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Long-term experience with a tonal language shapes the perception of intonation in English words: How Chinese–English bilinguals perceive “Rose?” vs. “Rose”*



Long-term experience with a tonal language shapes pitch perception in specific ways, and consequently Chinese speakers may not process pitch in English words – e.g., “Rose?” spoken as a question versus “Rose” spoken as a statement – in the same way as native speakers of non-tonal languages do. If so, what are those pitch processing differences and how do they affect Chinese recognition of English words? We investigated these questions by administering a primed lexical-decision task in English to proficient Chinese–English bilinguals and two control groups, namely, Spanish–English and native English speakers. Prime-target pairs differed in one sound and/or in pitch. Results showed specific cross-language differences in pitch processing between the Chinese speakers and the control groups, confirming that experience with a tonal language shaped the perception of English words' intonation. Moreover, such experience helps to incorporate pitch into models of word-recognition for bilinguals of tonal and non-tonal languages.

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      Long-term experience with a tonal language shapes the perception of intonation in English words: How Chinese–English bilinguals perceive “Rose?” vs. “Rose”*
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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Marta Ortega-Llebaria, Department of Linguistics, Cathedral of Learning, Office 2830, 4200 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh PA 15260, USA


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We would like to thank the participants for their time and the undergraduate students who helped with data collection, in particular Erika Latham and Toni Cusimano. Special thanks to Chuck Perfetti for his sharp insights and the time he so generously gave. Thank you to the Language and Reading Group and to the Perfetti Lab for their feedback and support, especially Natasha Tokowicz, Wendy Li-Yun Chang, Xiaoping Fang and Joseph Stafura.



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