green
  4. Fourth tone, falling tone, or high-falling, features a sharp fall from high to low (as is heard in curt commands in English, such as "Stop!"). When followed by another fourth-tone syllable, the fall may be only from high to mid-level.
  5. Neutral tone, also called fifth tone or zeroth tone (in Chinese 轻声 [輕聲] qīngshēng, literal meaning: "light tone"), neutral tone is sometimes thought of as a lack of tone. It is associated with weak syllables, which are generally somewhat shorter than tonic syllables. The pitch of a syllable with neutral tone is determined by the tone of the preceding syllable.

Tones color-coding graph:

Download Tones color-coding graoh PDF poster

The “Marker Highlight” method of coloring pinyin tones

For me colored Chinese characters looks not good, so I prefer to show tones by background highlight, some like a marker selection. By the way, this method can specify tone variants for the multi-tonal character.

multi-tonal characters, different variants of pronunciation

Chinese Tone Color Schemes review

  1. Book “ Chinese Through Tone & Color ” by Nathan Dummitt, March 15, 2008
  2. : Tone and Color in Chinese
    John Pasden (the founder of allsetlearning ”Chinese grammar wiki”) wrote a fairly detailed article, where he argues his color proposal.
  3. One of the most popular online dictionary
    The interface provides two color schemes for user's choice, the first color scheme is similar to Nathan’s, and the second looks quite original, because have not orange/yellow color:
  4. Hanping Chinese Dictionary — just a popular dictionary app
  5. CNVocab — What coloring method developed for this site:

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