Tone Colors and What Pleco Did with Them

A: “Dude! Have you ever wondered if what I see as ‘red’ is the same color that you see as ‘red’?”

B: “No dude! It’s scientific. ‘Red’ is just a label for a certain wavelength on the spectrum.”

A: “I know, Dude. But how do we know what our brains ‘see’ when our eyes perceive that wavelength? Maybe what I call ‘red’ is what you see when you say ‘green.’ We’d never know because we always call the same color ‘red’ or ‘green’ when we see it. But what color are we ACTUALLY seeing?”

B: “Dude…”

Have you ever had THAT conversation before (with or without the ubiquitous use of “dude”)? That’s exactly what this post is NOT about.

Before I go on, I’d like to announce that I am deeply in like with my new iPhone 5s. I’ve only had it for a little over a month, but I finally know what all the fuss is about (it’s my first zhìnéng shǒujī 智能手机 ever).

Naturally, one of the first apps I got was Pleco (coming soon: a post about why I love Pleco). One of the options that was on by default was the “Tone Colors.” (If you’re not familiar with what tone colors are, please see John Pasden’s review of  Chinese Through Tone & Color by Nathan Dummitt.)

I love tone colors, and left them on in Pleco. But the problem (as John and his commenters discuss) is: What’s the biāozhǔn 标准? What colors should be assigned to each tone?

Here’s a summary of what 4 people think: [updated to include Hanping]

Default-tone-color-chart2According to Pleco’s creator Michael Love, Pleco first introduced tone colors in Pleco 2.0 Beta 1 (October 2007). Drummitt’s book came out six months later in March 2008, and then MDBG added tone colors a year later.

Right now, I’m an avid user of MDBG and Pleco. But the tone colors don’t match. I don’t want to discuss what the “right” colors for each tone should be, I just want it to be consistent. But I’ve found that people feel very strongly about “their colors.” And I think a consensus is impossible to reach.

But no problem. Pleco has set an example of how apps should handle this issue. Look at the option in Pleco’s Settings > Colors > Configure colors > Tone 1 color:


That’s the solution! Just let everyone set their own tone colors. Since MDBG doesn’t offer this option (yet), I’d have to set Pleco’s colors to match MDBG’s. UPDATE: MDBG now offers Pleco’s colors as one of the options (see here).

(Note: the Pleco colors are in HSB by default, but if you touch the number itself you can toggle through RGB or Hex.)

I hope all you who are developing apps that include tone colors will follow Pleco’s lead on this: go ahead and pick your favorite defaults (Michael Love said “I believe the (Pleco) colors were originally chosen based on what colors of pen the friend of mine who came up with it had available”), but please PLEASE let us users customize them.

UPDATE: Hanping has a big preset menu to allow users to choose their favorite color schemes (but I don’t know what some of those presets are).

Beginning Chinese Class, Term 1 Report

I had a great time teaching the Beginning Chinese class to the foreign teachers here at Peizheng College last term. I learned a lot and I’m very much looking forward to teaching it again next term.

I’ve decided to share the following information from my first term teaching Chinese in hopes that other Chinese teachers (and students) may derive some benefit from my experience:

  1. My reflections on what went well and what could be improved.
  2. The database of all the vocabulary we covered over the term including a hanzi frequency report.
  3. Syllabus I emailed before first day of class.
  4. Agreement the foreign teachers and tutors signed.

The database was created by Iris (my assistant coach) who brought her laptop to class every session and faithfully typed in everything that went on the board. There was a little confusion about the total weeks (was it 12 or 13?) but besides that I’d call it a big success.

I’ll be reworking the syllabus slightly but the basic format will remain unchanged:

  • 1-on-1 Tutor Session + Group Class Session

Thanks again to all the foreign teachers and tutors who made the class so fun!

  Beginning Chinese Spring 2013 Report (2,352 hits)

  Beginning Chinese Vocab Database - spring 2013 (2,334 hits)

  Beginning Chinese Syllabus - spring 2013 (1,751 hits)

  Tutor and foreign teacher agreements (1,405 hits)

The 5th Skill: Handwriting

WARNING: This article is an explanation of the footnote in my conceptual breakdown of foreign language teaching. It’s really written more for language teachers and testers than learners.

Language instruction is typically divided into four skills:

4 Skills for Most Foreign Languages

Aural Visual
Reception Listening Reading
Production Speaking Writing

But for learning Chinese, the visual skills involved are so special, I recommend breaking writing down into two separate skills: typing and handwriting.

5 Skills for Chinese (and any language that uses Chinese characters)

Aural Visual
Reception Listening Reading
Production Speaking Typing

Allow me to oversimplify the state of all world languages before I explain why this is a good idea.

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World Writing Systems

There are basically only two major categories of writing systems in the world. The most common type (phonograms) is when you write something that shows the sound of the word. For example, “c” + “a” + “t” gives you all the information you need to to put together the sounds for the English word that means this animal:

With his highness’ permission, I’ll explain the other type of writing system (logograms): writing something that stands for the word itself or the meaning of the word without having as direct a connection to the sounds. For example, the Chinese word for the pictured animal is . But various dialects of Chinese might pronounce that character in different ways. Additionally, although there may be clues about the pronunciation of a character built in, it is not the primary purpose of the character to show the sounds required to produce the word. The 3 pieces that make up the character are + + but they are not representing 3 sounds like the English letters “c” + “a” + “t” are.

So that’s the general state of world writing systems. Of course, there are overlaps, and it seems that no writing system stays completely in the category of sound-based or meaning-based symbols. But it’s a useful rule of thumb to keep in mind.

The Place of Chinese Characters in the World

As far as I know, Chinese is the only major world language that has only logograms in common use. Other languages may use some logograms, but they also use phonograms. For example:

  • Japanese uses some Chinese characters (which they call kanji), but they’ve also got their hirigana and katakana syllabaries, which are phonograms and are in common use by native speakers.
  • Korean uses the hangul alphabet to build syllables.
  • English uses the logograms {0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9} and a few others like @ and %, but basically everything else is written with a Latin-based alphabet (like many other world languages).
  • Other major world languages like Arabic, Russian, Thai, etc. use non-Latin alphabets.

But with Chinese, even though pinyin exists, it is never used by Chinese people to represent their language in written form after they’ve learned to write hanzi. It appears on road signs and maps for the benefit of foreigners only. This fact came up the other day in my Chinese class after I’d written on the board:

Happy Birthday = shēng rì kuài lè

A learner asked if we should capitalize the pinyin when writing a note to Chinese friends. I said it didn’t matter because they’re really not used to seeing pinyin at all. It would be like writing a note to an English speaker that looked like this:

ˈhæpi ˈbɪrθdeɪ

That IPA shows merely the pronunciation for “happy birthday” in English just as “shēng rì kuài lè” is the pronunciation for 生日快乐. But English native speakers would always write “happy birthday” and Chinese native speakers would always write 生日快乐. In that sense, pinyin is to hanzi what IPA is to English. They are both “pronunciation helpers” to reveal exactly how the written word should be said, but are not used by native speakers.

Here’s a table to summarize the analogy (using the word “cat” as an example)

Writing System (Example) Pronunciation Helper (Example)
Chinese Hanzi () Pinyin (māo)
English English (cat) IPA (kæt)

Of course, we could also transcribe hanzi with IPA if we wanted to. I also know that most native speakers of English don’t use the IPA for pronunciation help (for example, gives “[burth-dey]” as the pronunciation of “birthday” with an option to “show IPA”). But English speakers can learn IPA with very little difficulty.

The fact that we need the IPA to show us how certain things in English are pronounced proves that the pronunciation and the writing are not a “perfect fit” (one sound per symbol and one symbol per sound) but that’s not really important.

Here’s the point: hanzi characters are the only writing system currently in use today (that I’m aware of) that have basically nothing to do with the pronunciation helper system. In English, the phonograms used for writing are not a perfect fit, but there are many words you can immediately guess the pronunciation of just from seeing the written word, and there are many words where the IPA and the written word are virtually the same (like “wad,” or “pig”).

Handwriting vs. Typing

I’ve always encouraged learners to focus on pinyin and neglect hanzi at the start of their Mandarin studies. But if you only learn pinyin for Chinese, it’s like only learning IPA for English. It’s the same as being functionally illiterate (which might be just fine with you as it was for me in the beginning). The problem is the huge amount of time and work it takes to handwrite characters.

Handwriting the character “wǒ” (I / me / me)


Total pen strokes = 7

Typing the the character “wǒ” (I / me / me)


Total keystrokes = 2 + 1 (“w” + “o” + “1” to choose the first item on the menu)

It’s Not All About “Strokes”

The biggest difference between handwriting and typing Chinese isn’t just the number of “strokes” required (whether by pen or keyboard), it’s about the relationship of those actions to the spoken word. Handwriting the character “wǒ” means memorizing and reproducing all those complex lines in the right relationship to each other. Typing it just means remembering the sounds your mouth makes when you say it and then recognizing it from a list of choices that are pronounced like that.

If we had something similar for English it might look like this:


See how the words all start with the same sound even though they’re all written differently? But it’s not necessary to have a system like this for English because we can just learn the 26 letters and use them in the right combination to make any word we need. Of course we have to memorize some spelling rules, but the basic “building blocks,” the letters, are so limited in number it’s just a matter of remembering their arrangement. And there are only two places letters can go in relationship to each other: in front or behind (e.g. “ab” or “ba”).

In Chinese, handwriting is not like that at all. The “building blocks” are still limited in number (even if you just think of one line / stroke as one building block) but the number of possible arrangements of them is astronomical. Think of all the ways you could arrange just those same 7 strokes required to write the character above. Handwriting Chinese requires a huge repertoire of knowledge and practice that handwriting other languages does not.

And typing Chinese does not require that huge repertoire of knowledge either. Typing in Chinese is equivalent to SPEAKING + READING. You need to speak so you can input the correct pinyin (e.g. “w” + “o”) but then you need to be able to read to recognize which character in the list is the one you’re looking for (which is why you type number “1” and not number “2” or “3”).

Personally, I can read and type computer or cell phone messages that contain hundreds and hundreds more characters than I can handwrite. I really can’t handwrite very many characters at all because I’ve never spent a single moment practicing that skill. But my typing skills aren’t too bad.

We Need a Double Standard

Let’s look at the ILR scale for writing that the US government uses for assessing foreign language proficiency across various agencies. There is no mention of typing anywhere, so we can assume they’re talking about handwriting or don’t care about the difference. The requirement for level “0+” (just above nothing) does, to their credit, make allowances for character-based systems and asks you to write “50 of the most common characters.”

But then look at the next level (level 1). They’ve forgotten to keep making allowances for non-alphabetic languages and assume “continual errors in spelling.” It’s not really “spelling” to get the strokes wrong with hanzi, but we’ll let that slide. But look, you’ll be expected to write “simple phone messages, excuses, notes to service people and simple notes to friends” at this level.

First of all, there are very few Chinese names I could write by hand in their entirety (吴安平 might be one). But I could type a bunch. Now let’s look at how difficult it is just to write the two extremely common characters that introduce that you’re about to make an excuse for not going to class or work: qǐng jià 请假 = to request leave / time off


Total pen strokes = 10 + 11 = 21

Total keystrokes = 9 (max) but as few as 3 (depending on your IME)

It’s time to take the difference between handwriting and typing hanzi into account when creating language standards.

The CEFR’s writing standards (PDF) for the lowest level (A1) also ignore the distinction between typing and handwriting that Chinese demands:

“I can write a short, simple postcard, for example sending holiday greetings. I can fill in forms with personal details, for example entering my name, nationality and address on a hotel registration form.” (page 26)

Those things may be easy to write in other languages, or even to type in Chinese to achieve the lowest level of proficiency, but handwriting them in hanzi is far more difficult.

The ACTFL’s proficiency guidelines (PDF) at least recognize that “instant messaging, e-mail communication, texting” (page 10) may be used, but they still don’t give the typing / handwriting distinction for Chinese the special treatment it deserves. As with other organizations’ standards, a hat tip is made to meaning-based writing systems at the lowest level (Novice Low). They say learners should be able to “copy and produce isolated, basic strokes in languages that use syllabaries or characters” (page 14).

But then, by the time they talk about Novice High, the same oversight has been made. “Due to inadequate vocabulary and/or grammar, writing at this level may only partially communicate the intentions of the writer.” Not with hanzi. It’s possible to have all the vocabulary and grammar you need, and STILL not be able to handwrite at this level. But by allowing typing, you can start to mitigate the problem.

The Solution

To their undying credit, the HSK now offers a choice for the writing section: handwriting or typing. As Laokang said when he took the test, “Not a single person took the paper version (which requires writing characters by hand).” Of course not!

But that’s only half of the solution. The HSK could offer a special certification for handwriting. If handwriting and typing hanzi were officially considered two separate skills, then two separate sets of standards and tools for assessment could be created. This not only applies to HSK, but to the IRL, CEFR, ACTFL, and every other organization that sets standards.

As nice as it would be to have just one set of standards for all languages, the special place of handwriting hanzi in this world makes that unreasonable. The technology exists now to test typing as a skill, not necessarily to the exclusion of handwriting, but in addition to it.

Theresa Jen & Ping Xu foresaw this change in March, 2000 in their article entitled “Penless Chinese Character Reproduction” (PDF):

“[N]ow for the first time, it becomes possible that a person who cannot write a Chinese character by hand can “write” it on the computer screen, without having to go through the extremely painful process of learning to hand-write the characters. Also for the first time in history, the writing of Chinese characters has something to do with their phonetic characteristics, as one has to enter romanized letters on the keyboard in order to bring Chinese characters onto the computer screen…To the language of such a long history, computer technology has brought along with it a real revolution, of which the Penless approach is both an outcome and a precondition” (page 9).

The HSK has taken the first step towards officially embracing that revolution. I’m anxious to see other organizations do the same.

Conceptual Breakdown of Foreign Language Teaching

A Conceptual Breakdown of Foreign Language Teaching

(See also my explanation and definition of some key terms, especially “concepts” vs. “skills”)

(See also an explanation of the footnote about handwriting vs. typing)

I have the privilege of teaching three different subjects at Peizheng College: English, music, and Chinese (coming soon is a report on how my first semester of Chinese teaching went). I’ve found that in each of my courses, students benefit greatly from having the huge task that is set before them (“learn English / music / Chinese”) broken down into more manageable pieces.

While there are several ways to analyze and divide the task of “learning something,” I’ve found a very useful model is the breakdown into:

  1. Concepts
  2. Skills
  3. Materials

My father provided me with such a breakdown for teaching music, and that inspired me to create a Conceptual Breakdown for Foreign Language Teaching.

(Please see my explanation here for definitions of some of key terms, especially “concepts vs. skills”)

Although I wrote this mainly to assist teachers of English, I imagine it could help teachers and students of Chinese as well. For example, this bog focuses almost exclusively on the skills of speaking and listening, although I do have an occasional post about hanzi (reading and writing).

What skills does your class, blog, website, etc. focus on?

Here are some examples of how each of the nine concepts relate directly to difficulties faced by English speakers learning Chinese:

  1. Pronunciation = Pinyin chart, the “ü” sound, etc.
  2. Intonation / Rhythm = 5 tones, 20 tone combinations, etc.
  3. Penmanship / spelling = Different styles of handwriting characters, traditional vs. simplified, etc.
  4. Punctuation = The mark used for enumerating lists, titles appear in 《》, etc. (see also Chinese Punctuation at Wikipedia)
  5. Grammar = Word order, the use of “le” , etc.
  6. Vocabulary = Individual words (“apple” = píngguǒ 苹果), phrases, idioms, chéngyǔ 成语, etc.
  7. Context / setting = “1” can be written as or , and can be pronounced as “yī / yí / yì / yāo” depending on the situation, “ràng”  can mean “let / ask / make” someone do something depending on the situation.
  8. Organization = Chinese friends may leave out or delay what English speakers consider to be essential introductory information, etc.
  9. Culture = “She is a chicken” in English means “she is cowardly” but in Chinese “she is a prostitute.”

Which of those concepts do you have questions about? Which are you weakest in? Strongest in? Which ones are you going to focus on next?

These are just a few examples to give an idea of what each concept includes. There are certainly overlaps between them, and they flow throughout the skills as well.

I hope this model will provide a useful framework for analyzing, discussing, and making decisions about your own learning or teaching of Chinese, or any other language for that matter.

Blog Bank updated to be Resource Bank

Umm… it’s not often that I update something as quickly as I’ve updated my Blog Bank. It was just after I published that last post that I realized I can actually add far more than just blog RSS feeds. I can add EVERYTHING.

This has been a problem I’ve long wanted to solve:

When someone new arrives in China or wants to start learning Chinese, how can I get all the information and resources to that person in a way that is:

  • Concise 
  • Organized
  • Up-to-date
  • Thorough
  • Useful

Thanks to NetVibes, I’m finally able to do just that. I have removed my (extremely un-useful) long list of links from my sidebar, and have put everything in that NetVibes page, with its various tabs.

There are still a few things missing, I know. So please email me or leave a comment if you’ve got a favorite resource that’s not listed.

Oh, and if your site or resource is listed, but you hate the image I’ve chosen or have a better suggestion for how it can be listed, please just let me know. I want to respect everyone’s wishes as to how their own brand or product is represented.

Also, I get no revenue from or even information about how many visits the “Learn Chinese” Resource Bank gets. So if you find it useful, I’d also love to know via a comment or email. I have no other way of knowing if anyone has even seen it.

Oh and one last thing, if you think the Resource Bank is worth sharing, I’ve provided some code to do so easily on your own site. (I know it’s still called the “Blog Bank” in the image. I might change that someday. Or better yet, if someone wants to SEND me a better image to use that would be even better!)