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Factors influencing sensitivity to lexical tone in an artificial language: Implications for second language learning

Caldwell-Harris, C. L., Lancaster, A., Ladd, D. R., Dediu, D., & Christiansen, M. H. (2015). Factors influencing sensitivity to lexical tone in an artificial language: Implications for second language learning. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 37(2), 335-357. doi:10.1017/S0272263114000849.
This study examined whether musical training, ethnicity, and experience with a natural tone language influenced sensitivity to tone while listening to an artificial tone language. The language was designed with three tones, modeled after level-tone African languages. Participants listened to a 15-min random concatenation of six 3-syllable words. Sensitivity to tone was assessed using minimal pairs differing only in one syllable (nonword task: e.g., to-kà-su compared to ca-fí-to) or only in tone (tone task: e.g., to-kà-su compared to to-ká-su). Proficiency in an East Asian heritage language was the strongest predictor of success on the tone task. Asians without tone language experience were no better than other ethnic groups. We conclude by considering implications for research on second language learning, especially as approached through artificial language learning.
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