Phonetic Knowledge as an Aid to the Perception of Mandarin Tone by Second Language Learners

Date Thesis Awarded


Access Type

Honors Thesis -- Access Restricted On-Campus Only

Degree Name

Bachelors of Arts (BA)




Anya Lunden

Committee Members

Jack Martin

Yu Peng


Beginning students of Mandarin Chinese often struggle with the identification of lexical tone. Research indicates that both for native and non-native speakers of tonal languages, the most difficulty is encountered forming an association between the actual pitch contours and their corresponding tonal category. This is especially difficult for Mandarin tones 2 and 3, as their pitch contours are very similar: even native speakers of Mandarin Chinese find the pair confusable (Hao, 2011). In addition, research also shows that vowel height and the presence of a nasal coda also influences perception of Mandarin Chinese tone (Lai and Su, 2011).

A successful pilot experiment showed evidence that awareness of the laryngealization that often accompanies the 3rd tone (Kuang, 2013) helped beginner Mandarin Chinese students distinguish between tones 2 and 3 more accurately. Seeking to expand on this finding, the current study to determine if presenting an introduction of the basic phonetics of tone followed by more specific information on the four Mandarin Chinese tones is more helpful to beginning Mandarin Chinese students than not being presented with any phonetic information.

Data was gathered by administering a multiple forced choice experiment in Praat (Boersma and Weenik, 2013) where students listened to a two-syllable word and then identified the tone of the second syllable (This is to control for Beijing Mandarin 3rd tone sandhi, where the first of two consecutive 3rd tones becomes a 2nd tone in certain environments). Tokens for the experiment were recorded by a native speaker in a carrier sentence. There were 16 tonal combinations and 4 syllable shape combinations, leading to 64 unique tokens, each of which was heard twice by participants.

The results of this experiment were largely inconclusive, showing no significant difference between the experimental group and the control group. This was most likely due to only being able to present all of the phonetic information for 15 minutes in a single class, due to time constraints on the who still graciously allowed the use of his limited class time. A second experiment was conducted specifically distinguishing tone 3, focusing on using laryngealization, tone 3 having the longest duration, and medium to low falling pitch contour in half-tone sandhi. This time, the experimental group not only correctly identified all four tones, but also all four tones were less confusable overall.

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