Tid: Tisdag 24 oktober 2017, kl. 10:00–12:00
Plats: C389, Södra huset, Frescati


In approximately 60-70% of the world’s languages, pitch differences are used to differentiate words, similar to what phonemes do at the segmental level (Yip, 2002). Existing research on lexical tone acquisition has typically investigated well-known tone languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese, or Thai. However, within the family of tone languages, large differences exist.

Tone languages differ greatly with respect to the *functional load* of tone (the ‘importance’ of lexical tone, depending on for example the tonal inventory and the number of tonal minimal pairs) and with respect to the *amount of* *phonetic variability in the realization of lexical tones*. Typically studied tone languages have a high functional load for tone and hardly exhibit phonetic variation in the contours of lexical tones. Restricted tone languages like Limburgian and Swedish on the other hand have a relatively low functional load for tone and show quite some surface variation in the realization of lexical tones. These properties might pose challenges to learners of these tone languages.

In this talk I will present recent work investigating the influence of word-level pitch on word learning in toddlers acquiring a restricted tone language: Limburgian dialects of Dutch. Limburgian toddlers were compared to children acquiring Dutch, which has intonation but no lexical tone. In a preferential looking task, toddlers were taught novel words with Limburgian tones (accent 1 or accent 2) and were subsequently tested on their recognition of these words. Crucially, in some cases, the words were mispronounced, i.e., pronounced with the ‘wrong’ tone.

Results show that both Limburgian and Dutch infants noticed the mispronunciations. However, toddlers still recognized the target despite the tonal mispronunciation, which is not in line with earlier studies testing Mandarin learning children (Singh, Hui, Chan, & Golinkoff, 2014; Singh, Goh, & Wewalaarachchi, 2015), suggesting that pitch changes are less detrimental to word recognition in Limburgian than in Mandarin. This could be the result of the low functional load of tone and/or the phonetic variability in the realization of Limburgian tones, which could make it hard to uncover the underlying tone categories (Ota, 2003).

Future studies could include children learning Swedish, since word-level pitch in Swedish also has a relatively low functional load and also shows a relatively high amount of surface variation, to corroborate that functional load and phonetic variability indeed have an impact on lexical tone processing.

Stefanie Ramachers at Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands

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