ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2013, Vol. 45 ›› Issue (10): 1111-1118.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2013.01111

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Phonological Specificity of Lexical Tones in 12-month-old Chinese-speaking Infants

TAO Ye;XU Qinmei   

  1. (1 Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou 310028, China) (2 Hangzhou College of Early Childhood Teachers’ Education, Zhejiang Normal University, Hangzhou 310012, China)
  • Received:2012-11-08 Published:2013-10-25 Online:2013-10-25
  • Contact: XU Qinmei

Abstract: By about 12 months of age, infants show sensitivity to mispronunciations of familiar words when asked to identify a referent. These findings indicate that infants are able to access the phonological detail of words when engaged in lexical recognition. However, most of this work has focused on mispronunciations of consonants and vowels. Very little is known about the role that lexical tones play in constraining lexical access during the early stages of lexical development. In tonal languages (e.g., Chinese), over and above vowel and consonant variations, words are distinguished by lexical tone. Over half the world’s population speak a tonal language. The current study aims to answer the question: Do Chinese infants treat tones as phonological information in their lexical representations as early as 12 months old? Using the intermodal preferential looking paradigm with the mispronunciation task, the current study examined whether Chinese infants at 12 months were sensitive to mispronunciations of lexical tones in monosyllabic, familiar words. 12 infants were in group1, 8 infants were in group2. For group 1, the familiar words were pronounced correctly in block1, while mispronounced with the falling tone in Mandarin (Tone 4) in block 2. The block order was reversed for the infants in group 2. The proportion of target look (PTL) and the difference between infants' longest look at target and distracter images (LLD) before and after naming were calculated. Systematic increment in PTL or LLD across pre- and post-naming phases indicates infants' association of the target label and object. The results showed that both groups of infants could associate the target labels and objects when the labels were correctly pronounced (PTL: group 1, t(11) = 1.78, p = 0.103; group 2, t(7) = 2.95, p = 0.021), while the associations were not found when the labels were mispronounced (PTL: group 1, t(11) = -0.79, p = 0.45; group 2, t(7) = -0.41, p = 0.70). In other words, the mispronunciation effects were found for both groups. But infants’ sensitivity to tonal mispronunciations was not influenced by their receptive vocabulary size. In conclusion, the results indicate that sufficient phonological information of tones is encoded by 12-month-old Chinese infants.

Key words: infant, tone, phonological specificity, resource limitation theory, mispronunciation effect