Digital Humanities Under Your Fingertips: Tone Perfect as a Pedagogical Tool in Mandarin Chinese Second Language Studies and an Adaptable

Catherine Youngkyung Ryu (, Michigan State University, United States of America

Learning Chinese, now one of the most widely studied foreign languages in the United States and worldwide, can be challenging, especially for those without any prior exposure to the Chinese tonal system. Mandarin Chinese has four main tones, and one sound carries four different meanings, each tied to a particular tone. For example, “ma” in tone 1 means a “mother”; in tone 2, “hemp”; in tone 3, a “horse”; and in tone 4, a verb to “yell.” Chinese as a tonal language thus differs fundamentally from how English speakers often use tone, pitch, and volume to add personal texture to communication. Novice Chinese learners are in great need of sustained and rigorous tonal training with multiple native speakers to develop and sharpen their tonal perception. However, it is usually not feasible to receive such training through in-class or online instruction constrained by time. Digital resources or tools designed for self-guided tone training can help remove such barriers and make tone learning more widely accessible to novice learners in particular.

I. How does Tone Perfect as a multimodal database render Mandarin Chinese (MC) tone learning accessible?

To create an optimal digital space of learning for each user with different backgrounds, skill sets, and learning styles, Tone Perfect includes by design multiple channels through which the users can synergistically integrate “seeing” and “hearing” into tone learning. Such multiple channels include: (1) a novel color-coded tone visualization (tone 1-yellow; tone 2-green; tone 3-blue; tone 4- red) to enable users to associate the tones with specific colors; (2) a waveform accompanying each sound file to enable the users to see how each of six native speakers produces the same target sound with a particular tone differently, which is also inflected by gender; (3) an additional conventional method of visualizing the tonal information with numbers, so as to aid users with color blindness and to reinforce what the user may have learned through formal instruction; and (4), both simplified and traditional Chinese characters together with a Romanization system (
pinyin) to enable users to learn tone, sound, and character simultaneously.

II. How does Tone Perfect maximize its potential as a digital open source?

Tone Perfect is comprised of 9,864 audio assets representing an exhaustive set of monosyllabic sounds in Mandarin Chinese produced by six native speakers (3 female; 3 male). These audio files were produced at MSU to develop a Mandarin tone learning app game, Picky Birds (scheduled to be released in summer 2018). This app game, a digital tool for self-guided tone learning, is an outshoot of a 100% web-based experiment on the efficacy of different methods of visualizing the Mandarin tonal information (i.e., tone-number, tone-pitch contour, tone-color). The app itself was also subsequently utilized as an innovative experiment instrument for another Mandarin tone perception empirical experiment. That is to say, Tone Perfect now serve as an active digital repository that can be accessed by users from various backgrounds for different purposes, for example, as the audio resources for Mandarin Chinese sound tables, computer musical compositions, acoustic analysis, Mandarin linguistics experiments, etc. All audio files can be downloaded directly from the website to enable a wide range of applications of this resource.

III. Overview

This poster presentation features a multidisciplinary project, Tone Perfect—an interactive audio database—as an example of a multimodal approach to optimizing accessible learning in second language acquisition, specifically for Mandarin tone learning. Tone Perfect also serves as an example of an adaptable multipurpose database that simultaneously functions as an active repository, maximizing the preservation of existing digital materials and amplifying their full potential as digital resources.

Through a hands-on demonstration of how to navigate this database, as well as its metadata structure, this presentation aims to solicit feedback from the audiences from various backgrounds attending the digital humanities conference. This will enable our team to further enhance the usability of Tone Perfect so as to build an inclusive and accessible space of optimal learning.

Appendix A

  1. Godfroid, A., Lin, C., and Ryu, C. (2017). Hearing and seeing tone through color: an efficacy study of web-based, multimodal Chinese tone perception training.
    Language Learning, 76: 819-857.
  2. Grimes, Ryan (2016). With colors and tones, MSU researcher’s game gives your brain the tools to learn Mandarin.
    The Next Idea. Michigan Radio. April 14, 2016. (accessed April 27, 2018).
  3. Ryu, C. and Michigan State University Libraries (2017). Tone Perfect: Multimodal Database for Mandarin Chinese. Michigan State University. East Lansing, Michigan (accessed April 27, 2018).

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