The effect of speech variability on tonal language speakers' second language lexical tone learning

Kaile Zhang, Gang Peng, Yonghong Li, James W. Minett, William S.Y. Wang

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Speech variability facilitates non-tonal language speakers' lexical tone learning. However, it remains unknown whether tonal language speakers can also benefit from speech variability while learning second language (L2) lexical tones. Researchers also reported that the effectiveness of speech variability was only shown on learning new items. Considering that the first language (L1) and L2 probably share similar tonal categories, the present study hypothesizes that speech variability only promotes the tonal language speakers' acquisition of L2 tones that are different from the tones in their L1. To test this hypothesis, the present study trained native Mandarin (a tonal language) speakers to learn Cantonese tones with either high variability (HV) or low variability (LV) speech materials, and then compared their learning performance. The results partially supported this hypothesis: only Mandarin subjects' productions of Cantonese low level and mid level tones benefited from the speech variability. They probably relied on the mental representations in L1 to learn the Cantonese tones that had similar Mandarin counterparts. This learning strategy limited the impact of speech variability. Furthermore, the results also revealed a discrepancy between L2 perception and production. The perception improvement may not necessarily lead to an improvement in production.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1982
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberOCT
Publication statusPublished - 23 Oct 2018


  • Cantonese
  • Lexical tones
  • Mandarin
  • Speech variability
  • The second language acquisition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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