LINGUIST List 30.1287

Wed Mar 20 2019

Review: Chinese, Mandarin; Sino-Tibetan; Language Acquisition; Phonetics; Phonology: Zhang (2018)

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Date: 06-Jan-2019
From: Mengzhu Yan <>
Subject: Second Language Acquisition of Mandarin Chinese Tones
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Hang Zhang
TITLE: Second Language Acquisition of Mandarin Chinese Tones
SUBTITLE: Beyond First-Language Transfer
SERIES TITLE: Utrecht Studies in Language and Communication
YEAR: 2018

REVIEWER: Mengzhu Yan


“Second Language Acquisition of Mandarin Chinese Tones — Beyond First - Language Transfer” by Hang Zhang, as the title suggests, looks at how second language (L2) learners, specifically non-tonal language speakers, i.e. English, Japanese and Korean, learn Mandarin Chinese tones. This books offers novel contributions to the research of L2 acquisition with the aim to figure out the factors of learners’ errors that are beyond learners’ first language (L1).

The book is structured in 7 chapters, which can be further divided into four main parts as follows:

The first part (Chapter 1 and 2) offers an introduction to the phonetics and phonology of Mandarin Chinese tones, prosodic structures of the three languages that are the native languages of L2 groups researched in this book, and a comprehensive overview of the previous research devoted to the L1 and L2 acquisition of Chinese tones. Chapter 1 also highlights the importance and difficulty of learning Chinese tones. Chapter 2 particularly focuses on the three puzzles that the previous research has not resolved with the explanation of L1 transfer, i.e.: “(1) positional effects of contour tones, (2) the order of acquisition of Mandarin tones, and (3) the paradox of T3” (p. 26).

The second part (Chapter 3) presents the methodology that was used to address the three puzzles discussed in the previous chapter. This part provides the information on test materials, participants, recording procedure, guidelines on assessing L2 tones and a very brief summary of the statistical analyses of the data used in the next part. The chapter emphasises a detailed and logical description of how native Chinese speakers judge the correctness of a token produced by participants. In addition to correctness judgements, pitch values were also measured and evaluated as one of the assessment criteria.

The third part, also the core chapters (Chapter 4-6) of the book, describes the research questions, hypotheses, research findings and discussions of the experiments corresponding to the three puzzles raised in the first part. Each of the three chapters focuses on one aspect, so the three chapters are independent, but are also highly related to each other. Chapter 4 investigates the role of anticipatory coarticulation in the production of T2 and T4 in disyllabic Chinese words by first introducing the nature of anticipatory tone coarticulation and then calculating the accuracy rates, maximum F0 and error types of these tones as produced by the three groups of learners. The results show that beyond L1 transfer, anticipatory dissimilation results in particular error patterns by L2 adult learners. Chapter 5 followed the same organization as in Chapter 4, and concerns the difficulty of the acquisition of different tone pairs by conducting a constraint-based analysis using two independent phonological principles, the Tonal Markedness Scale (TMS) and the Obligatory Contour Principle (OCP).

This chapter suggests a four-stage path of OCP sub-constraint re-ranking to explain the patterns of tone error in L2’s production (p. 80). The focus of Chapter 6 is on non-native T3 production, one of the well-known difficult areas for L2 learners due to its similarity to T2, high variability and the tone sandhi rule. The chapter examines the acquisition of the three allophones of T3 and discusses the possible error source which points towards teaching pedagogy.

The last part (Chapter 7) provides the pedagogical implications of the research, an overview and evaluation of the current teaching materials, as well as some sample exercises for practicing the tones, aiming to improve teaching and learning the Chinese tones. This chapter points out the areas in teaching tones that are easily flawed and worth reconsidering (e.g. inconsistent descriptions of tones in teaching materials) and areas that should be paid more attention to (e.g. training of T3’s variants, exercises to practice the Chinese tones). Further, it also offers a number of suggestions and practical solutions for teachers and teaching materials makers to better understand the challenges that the learners are facing and to facilitate successful learning.


It is well-known that acquiring Chinese tones is one of the most challenging areas in learning Chinese as a second language by adult learners. The acquisition of Chinese tones has therefore always been a great interest in the field of second language acquisition. Compared to the acquisition of segments, it received more attention (Casas-Tost & Rovira-Esteva 2015). However, most research tried to explain this learning difficulty by comparing the differences between learners’ native language and Chinese. As the author correctly points out, there remain puzzles that L1 transfer only cannot fully explain. This study investigates the factors beyond L1 transfer and is therefore a worthwhile publication and a timely one, providing an exceptional contribution to the study of the acquisition of Chinese tones from novel perspectives. In addition to the contribution to this research area, another remarkable point of this book is its pedagogical values, as it offers practical solutions and sample teaching materials that may help solve the problems addressed in this book that the current teaching materials lack. Therefore, this book is of great use to not only researchers, but also teachers and students of Chinese as a second language, especially those who are facing problems in teaching or the acquisition of Chinese tones.

To solve the puzzles, Zhang has selected three L2 languages groups, English, Japanese and Korean. The selection of the languages is wise and representative, as L1 prosody, manifested in pitch, is one of the major reasons of L1 transfer, and role of pitch in all the selected three languages is different (Chapter 2): American English is a stress language; Tokyo Japanese represents a pitch-accent language; and Seoul Korean is neither. By this selection of L1s, Zhang tells apart the acquisition difficulties that can be explained by learners’ native languages and those that cannot explained by the respective L1s. Also, I believe there is a large community of Chinese learners with these three language backgrounds, so also in this way, the selection has a wide coverage.

Moreover, the valuable experimental methods, materials and conclusions contribute to the understanding of acquisition of particular Chinese tones or tone pairs—not only for the L1 English, Japanese and Korean speakers—and they can definitely be used to investigate similar issues with learners who have other language backgrounds and hence benefit a wider community. This book therefore provides researchers, especially young researchers, significant support in the design of the tasks and creation of the experimental materials. However, the evidence that the book discovered might have been more convincing if another L2 group, namely, with a tonal language, were included, as having a tonal might have a positive or negative L1 transfer on the acquisition of Chinese tones (see e.g. Gandour 1983, Hao 2012, Lee et al. 1996). This would have provided a full picture of how phonetic and phonological constraints, rather than the previous experiences with tone languages, explain the puzzles. This is certainly warranted for future research directions to explore.

Another strength is its well-organised structure through the whole book. The book is well-written and the language is easy-to-understand. Each chapter presents a very clear aim using a short introduction at the beginning of each chapter, guiding readers to explore the upcoming sections and keep them highly interested. Zhang summarized previous research findings, experiment procedures and linguistic jargons in a very reader-friendly and accessible way. The research questions are rooted in literature gaps and logically presented using concise language, showing this research is timely in addressing unsolved puzzles in order to facilitate the L2 acquisition of Chinese tones. However, the part that concerns the relationship between the musical ability and the acquisition of tones in section 1.4.1 (p. 15) is somewhat off topic in my opinion, though it is an interesting point. The section would be of more value if the knowledge of the musical experience was tested in this book. In order to test this, we would need participants with and without musical experience for comparison, which would be an interesting avenue for future research (see e.g. Weidema et al. 2016 on the perception of pitch contours in speech and music).

The book covers both production and perception with a clear focus on production. The tasks were well-designed, and the data were properly handled and analysed using appropriate statistical models. Though error rates was one of very important parameters in judging the listener’s ability to identify a sound, it is limited and sometimes could be supported or complemented by different measurements. For instance, in the study ‘Perception of T3 Variants’ (p. 93), reaction times might indicate the ease or difficulty that listeners had to identify a sound, viz. faster reaction times showing easier identifications (see e.g. Mehler et al. 1981), but this was not included. Further, this book also leaves room for future work to employ other experimental paradigms.

Summarizing, Zhang’s (2018) book, ‘Second Language Acquisition of Mandarin Chinese Tones —Beyond First-Language Transfer’ covers a very good range of hot topics in the acquisition of Chinese tones with detailed linguistic description, well-designed experiments, critical evaluation of the current teaching materials and teaching materials samples. This book is beyond doubt an excellent source that will surely benefit not only a community of linguists or psycholinguists who are interested in L2 acquisition but also classroom teachers and language learners with not much linguistic background. I hope this book will raise awareness of the existing problems in the current text materials and classroom teaching, and will prompt more work and advances on the development of teaching and learning Chinese tones.


Gandour, Jack, Donald Wong, Li Hsieh, Bret Weinzapfel, Diana Van Lancker, and Gary D. Hutchins. 2000. A crosslinguistic PET study of tone perception. Journal of cognitive neuroscience 12(1), 207-222.

Hao, Yen-Chen. 2012. Second language acquisition of Mandarin Chinese tones by tonal and non-tonal language speakers. Journal of phonetics, 40(2), 269-279.

Lee, Yuh-Shiow, Douglas A. Vakoch, and Lee H. Wurm. 1996. Tone perception in Cantonese and Mandarin: A cross-linguistic comparison. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 25(5), 527-542.

Mehler, Jacques, Jean Yves Dommergues, Ulrich Hans Frauenfelder, and Juan Segui. 1981. The syllable's role in speech segmentation. Journal of verbal learning and verbal behavior 20 (3), 298-305.

Rovira-Esteva, Sara & Casas-Tost, Helena. 2015. Mapping Chinese language pedagogy from 1966 to 2013. A bibliometric study of the Journal of Chinese Language Teachers Association. Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association 50. 31-58.

Weidema, Joey L., M. P. Roncaglia-Denissen, and Henkjan Honing. 2016. Top–down modulation on the perception and categorization of identical pitch contours in speech and music. Frontiers in psychology 7, 817.


Mengzhu Yan is a Ph.D. candidate in Linguistics at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She has obtained her MA in Linguistics from Aarhus University, Denmark. Her research areas are Phonetics and Phonology, Second Language Acquisition, Syntax, Semantics, Psycholinguistics and Information Structure.

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