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Language acquisition, Bilingualism, Sociolinguistics


Previous research has mainly considered the impact of tone-language experience on ability to discriminate linguistic pitch, but proficient bilingual listening requires differential processing of sound variation in each language context. Here, we ask whether Mandarin-English bilinguals, for whom pitch indicates word distinctions in one language but not the other, can process pitch differently in a Mandarin context vs. an English context. Across three eye-tracked word-learning experiments, results indicated that tone-intonation bilinguals process tone in accordance with the language context. In Experiment 1, 51 Mandarin-English bilinguals and 26 English speakers without tone experience were taught Mandarin-compatible novel words with tones. Mandarin-English bilinguals out-performed English speakers, and, for bilinguals, overall accuracy was correlated with Mandarin dominance. Experiment 2 taught 24 Mandarin-English bilinguals and 25 English speakers novel words with Mandarin like tones, but English-like phonemes and phonotactics. The Mandarin-dominance advantages observed in Experiment 1 disappeared when words were English-like. Experiment 3 contrasted Mandarin-like vs. English-like words in a within-subjects design, providing even stronger evidence that bilinguals can process tone language-specifically. Bilinguals (N = 58), regardless of language dominance, attended more to tone than English speakers without Mandarin experience (N = 28), but only when words were Mandarin-like -- not when they were English-like. Mandarin-English bilinguals thus tailor tone processing to the within-word language context.


This is an open access article. Copyright: © 2017 Quam, Creel. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

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