Learning Chinese Through Tone & Color presents a visual system for English speakers learning Mandarin. The book is currently in the Top 40 at Amazon.com for Asian language instruction. We got a hold of linguist and author Nathan Dummitt to talk about his new book.
Ningin: What’s your linguistic background? How many languages can you speak?
Nathan: I first realized that I had an intense interest in languages relatively late in life - after I finished college and was teaching English at a high school in Japan in my early 20s. Since then I’ve dabbled in a few languages, all for varying lengths of time and with varying degrees of success, including: Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Italian, Korean, French and Russian. I’m really only comfortable in the first three, due largely to the fact that my wife is Japanese and we live in a Chinatown (New York City). I am finishing my master’s degree in Linguistics at the CUNY Graduate Center this spring.
Ningin: How did you come up with the system of colors and tones?
Nathan: I started using it when I was first studying Chinese while still living in Japan, because I am a rather visual learner and it seemed like a systematic way to remember the tones (which are very easy to forget for native speakers of non-tonal languages). I thought the idea could be used in Chinese as a Foreign Language (CFL) classes at all different levels so I wrote the book.
Ningin: What are advantages to this learning system?
Nathan: Much has been written about the importance of tones in Mandarin. Without proper production skills, the learner of Chinese will at best sound strange and foreign to a native listener, and at worst be utterly misunderstood. I think there are a number of approaches to teaching Mandarin tones to CFL students, ranging from the idea that students will simply “pick up” the tones intuitively, or “musically” as they study the language, to rigorous programs like Princeton’s that focus solely on pronunciation for the first couple of months. As both a teacher and a learner of the language, I am of the opinion that a student needs to make a consicous effort to recognize and produce the tones, and an important aspect of that is of course remembering which tone is which. 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. This is especially important because - unlike written languages that use an alphabet - Chinese characters themselves provide little to no phonetic information.
Ningin: Is this applicable to learning any other languages?
Nathan: I suppose it could be applied to any other tonal language (Thai, Vietnamese, and other Chinese languages such as Cantonese) by simply adding more colors as needed. It’s convenient that Mandarin only has four tones, which is a relatively small number.
Ningin: With so many characters in the Chinese written language, do you plan on sequel books?
Nathan: I hope so! I would love to do a second book with the next 100 or so characters, and I’ve started writing a different version for a Japanese audience.
Learning Chinese Through Tone & Color comes with two CDs with both audio and images for mp3 players. Illustrated by Dan Acton. Published by Hippocrene Books and for sale online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
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