Chinese pinyin dictation

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Chinese pinyin dictation


The goal of this project is to improve the ability of students of Elementary Chinese to transcribe Chinese words and phrases in pinyin. Like other studies conducted by MacWhinney and Pavlik, this work emphasizes the role of scheduling in attaining mastery.


  • optimal spacing interval
  • phonemic recoding
  • resonance
  • mastery
  • pinyin rules
  • cue reliability
  • cue availability
  • lexical effects
  • auditory discriminations
  • tone perception

Research question

This research is designed to discover the best method of teaching students to transcribe Chinese words and phrases into pinyin roman characters.

Background and significance

One of the major challenges facing the learner of Chinese is to develop consistent and reliable identification of the segments and tones in Chinese syllables. Mandarin Chinese has four major tones and a neutral tone. Speakers of English have no experience in using syllabic tone as a predictor of word meaning. In order to sharpen their perception of these tones, learners can rely on the tone marks included in pinyin. However, Chinese is often produced without associated pinyin. Moreover, because every Chinese syllable can take any one of the five tones, it is easy to confuse targets. In addition to problems with tone perception, students have problems discriminating some of the 14 initial consonants, particularly the affricates j-, q-, ch-, zh-, x-, and sh-. In addition, there are frequent confusions of finals such as -an, -en, -un, -ang, -eng, -ong, -uen, and -uan. Without a firm grounding in the perception of these contrasts, students cannot move ahead smoothly with the learning of Chinese vocabulary and discourse.

In 2005, MacWhinney, Liu, Wang, and Perfetti compared learning of tone perception in three modalities. This work showed that linking tone perception to full pinyin dictation (along with writing down the correct segments) was not inferior to isolated training on tone. Because the integrated method allows us to teach both tone and segment perception, we are continuing with this approach in new work with Yanhui Zhang. This new work emphasizes the use of minimal pairs as a method of training perception. This method is in line with work on the perception of the English /r/-/l/ contrast by Japanese speakers (McCandliss et al. 2002). However, the current work focuses more specifically on the minimal pair method.

Dependent variables

Normal post-test: The dependent variable is percentage correct pinyin dictation.

There are no robust learning measures in this study.

Independent variables

  1. We are using a pretest-posttest design to measure the overall effects of the online training. We compare gain scores from students in the traditional course with no minimal pair pinyin training with gain scores for students in the online course with minimal pair training. Minimal pair training is specific way of implementing the feature focusing instructional method.
  2. We are also tracking the relative ease of learning particular pinyin segmental and tone patterns.


  1. Learning will be most robust if instruction focuses on the use of minimal pairs.
  2. Mastery training with scheduling is more effective than simple repetition.

These predictions derive from the Competition Model (MacWhinney, in press).


The Competition Model explanation for these effects emphasizes the role of cue reliability, cue availability, and lexical learning as determinants of gender cue learning. Availability and reliability are measured across the vocabulary.


Annotated bibliography

  • MacWhinney, B. (2006). A unified model. In N. Ellis & P. Robinson (Eds.), Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Press.
  • McCandliss, B. D., Fiez, J. A., Protopapas, A., Conway, M., & McClelland, J. L. (2002). Success and failure in teaching the /r/-/l/ contrast to Japanese adults: Test of a Hebbian model of plasticity and stabilization in spoken language perception. Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, 2, 89-108.
  • Pavlik, P., & Anderson, J. (2005). Practice and forgetting effects on vocabulary memory: An activation-based model of the spacing effect. Cognitive Science, 29, 559-586.