Learning a tonal language: Chinese

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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


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 better training performance (learning curve). 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.

2. A glossary that defines terms used elsewhere in this node but not defined in the nodes that are parents, grandparents, etc. of this node; tone; pitch contour; visual feedback

3. The research question stated as concisely as possible, usually in a single sentence; How to optimally use crucial tonal information to facilitate Chinese tone learning.

4. A background and significance section that briefly summarizes prior work on the research question and why it is important to answer it; 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.

5. The dependent variables, which are observable and typically measure competence, motivation, interaction, meta-learning, or some other pedagogically desirable outcome; Accuracy of making tone selection and decision tasks, and evaluations of productions.

6. The independent variables, which are typically include instructional environment, activity or method, and perhaps some student characteristics, such as gender or first language; 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.

7. The hypothesis, which is a concise statement of the relationship among the variables that answers the research question; Having student focusing on tonal feature by providing visual pitch contour plus segmental information facilitates tonal perception and production.

8. The findings, which are the results of the study if any are currently available; Current results from two terms of tone perception experiment showed providing segmental information (Pinyin) provides a better learning curve. The learning curve of term 1 (lesson 1 to 8) showed Pinyin+contour and Pinyin+number conditions are better than contour only condition which is shown in Figure 1 that the former two conditions have more negative slope (faster learning rate). The learning curves of term 2 were “flat” and did not show difference between the three conditions. The post-test result of term 1 showed significantly higher improvement of performance in Pinyin+contour than pinyin+number conditions in item analysis. In term 2, the post-test did not show any significant difference between the three conditions.

9. An explanation in terms of PSLC theoretical framework, which is short (a paragraph or two) and typically mentions unobservable, hypothetical attributes of the students (e.g., the students’ knowledge or motivation) and cognitive or social processes that affect them; Learning Chinese tone was facilitated by having students focusing on the tonal features. Proving segmental information (Pinyin) before learning to a syllable sound makes it easier for them to pay more attention to the tone.

10. The descendents, which lists links to descendent nodes of this one, if there are any; Tone perception Tone production

11. A further information section that points to documents using hyper links and/or references in APA format. Each indicates briefly the document's relationship to the node (e.g., whether the document is a paper reporting the node in full detail, a proposal describing the motivation and design of the study in more detail, the node for a similar PSLC research study, etc.). www.pitt.edu/~liuying/pslc_tone.doc (updated April 19, 2007)