The Effect of Tonal Language Experience on the Acquisition of Mandarin Tones

This is the new, improved sequel to a comment I originally left on a Beijing Sounds entry entitled Zhonglish — Revenge of the Non-Native English Speaker.

From Chen Qinghai’s doctoral thesis (2000), Analysis of Mandarin Tonal Errors in Connected Speech by English-Speaking American Adult Learners: A Study at and Above the Word Level:

2.2.5.2 Tonal Language Experience

Any language learning experience may have a positive impact on the acquisition of Mandarin tone (Bourgerie, 1995). The learning of another tone language may have greater effect on the learning of Mandarin tone (J-M. Lu, 1992). In order to find out if exposure to a tone language in childhood facilitates the learner’s performance in Mandarin tone, Sun (1997) used tone language experience as another between-subjects variable in her study. Her data show that subjects with tone language experience do have some advantage in distinguishing tone in phonologically modified contexts (p. 261); on the whole, however, their tone language background is not strongly associated with their tonal performance….

It’s hard to believe that tonal language experience doesn’t help much, but that’s what the experimental evidence suggests. I’d love to hear about more involved studies on this topic. We English speakers do like to look for excuses as to why tones are so hard for us (but this still doesn’t explain the rapid progress of Korean students!).

(The thesis quoted above was the basis for my own master’s thesis. I do intend to discuss it more, and to put some details of my own experiment online. Just need to find the time!)

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