Lexical tones and word learning in mandarin-speaking children at three years of age

Wei-Yi Ma*, Peng Zhou, Stephen Crain, Li-Qun Gao

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    2 Citations (Scopus)


    Unlike Indo-European languages, Mandarin relies heavily on lexical tones to distinguish word identity. Using the intermodal preferential looking paradigm, this study examined 3-year-old Mandarinspeakers' ability to use Mandarin lexical tones in learning new words. Results showed that when children were presented with Tone 2 (rising) and Tone 4 (falling) pairs, children successfully learned both words. However, when children were presented with Tone 2 and Tone 3 (dipping) pairs, they learned the Tone 2 word but not the Tone 3 one. Children were then divided into two groups based on their learning performance on the Tone 3 word. Successful learning of Tone 3 words was observed in the high performers but not in the low performers, who consistently misused Tone 3 as Tone 2. This study showed that Mandarinspeaking 3-year-olds could use lexical tones to learn words under experimental conditions, and that the difficulty of Tone 3 acquisition may be related to its lower level of perceptual distinctiveness compared with other tones.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)25-32
    Number of pages8
    JournalJournal of Electronic Science and Technology
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Mar 2017


    • lexical tone
    • Mandarin
    • word learning

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