PhD Student Wenyi Ling Awarded NSF Grant to Study Learners’ Processing and Use of Tones in Mandarin Chinese

Photo of student Wenyi Ling with lei onCongratulations to PhD student Wenyi Ling, who has received a prestigious Doctoral Dissertation Research grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for her project “The Perception, Processing and Learning of Mandarin Tone by Second Language Speakers”!

Additional details about Wenyi’s research grant can be found on the National Science Foundation website.


Mandarin Chinese is one of the most widely learned foreign languages today, and a language deemed critical to national security by the U.S. government. It is also listed in “Category IV: Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers” by the Foreign Service Institute (U.S. Dept. of State, 2016). A major contributor to this difficulty is the fact that Mandarin is a tonal language, in which differences in pitch contours alone completely change the meaning of a word (e.g., [ma]-flat tone = mother; [ma]-rising tone = hemp; [ma]-low dipping tone = horse; [ma]-falling tone = scold). A successful learner of Mandarin thus needs to be able to distinguish between different tones, connect tonal information with word meaning, and process all this information in real-time while listening and speaking. Little is known so far about which aspects of this complex learning task are particularly challenging for English-speaking learners of Mandarin, and what instructional practices may aid them in mastering this challenge.

The goal of this project is to investigate second language (L2) learners’ processing and use of tones at multiple levels, including tone perception, real-time lexical processing, and word learning, in order to gain a broader understanding of the challenges in the L2 acquisition of Mandarin tones by native speakers of English. To this end, the project draws on theoretical models and methodological paradigms from research in Speech Perception and Psycholinguistics that has investigated the perception and processing of tones by native speakers, and extends these paradigms to investigate the acquisition and use of tones by L2 learners. The project consists of 3 experiments. Experiment 1 employs identification and discrimination tasks well established in categorical perception research to explore the extent to which L2 learners perceive tone categorically, and the role of L2 experience in this process. Experiment 2 investigates L2 learners’ use of tone in the real-time comprehension of spoken Mandarin in a visual-world eye tracking study. Finally, Experiment 3 studies how English speakers with no tonal language experience learn novel words with tones under different training conditions. By exploring the widely recognized difficulty with tones in L2 learning in a controlled laboratory environment, this project will advance our understanding of how L2 learners perceive, process and learn tones in Mandarin, and provide first-hand evidence to inform evidence-based L2 instruction and curricular materials in a language critical to U.S. national security.