Context effects on second-language learning of tonal contrasts.
Chang, Charles B.
Bowles, Anita R.
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CitationCharles B Chang, Anita R Bowles. 2015. "Context effects on second-language learning of tonal contrasts.." J Acoust Soc Am, Volume 138, Issue 6, pp. 3703 - 3716.
Studies of lexical tone learning generally focus on monosyllabic contexts, while reports of phonetic learning benefits associated with input variability are based largely on experienced learners. This study trained inexperienced learners on Mandarin tonal contrasts to test two hypotheses regarding the influence of context and variability on tone learning. The first hypothesis was that increased phonetic variability of tones in disyllabic contexts makes initial tone learning more challenging in disyllabic than monosyllabic words. The second hypothesis was that the learnability of a given tone varies across contexts due to differences in tonal variability. Results of a word learning experiment supported both hypotheses: tones were acquired less successfully in disyllables than in monosyllables, and the relative difficulty of disyllables was closely related to contextual tonal variability. These results indicate limited relevance of monosyllable-based data on Mandarin learning for the disyllabic majority of the Mandarin lexicon. Furthermore, in the short term, variability can diminish learning; its effects are not necessarily beneficial but dependent on acquisition stage and other learner characteristics. These findings thus highlight the importance of considering contextual variability and the interaction between variability and type of learner in the design, interpretation, and application of research on phonetic learning.