English and Thai Speakers’ Perception of Mandarin Tones

  •  Ying Li    


Language learners’ language experience is predicted to display a significant effect on their accurate perception of foreign language sounds (Flege, 1995). At the superasegmental level, there is still a debate regarding whether tone language speakers are better able to perceive foreign lexical tones than non-tone language speakers (i.e Lee et al., 1996; Burnham & Brooker, 2002). The current study aimed to shed some light on this issue. Specifically, 24 adult Thai and 21 adult English speakers, who had no knowledge on Mandarin prior to participation in the study, were recruited. The participants’ accuracy in the perception of 4 Mandarin tones (T1, T2, T3, T4) was individually examined using an identification test. 288 stimuli of /ti/, /ta/, /tu/, /tʂhi/, /tʂha/, and /tʂhu/ produced in 4 Mandarin tones were prepared. The stimuli were embedded in a carrier sentence, and were produced by a female and a male native Mandarin speaker. According to the results, (1) none of the participants achieved 100% accuracy in any of the perception tests; (2) in the perception of Mandarin T1 and T4, the Thai speakers significantly outperformed the English speakers; (3) the Thai speakers and the English speakers displayed very similar degrees of difficulty in the perception of Mandarin T2 and T3; (4) the Thai participants’ most serious confusion was in the discrimination of T2-T3, whereas the English participants showed significant confusion in the identification of T1-T2 and T2-T3. The findings suggest that tone language speakers may benefit more from their L1 in the perception of foreign lexical tones than did the non-tone language speakers. However, the degree of the beneficial effect identified was limited.

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