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Tone Attrition in Mandarin Speakers of Varying English Proficiency
Published Web Locationhttps://doi.org/10.1044/2016_jslhr-s-15-0248
PurposeThe purpose of this study was to determine whether the degree of dominance of Mandarin-English bilinguals' languages affects phonetic processing of tone content in their native language, Mandarin.
MethodWe tested 72 Mandarin-English bilingual college students with a range of language-dominance profiles in the 2 languages and ages of acquisition of English. Participants viewed 2 photographs at a time while hearing a familiar Mandarin word referring to 1 photograph. The names of the 2 photographs diverged in tone, vowels, or both. Word recognition was evaluated using clicking accuracy, reaction times, and an online recognition measure (gaze) and was compared in the 3 conditions.
ResultsRelative proficiency in English was correlated with reduced word recognition success in tone-disambiguated trials, but not in vowel-disambiguated trials, across all 3 dependent measures. This selective attrition for tone content emerged even though all bilinguals had learned Mandarin from birth. Lengthy experience with English thus weakened tone use.
ConclusionsThis finding has implications for the question of the extent to which bilinguals' 2 phonetic systems interact. It suggests that bilinguals may not process pitch information language-specifically and that processing strategies from the dominant language may affect phonetic processing in the nondominant language-even when the latter was learned natively.
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