Learning Mandarin from Birds

woman showing picky birds on her laptop

Catherine Ryu, associate professor of Japanese literature and culture, has received a patent for the technology behind her language
learning game, Picky Birds.

Scholars of the Mandarin Chinese language can learn a lot from birds.

That’s the premise of a new language learning game designed by a Michigan State University researcher and an interdisciplinary team of students.

Inspired by the varying tones of bird species, Picky Birds teaches students the four main Mandarin tones by helping them associate each tone with a corresponding colored bird, said Catherine Ryu, associate professor of Japanese literature and culture, who recently received a patent for the technology on which the game is based.

“Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, which means the same word can mean something entirely different depending on the tone used,” Ryu said. “And this is fundamentally different than how we use tonal inflections in English.”

woman in glasses poses for picture with multiple devices showing picky birds on screen

For example, in Mandarin the word “ma” (English sound equivalent) can mean “mother,” “flax,” “horse” or “to yell” depending on the tonal inflection used.

Picky Birds is based on research showing brains are wired to associate high pitches with lighter hues, Ryu said. So the birds in her game are yellow for the high even tone, green for the rising tone, blue for the dipping tone and red for the falling tone.

Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, which means the same word can mean something entirely different depending on the tone used.

The app is an outcome of Ryu’s Tone Perception Efficacy Study, which she conducted with Aline Godfroid, assistant professor of second language studies, and Chin-Hsi Lin, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education. ToPES investigated two related questions regarding language:

• How do people perceive, process and retain tones as a sensory perception, especially when the tones in question are not an integral aspect of their own language backgrounds?
• To what extent can people learn to differentiate tones and retain that information?

Ryu will use Picky Birds next month for a Mandarin tone perception experiment, hoping to recruit 40 students without any prior exposure to Mandarin Chinese to participate.

Once Picky Birds is vetted, Ryu will work with MSU Technologies to market the app to users; they expect to begin commercialization in the fall.

In addition to College of Arts & Letters faculty and students, the Picky Birds team includes media and information majors specializing in game design and development in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences and a computer music composer who teaches at Mott Community College in Flint.

Ryu hopes to expand her research team to include neuroscientists, graphic artists, creative writers, game developers, web developers, mechanical engineers and social media specialists.

“It’s a high-energy group of collaborators,” Ryu said. “When we all get together with linguists, truly exciting conversations take place.”

Development of Picky Birds was supported with funding from MSU’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies under the Targeted Support Grant for Technology Development program.

Ryu recently was interviewed by Cynthia Canty, host of Michigan Radio’s “Stateside” program. The Picky Birds interview aired April 14.

This article originally was published in MSU Today.