Acquisition of weak syllables in tonal languages

acoustic evidence from neutral tone in Mandarin Chinese

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2 Citations (Scopus)


Weak syllables in Germanic and Romance languages have been reported to be challenging for young children, with syllable omission and/or incomplete reduction persisting till age five. In Mandarin Chinese, neutral tone (T0) involves a weak syllable with varied pitch realizations across (preceding) tonal contexts and short duration. The present study examined how and when T0 was acquired by 108 Beijing Mandarin-speaking children (3–5 years) relative to 33 adult controls. Lexicalized (familiar) and non-lexicalized (unfamiliar) T0 words were elicited in different preceding tonal contexts. Unlike previous reports, the present study revealed that children as young as three years have already developed a phonological category for T0, exhibiting contextually conditioned tonal realizations of T0 for both familiar and unfamiliar items. However, mastery of adult-like pitch and duration implementation of T0 is a protracted process not completed until age five. The implications for the acquisition of weak syllables more generally are discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)24-50
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Child Language
Issue number1
Early online date2 Aug 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2019


  • weak syllables
  • Mandarin Chinese
  • neutral tone

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