Learning a tonal language: Chinese

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Summary table

  • Node Title: Learning a tonal language: Chinese
  • Researchers: Min Wang, Ying Liu, Suemei Wu, Derek Chan, Charles Perfetti
  • PIs: Min Wang, Charles Perfetti, Ying Liu
  • Others who have contributed 160 hours or more:
  • Post-Docs: Baoguo Chen
  • Graduate Students: Derek Chan, Brian Brubaker
  • Study Start Date Sep 1, 2005
  • Study End Date Dec 31, 2006
  • LearnLab Site and Courses , CMU Chinese Online
  • Number of Students: 150
  • Total Participant Hours for the study: 300
  • Data in the Data Shop: Yes

Abstract

  • The tonal feature of Chinese language poses a particular challenge for a beginning learner of Chinese as a second language. In this project, we test learning hypotheses based on the assumption that attending to the critical features of the tonal pitch contour facilitates learning.
  • This study consists of experiments on both tone perception and production tasks. In tone perception task, three training conditions were tested: 1) visual pitch contours that depict the acoustic information of the tones, together with Pinyin spelling of the spoken syllable; 2) numerical numbers that represent the tones in traditional classroom instruction, together with Pinyin spelling of the spoken syllable; 3) visual pitch contours, without Pinyin spelling. By comparing these three training conditions, we will test two hypotheses: 1) using visual information of the tone waveform facilitates students’ perception of auditory tones; 2) providing Pinyin spelling allows the students to focus on the tone, therefore yields more robust learning, which was measured by transfer and long-term retention tasks.
  • In tone production task, we used a frequency analyzer to extract the fundamental frequency of student’s sound production. The pitch contour of production will be displayed to the student in real time during their production practice. By comparing the group which receives this individualized pitch contour with a group which does not, we predict the former will show more robust learning on tone production, which was shown as pronunciation refinement.


Glossary

Tone; pitch contour; visual feedback


Research question

How to optimally use crucial tonal information to facilitate Chinese tone learning.

Background

  • The basic speech unit of Chinese is the syllable, and each syllable is divided into two parts: onset and rime. The onset of a Chinese syllable is always a single consonant. In most syllables the rime segment consists of mainly vowels. As a result, Chinese has a much smaller number of syllables than does spoken English (Hanely, Tzeng, & Huang, 1999). This leads to a large number of homophones in Chinese. However, because of the existence of tone in Chinese syllables, the number of homophones is reduced. There are about 1,300 tone syllables in spoken Chinese (Taylor & Taylor, 1995).
  • The tonal feature of the Chinese language forms a sharp contrast to many alphabetic languages such as English. American college students learning Chinese language may encounter great difficulty in acquiring the tone skill. Wang, Perfetti, and Liu (2003) used a onset-rime-tone matching task to test beginning Chinese learners’ phonological processing skills. We found that these beginning Chinese learners showed poorer performance in tone matching compared to their performance in onset and rime matching.
  • There is very limited research on studying tone learning. Three-year-old Chinese native-speaking children have been shown to be able to detect when rime and tone are combined but they cannot detect rime and tone separately. Five-year-olds, on the other hand, can independently process rime and tone (Ho & Bryant, 1997). Wang, Spence, Jongman and Sereno (1999) trained American listeners to perceive Chinese tones. They found a significant increase of identification accuracy from pretest to posttest.

Dependent variables

Normal post-test: Accuracy of making tone selection and decision tasks, and evaluations of productions.

Independent variables

Tone perception study: 1) visual pitch contours that depict the acoustic information of the tones, together with Pinyin spelling of the spoken syllable; 2) numerical numbers that represent the tones in traditional classroom instruction, together with Pinyin spelling of the spoken syllable; 3) visual pitch contours, without Pinyin spelling.

Tone production study: 1) visual feedback based on tone analyzer of student’s pronunciation; 2) no visual feedback.

Hypothesis

Having student focusing on tonal feature by providing visual pitch contour plus segmental information facilitates tonal perception and production.

Findings

Current results from two terms of tone perception experiment showed providing segmental information (Pinyin) provides a better learning curve. The y-axis in the figure is error rate(?). The learning curve of term 1 (lesson 1 to 8) showed Pinyin+contour and Pinyin+number conditions are better than contour only condition. The following Figure of fitted learning curve showed that the former two conditions have more negative slope (faster learning rate).

  • Tone1.jpg

Explanation

Learning Chinese tone was facilitated by having students focusing on the tonal features. Proving segmental information (Pinyin) before learning to a syllable sound provides more assistance to beginners, which makes it easier for them to pay more attention to the tone. Furthremore, the visual pitch contour and auditory tone are complementary information for learning tones. The mental representation of tones are more complete when visual pintch contour are provided together with Pinyin.

Descendents

Tone perception (the present page) Tone production (under construction)

Further information