Published online by Cambridge University Press: 16 September 2019
L2 sounds present different kinds of challenges to learners at the phonetic, phonological, and lexical levels, but previous studies on L2 tone learning mostly focused on the phonetic and lexical levels. The present study employs an innovative technique to examine the role of prior tonal experience and musical training on forming novel abstract syllable-level tone categories. Eighty Cantonese and English musicians and nonmusicians completed two tasks: (a) AX tone discrimination and (b) incidental learning of artificial tone-segment connections (e.g., words beginning with an aspirated stop always carry a rising tone) with synthesized stimuli modeled on Thai. Although the four participant groups distinguished the target tones similarly well, Cantonese speakers showed abstract and implicit knowledge of the target tone-segment mappings after training but English speakers did not, regardless of their musical experience. This suggests that tone language experience, but not musical experience, is crucial for forming novel abstract syllable-level tone categories.
We would like to thank Professor Susan Gass, the editor, and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback on our work. We would also like to thank Scarlett Hao, Alision Lam, Sula Ross, and Bruce Wang for their research assistance, and Patchanok Kitikanan for her advice on the stimuli. Part of the data collection took place when the first author worked in Lancaster University, UK. The financial support from Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Research Fund, Lancaster University (project code: SZA1435) and Small Project Funding, University of Hong Kong (project code: 201409176014) is gratefully acknowledged.