I studied applied linguistics at East China Normal University (华东师范大学) in a Chinese-language program from 2005 to 2008. The following is my master’s thesis abstract, in English and in Chinese. If there is interest, I may eventually put the whole thesis online. (There is no English translation of the thesis; it is written in Chinese.)
A Study of Error in Foreigners’ Chinese Disyllabic Tonal Pairs: A Production-Focused Keyword-Based Experimental Model
This study proposes a new model of production-focused experiment model whereby an error analysis of foreigners’ tones is focused on pre-selected disyllabic keywords. The results suggest that certain tone combinations are more difficult for learners than others.
Section 1: Preface
Tones are an essential component of Chinese syllables. As such, they must be mastered by foreign students of Chinese, and yet tones remain one of the most difficult aspects of the spoken language for students of Chinese. This is a special challenge for the field of Chinese as a second language, and one which must be further explored.
Section 2: Previous Research on Foreigners’ Study of Tones
Foreigners’ struggle with tones is well documented, and has been explored in the past through several types of experiments, which include oral reading experiments, tone differentiation experiments, and production experiments. Of these three types, production experiments are most closely related to actual speech used in communication, and, as such, are also the model for this experiment. Chen Qinghai’s 2000 experiment is the model for tonal analysis of Chinese words in natural speech. With some revision, it is the basis for the current experiment.
Section 3: The Production-Focused Keyword-Based Experimental Model
Because foreigners’ pronunciation of tones in isolation does not accurately reflect their speaking ability, this experiment takes disyllabic tone pairs as the unit of investigation. Furthermore, this experiment does not seek to examine all the words used by the subject, but instead focuses on certain keywords. These keywords are all basic, disyllabic words which fall into one of three tone pairs: 1-1, 2-4, 3-2. The experiment involves two groups of subjects: elementary and intermediate. The experiment consists of showing each of the subjects a series of elicitation cards and asking questions about the content of the cards. The subjects’ replies will naturally involve the use of the keywords, and all replies are recorded for later analysis. The hypothesis of the experiment is that (1) tonal competency will be higher overall for the intermediate students, and (2) there will be a discrepancy in accuracy between the three pair types, with 1-1 highest in accuracy, and 3-2 lowest in accuracy.
Section 4: Experiment Results and Analysis
After all keyword data was tabulated, the results showed a relatively high accuracy rate for the 1-1 and 2-4 keyword tone pairs across both subject groups, and a relatively lower accuracy rate for 3-2, with elementary 3-2 the lowest. Further analysis showed that number keywords were skewing the accuracy rates, and when removed, the accuracy rates were exactly as predicted in part two of the hypothesis. The conclusion is that the relatively high level of familiarity the students had with basic numbers raised their tonal production accuracy rates. This implies that tonal accuracy is not only closely tied to familiarity with tone pair groups, but also with individual words.
Section 5: Shortcomings of the Experiment and Recommended Improvements
The keyword-based experiment model is worth further experimentation on a larger scale; the current exploratory experiment was rather limited in terms of number of subjects, number of tone pairs covered, and number of keywords examined. In addition, the current experiment’s use of computer tone contour analysis should be expanded upon and made more objective.
Section 6: Conclusion
In conclusion, this experiment’s main contribution was the keyword-based production-focused experiment model. More experimentation is needed to reach firm conclusions, and is certainly warranted in the arena of foreigners’ tonal competency.
Key words: tones, Chinese as a foreign language, foreigner, pronunciation, experiment, error analysis
Master’s Thesis by John Pasden, 2008