The perception of Mandarin lexical tones by listeners from different linguistic backgrounds

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Two groups of non-native adult learners of Mandarin in Australia were directly compared in their ability to perceive monosyllabic Mandarin words contrasting in lexical tones. They differed in their linguistic experience (non-heritage (n=10), heritage (n=12)). A group of eight native Mandarin speakers and a group of ten functionally monolingual speakers of Australian English were included as controls. All non-native learners used English as their primary language of communication. However, the heritage learners were able to communicate in Cantonese as well as English. The primary question of interest was whether heritage learners' knowledge of contrastive tone in Cantonese might give them an advantage over English-speaking learners in perceiving tone contrasts in Mandarin. In general, there were more similarities than differences between the two groups of learners in their response patterns. Of the six tone contrasts examined (T1-T2, T1-T3, T1-T4, T2-T3, T2-T4, T3-T4), the two groups significantly differed only on T1-T4. The heritage learners were less accurate on T1-T4 than the non-heritage learners who are monolingual speakers of Australian English. On the other hand, the non-heritage learners were more accurate than Australian English speakers with no prior experience with Mandarin on all tone contrasts. Thus, we conclude that simply having an exposure to and functional knowledge of another tonal language since early childhood does not guarantee accurate perception of Mandarin tones in comparison with adult learners without prior experience with tonal languages.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)141-161
Number of pages21
JournalChinese as a second language research
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Mandarin
  • heritage
  • Cantonese
  • lexical tones
  • perception


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