Spoken word recognition in young tone language learners: age-dependent effects of segmental and suprasegmental variation

Weiyi Ma*, Peng Zhou, Leher Singh, Liqun Gao

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    20 Citations (Scopus)


    The majority of the world's languages rely on both segmental (vowels, consonants) and suprasegmental (lexical tones) information to contrast the meanings of individual words. However, research on early language development has mostly focused on the acquisition of vowel-consonant languages. Developmental research comparing sensitivity to segmental and suprasegmental features in young tone learners is extremely rare. This study examined 2- and 3-year-old monolingual tone learners’ sensitivity to vowels and tones. Experiment 1a tested the influence of vowel and tone variation on novel word learning. Vowel and tone variation hindered word recognition efficiency in both age groups. However, tone variation hindered word recognition accuracy only in 2-year-olds, while 3-year-olds were insensitive to tone variation. Experiment 1b demonstrated that 3-year-olds could use tones to learn new words when additional support was provided, and additionally, that Tone 3 words were exceptionally difficult to learn. Experiment 2 confirmed a similar pattern of results when children were presented with familiar words. This study is the first to show that despite the importance of tones in tone languages, vowels maintain primacy over tones in young children's word recognition and that tone sensitivity in word learning and recognition changes between 2 and 3 years of age. The findings suggest that early lexical processes are more tightly constrained by variation in vowels than by tones.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)139-155
    Number of pages17
    Publication statusPublished - Feb 2017


    • speech
    • language acquisition
    • word recognition
    • lexical tone
    • vowel


    Dive into the research topics of 'Spoken word recognition in young tone language learners: age-dependent effects of segmental and suprasegmental variation'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this