Setting the tone: Learning a tonal language as a second or foreign language

Project: Research

Project Details


Unlike English, tonal languages use tone pitches to disambiguate word meanings. Mandarin, for instance, uses four different tones (i.e., pitch contours) to differentiate lexical meanings, which are typically represented with numerals. So, the syllable “ma” can mean mother (ma1), hemp (ma2), horse (ma3) or scold (ma4); a change in the pitch contour alters the meaning of the word. Lexical tones are a prevalent phonetic cue in human languages, but learning these tones can be very challenging for second/foreign language learners, both in terms of listening and speaking.1 In this project, Dr Wang investigates whether visualising acoustic shapes of tones in spoken Mandarin can help the listening skills of adults whose native language is either a tonal language (i.e., Cantonese) or a non-tonal language (i.e., English). Her project is important because it will: (1) improve our understanding of how learners use things they hear (auditory odality) and things they see (visual modality) to enhance their ability to learn Mandarin; (2) provide evidence of whether native experiences with a tonal language offer an advantage in learning a different tonal system; and (3) reveal new teaching and learning methods that can improve people’s success in learning tonal languages. Improving people’s ability to learn tonal languages is more important than ever since, in Australia, more than 21% of people speak a language other than English and three of the top five languages spoken in Australian homes are tonal languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese).2 As importantly, success in learning tonal languages is critical to Australia’s strategic education, business and tourism links within the Asia Pacific Region.
Effective start/end date1/03/1928/02/20