ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2016, Vol. 48 ›› Issue (8): 915-923.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2016.00915

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The role of tone in Chinese syllable perception

ZHAO Rong; WANG Xiaojuan; YANG Jianfeng   

  1. (School of Psychology, Shaanxi Normal University, Xi’an 710062, China)
  • Received:2015-01-28 Published:2016-08-25 Online:2016-08-25
  • Contact: YANG Jianfeng, E-mail:


An increasing interest in spoken word recognition has focused on studies of tonal language recently since previous cognitive and neuroanatomical models of speech perception were proposed based on studies of non-tone language. To examine the language general of these models, some studies have attempted to investigate the difference between the processing of segmental and suprasegmental information in tonal language. Consequently, Chinese tone becomes topical and receives an increasing attention. However, previous studies have examined the processing of tone in semantic access in spoken words, speech development, as well as word reading. The role of tone and its combined impact with segmental information (initial consonant and vowel) in Chinese syllable perception are not well understood yet. The current study conducted two behavioral experiments to test the influence of tone in Chinese syllable perception. To compare the role of tone and segmental information, Experiment 1 used an oddball paradigm by presenting a stream of standard syllables interrupted by deviant syllables. Deviants were created from standard syllable (“da1”)by changing the initial Consonant (C change, “ga1”), Vowel (V change, “du1”) and Tone (T change, “da4”). The rate of standard and deviant syllables was 8:1 and the interval between each pair of deviant syllables included, at least, five standard syllables. Experiment 2 used the same paradigm to test the combined effect of tone and segmental information. Five types of deviant syllables were created by changing the vowel (V, “du1”), consonant plus vowel (C+V, “gu1”), tone plus consonant (T+C, “ga4”), tone plus vowel (T+V, “du4”), and tone plus consonant plus vowel (T+C+V, “gu4”). Twenty-eight university students took part in Experiment 1 and another 31 students participated in Experiment 2. In both experiments, participants listened to the auditory stimuli in the earphone with their eyes fixing at the cross on the screen. They were instructed to response correctly and quickly by pressing a button when they detected a deviant syllable from the stream of the standard syllables. Stimulus presentation and response latency collection were controlled using E-prime 1.1 software. Experiment 1 observed a significant difference in the reaction time among three types of deviant syllables. Detecting vowel change was faster than detecting initial consonant and tone changes, whereas there was no difference between the latter two conditions. Experiment 2 observed an increasing impact on syllable perception for combined information. For the deviant syllables, detecting the changes in tone plus segmental information (T+C, T+V, and T+C+V) was faster than vowel change alone. Even for tone plus consonant (T+C), two slower changes in Experiment 1, the detecting time was faster than vowel change alone. However, no further difference was observed among combined conditions. These results showed that tone involved in Chinese syllable perception. The influence of tone alone was weaker than vowel and stronger than the consonant, but its combined effect with segmental information was dramatic. The findings indicate an integrating effect between segmental and suprasegmental information in Chinese syllable perception. It suggests a future approach to investigate the integrating processing using cognitive neuroscience techniques.

Key words: syllable perception, segmental information, tone