Have there been any studies done on say Mandarin native speakers who learn as adults other languages which have more lexical tones or which have lexical tones different to Mandarin?

I believe for instance that Mandarin has fewer or simpler tones than Cantonese, Thai, and Vietnamese.

Do we know if such second language learners typically have ease or difficulty acquiring these extra lexical tones compared to a learner whose native language entirely lacks lexical tone?

  • In my opinion, the ability to learn a new language largely depends on two factors: 1. Your socializing skills or an opportunity to socialize. 2. Your interest or desire in learning the new language. Though both skills are related, they are are both needed for learning the language. I could be engrossed into Wikipedia and Google Translator and memorize all the sounds and alphabets of the new language, but unless I speak or converse with someone, I cannot hope to learn it. One of my relatives in Karnataka used to serve in the Indian Army for many years. As a result of being posted at Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 12:03

3 Answers 3


I found this article, which states that Mandarin Chinese natives and English natives when trained on recognizing lexical tones advanced about equally fast in their training but found different tones to be among the most difficult. Abstract below.

Two groups of listeners, one of native speakers of a tone language (Mandarin Chinese) and one of native speakers of a non-tone language (English) were trained to recognize Cantonese lexical tones. Performance before and after training was measured using closed response-set identification and pairwise difference rating tasks. Difference ratings were submitted to multidimensional scaling (MDS) analyses to investigate training-related changes in listeners’ perceptual space. Both groups showed comparable initial performance and significant improvement in tone identification following training. However, the two groups differed in terms of the tones they found most difficult to identify, and in terms of the tones that were learned best. Differences between the two groups’ training-induced changes in identification (confusions) and perceptual spaces demonstrated that listeners’ native language experience with intonational as well as tone categories affects the perception and acquisition of non-native suprasegmental categories.


I would not separate lexical tone here. There are many other lexical tools. Depending on your native and studied languages, you will (or will not) be able to hear when these tools are used and use it by yourself. Here are some examples:

  • Consonant-related — fricative, aspiration, palatalization:
    • A Russian speaker will quickly grasp palatalization, but aspiration makes a huge problem even for me, after some three years speaking Thai daily;
    • The same Russian speaker will easily recognize a huge variety of Mandarin Chinese affricates t͡s, t͡ɕ or retroflex ɻ as they exist in Russian (to a certain proximity). At the same time, English speaker will have difficulties with them.
  • Vowel-related — di- and triphthongs, long/short vowel length:
    • English speakers often have problems with ɯ and short u, but have no issue reproducing ɤ. Things are totally opposite for Russian speakers.

The answer is common for all mentioned linguistic phenomenons.

  • Good news: If a language learner is already familiar with a certain lexical tool, it will be easier for them to accept its existence and to start using it.
  • Bad news: it's almost certain that there are other lexical tools to become an issue when studying.

Think if someone is telling a native English speaker about a language that has five more vowels: ɯ, ɤ, etc. — what would they answer? "Yes, other vowels do exist, so what?" They wouldn't be surprised there are languages with vowels. :) This is why it's important to learn many languages: the more you are aware of (not necessarily speaking fluently), the more tools you know and can use.

Let's get back to tones.

I have several Chinese friends who study Thai. Existence of lexical tones is something obvious for them. Since Thai has extra tones, comparing to Mandarin (namely, low and middle tones; plus, Mandarin high corresponds to Thai high-rising), those extra tones make some trouble to hear and reproduce for Chinese speakers, but no more than diphthongs or long/short vowels do, for example.

Also, several Thai friends of mine have studied Mandarin, one is a professional Thai-Mandarin translator. Being curious, I asked them about their study. They have never complained on Chinese lexical tones. What really makes them trouble is Mandarin consonants.

Personally, I have started with Mandarin Chinese, but then stopped my study for years. When it came to learning Thai, yes, my prior familiarity with Chinese tones helped me to skip several lessons of spoken Thai training. I would not say it was critical, however.

Update. One more thing, it seems to be related.
This observation came to me when I was listening to Chinese and Thai songs. Compare:

Chinese speakers tend to minimize phonetic distance between the tones. No, I don't say they ignore it. They only emphasize tones when needed (e.g., the context allows a different word pronounced in another tone).
Thai is the opposite. Native speakers highlight the tones pretty accurately.

  • 2
    Absolutely true: The more languages you know (even superficially) the better it is when learning other languages. Because in the end, languages can be as different as you want, but some patterns, structural patterns, will help you with other languages.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Mar 5, 2013 at 9:17

Every language has some tones. The question is, to which degree they are relevant to a given language. Even Finnish language, which conventionally 'has no tones', actually marks the first stressed syllable with a falling tone, although there are no 'syntax tones', like in Russian.

I can distinguish Russian rising or falling tones (which are important for conversational syntax) and Spanish or Italian tonic stresses, and I can distinguish both tones for Swedish lexemes (which are either falling or falling-rising), but I cannot distinguish none of two tones in Lithuanian or, say, Tibetan. All these languages have 'common' tones, that is, the tones are distiguished by a universal tone scale.

On the other hand, I relatively easy distinguish four tones in Mandarin, but I cannot distinguish any of three Yoruba tones, perhaps because Yoruba, like Kpelle, is a language with 'private' and not 'common' tones.

  • 5
    "Every language has some tones." You're conflating intonation, which is a feature of the spoken language, with being a tonal language. They are not the same thing.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 21:29
  • 2
    I recommend deleting this answer. As comment above notices, this answer mixes intonation and lexical tone. The latter is a feature when different tone makes different word. E.g. intonated "home!" or "home?" still means "home", but Thai phrase /khai-khai-khai/ (High, Rising, and Low tones, correspondingly) literally means, "who sells eggs". Different tone → different meaning. Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 22:30
  • The answer does not mix the intonation with a lexical tone, because an intonation is a tonical feature, just like a lexical tone. Besides, by requesting the deletion of my answer the user bytebuster becomes self-contradicting, as follows from his statements above.
    – Manjusri
    Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 12:09

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