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:

> 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!)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. It would be really interesting to mix this with ASPM alleles. Could it be that the only way that tonal language experience seems to help is if one is genetically predisposed to learn tonal languages? because one’s ancestors were selected for it?

    It’s an empirical question, and it will be interesting when we know the answer.


  2. hopefully I’ll be able to comment on this once I start learning Lao (also tonal) next month.

  3. But…English speakers do produce and comprehend tones. We just use them at a phrasal rather than lexical level. The rising intonation that turns a declarative sentence into a question is a tonal change (which is why it’s really hard to ask a question at one point in learning Chinese). So I think that’s why English speakers ultimately are successful in producing and comprehending Mandarin tones (if not necessarily remembering them…).

  4. John,

    Did you write your thesis in English or Chinese? Will you be posting it? I’d be very interested in reading it.

    Also, my own perception … I would think musical training, specifically anything that includes interval training, might have a strong(er) correlation with tone performance. Did you come across any studies on that?

    Look forward to reading about your experiment!



  5. i grew up speaking lao, and have studied chinese for about five years. when i started learning chinese i didnt feel like it was easier to pronounce tones, but its hard to evaluate yourself. back then, everything felt difficult. even if the mechanics are similar, the two languages feel like they exist in two totally separate parts of my head. lao feels very, very comfortable to pronounce and comprehend, but pronouncing chinese still feels a bit foreign. its kind of hard to explain the feeling. for chinese, i really had to concentrate on making the pitch changes. this might be due to the process of learning the new sound though.

  6. I always thought tones were somehow related to Spanish accents (my other native tongue, if that can be said) Like the difference between “papa” potato and “papa(accent mark on 2nd a)” father.

    This may seem a little off topic but I have met quite a few trilinguals -English, Spanish and Mandarin- I thought I was somewhat unique. Is there any interesting correlation between the three besides being the most spoken languages in the world?

  7. iswitched Says: August 18, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    I would join Caryn a little bit on this. To me your mothertongue COULD have a strong influence on your learning how to pronounce Chinese tones. But I think that what makes a HUGE difference is your ability to REPEAT sounds that you’ve never heard before, no matter what those sounds are.

    My mothertongue is French, and I also have a very good command of spoken English, German and Italian, those last two being national languages over here in Switzerland. So everybody must learn German and French at school, most people learn English for at least 5 years before leaving mandatory school, and a little bit of Italian because we have a part of the country that speaks only Italian.

    I don’t feel very comfortable with German because although I’ve been studying it for more years than English, I simply don’t like how the language sounds. Italian : only had 2 years at school so it’s very basic.

    I started learning Mandarin Chinese several years ago, focusing only on spoken language because my goal at that time was to go to China and to actually work there at least for one or two years. I mastered the tones VERY quickly. Not because of my speaking French, because French has nearly no tones (except to make an emphasis on questions for instance), but rather because since I was a boy I can repeat sounds very easily. That’s simply a gift I was born with, and it made it possible for me to acquire perfect prononciation of Chinese very quickly, to an extent that when I met with Chinese people they thought I could speak perfect putonghua, but I was simply spitting out the very few sentences I knew by heart at “native speed” 😉 But my downside is memory. I’m only 35,but I can feel that my acquiring vocabulary is MUCH harder now than when I was 15 or so.

    I tried my skills at pronoucing things with Japanese, I studied it for 10 weeks and chellenged myself when I was in Japan with several friends. They all thought I had been learning the language for 10 years, but I knew only a few words and sentences …

    I wish it was the other way around : I would prefer to have a bad pronounciation and a very good memory, because I’m suffering a lot to acquire all those words, specially in Chinese where the words are SO similar, specially if like me you don’t know any “hanzi”. Starting from pinyin makes it very difficult for me to remember words that, even with the exact same pronounciation (even the tones), can have so many different meanings …

    In conclusion, I would say that pronounciation very much varies according to your ability to repeat sounds, but I’m not challenging the general assomptions that the studies you mention actually tend to bring forward.


  8. the rapid progress of Korean students

    Off-topic but similar: Japanese people are excellent at learning Turkish. They pick up the grammar and pronunciations quickly and they almost never speak with a foreign accent. I’ve never been able to figure out why – everyone else seems to think Turkish is difficult, but all the Japanese expats I’ve spoken to were fluent within a year and found it easy. They sound like natives, too. shrug

  9. I’ve noticed that a lot of Hong Kongers who learn Putonghua after childhood seem to have almost as much trouble as regular laowai, even though Cantonese is tonal. Even when they do get Putonghua down, their accents still often sound like the regular old foreigner accent.

  10. @Melissa

    Although it is somewhat disputed, Japanese and Turkish are both classified as part of the Altaic Language family, thus the similarities, and ease in learning.

  11. I just had a conversation with another jet headed toward Shanghai this morning. I told them to go to to learn Chinese. I hope you can hook them up.

    I just arrived back in the States from Japan… More at my site…

    Take care always
    Greg Pasden
    World Traveler

  12. I’m currently here in Seoul for a few weeks and am surprised at how many similarities there are in vocabulary between Korean and Chinese nouns (at least, nouns are all I can really pick up from what is around me with the little I can read). I know that the grammatical structures are completely different, but the parallels in vocabulary have to help a great deal. The language itself is also very expressive in its tonality – much more highly modulated than English. It doesn’t seem that strange to me that the Korean students pick it up so quickly.

  13. For me it is quite obvious that ability to speak a tonal language doesn’t help in learning tones in another language. Just remember that every language is tonal in a sense that there are specific intonation patterns that native speakers use. The languages we call tonal are specific only in the regard that they have individual words as minimal pairs that only differ in tone. Does it really matter? On the utterance level, almost every language contain such pairs – English “yĕs?!”, “yés?” and “yès!” all have different meanings, don’t they?

    I speak Mandarin and Norwegian as foreign languages, and both are tonal. My Mandarin tones are sort of okay (good enough to be understood), while my Norwegian tones are completely wrong, even though I’m definitely more fluent in Norwegian. Why is this so? Because I learned the Mandarin tones explicitly, while nobody bothered to teach me the Norwegian tones, and there are virtually no resources to learn them properly. And nobody cares, as the context usually reveals which word I have in mind.

    I know Norwegians speaking Mandarin whose tones are definitely worse than mine, even though their mother tongue is tonal. Why? Because they weren’t taught it explicitly either. On the other hand, I would suspect that fellow students of the English intonation course I attended would have an advantage in learning Mandarin tones – because they learned to pay attention to the pitch. The fact that English isn’t tonal doesn’t matter here.

  14. Too bad it’s not possible to edit posts, every time I press “Submit” I find heaps of errors in what I’ve written. I hope it’s still readable.

  15. Korean Language Learner Says: July 4, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    I haven’t read through all the replies that was left here. I am a Mandarin speaker and learning Korean now. (not from China though)

    The last sentence “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 first thing that should be noted that Koreans have a very clear advantage right from the start as compared to English speakers because 50% – 60% of the words in Korean (language I am learning) are Chinese words which have close pronunciations.

    Second, Korean is a tonal language that is reflected in it’s alphabet called Hanguel WHICH was made because Chinese words were just too hard to write and because Chinese tones were not reflected in the words itself.

    To make it simpler for readers to understand, Mandarin can be like a sort of dialect to Koreans. This obviously and clearly presents a clear, huge and major advantage over English speakers.

    • David Lloyd-Jones Says: March 7, 2015 at 9:08 pm

      Korean Language Learner,

      I have been struck time and again by the high quality of learning, to coin a notion, of Koreans learning other languages. I wonder whether King Sejong and his excellent invention Hangul might not get part of the credit?

      I studied Korean for a while at the Asahi Culture Center in Tokyo, and at one point the teacher went around the class asking everyone their names and then writing them on the whiteboard.

      All the Japanese students’ names went up in Hangul without difficulty, and then he came to mine. He wrote it down and then pronounced it — “loid chones.” Not bad, but not perfect. No, I said, and explained the funny Welsh “LL,” a single letter pronounced a throaty “hl.”

      The teacher made two slight adjustments in the multi-part square Hangul glyphs he had written — and then he pronounced “Lloyd-Jones” in perfect Welsh.

      Similarly I have met Koreans who handle Russian, or Yiddish, or English with the same aplomb. Part of it may be the result of coming from a country with not to friendly neighbors — but having a superb writing system helps too, I suspect.


  16. David Lloyd-Jones Says: March 7, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    From the English-speakers’ point of view I wonder whether Japanese counts as a tonal language?

    My thought is that since Japanese is (incorrectly, imho) said to be uninflected, therefore the English speaker has to learn a whole new tone – that of not going da-DI-da-DI-da all the damn time.

    I would not call my Japanese good, but I speak the language effectively at least. I spent 14 years building the first few, and 400 of the first, coin laundries all over the country, so I’ve spoken at my friends’ employees’ weddings, hassled a hundred customs clearances, and negotiated many dozen real-estate contracts.

    There’s nothing more fun than putting your finger n a clause of a contract upside-down from where you’re sitting, and saying something like “I can’t go over a million yen for the facilities damage allowance.” The poor real estate schnook has maybe seen such a contract twice in his career before, but it may the fiftieth or the hundredth I’ve seen.

    My accent will never be anything but furrin, but I’ve met a Prime Minister and members of the Royal family and managed not to be a complete tongue-tied fool.

    Now I’m working on my Chinese, clawing my way through HSK 4, and aiming for a rawish HSK 6 to get into university over there.

    And hoping, or perhaps wishing, that my Japanese were more of a help.


  17. […] and grammatical similaries. It might also be easier just going from one tonal language to another (here is some experimental data and anecdotal comments from […]

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