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Acquisition of weak syllables in tonal languages: acoustic evidence from neutral tone in Mandarin Chinese

  • Ping TANG (a1), Ivan YUEN (a1), Nan XU RATTANASONE (a1), Liqun GAO (a2) and Katherine DEMUTH (a1)...


Weak syllables in Germanic and Romance languages have been reported to be challenging for young children, with syllable omission and/or incomplete reduction persisting till age five. In Mandarin Chinese, neutral tone (T0) involves a weak syllable with varied pitch realizations across (preceding) tonal contexts and short duration. The present study examined how and when T0 was acquired by 108 Beijing Mandarin-speaking children (3–5 years) relative to 33 adult controls. Lexicalized (familiar) and non-lexicalized (unfamiliar) T0 words were elicited in different preceding tonal contexts. Unlike previous reports, the present study revealed that children as young as three years have already developed a phonological category for T0, exhibiting contextually conditioned tonal realizations of T0 for both familiar and unfamiliar items. However, mastery of adult-like pitch and duration implementation of T0 is a protracted process not completed until age five. The implications for the acquisition of weak syllables more generally are discussed.


Corresponding author

*Corresponding authors: Ping Tang, Department of Linguistics, ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, 16 University Avenue, Australian Hearing Hub, Balaclava Road, North Ryde, NSW 2109Australia E-mail: Liqun Gao, School of Communication Science, Beijing Language and Culture University, 15 Xueyuan Road, Haidain District, 100083, Beijing, China. E-mail:


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