Lexical tone perception in native speakers of Cantonese

Kathy Y. S. LEE, Kit T. Y. CHAN, Ho Suen Joffee LAM, C. A. VAN HASSELT, Michael C. F. TONG

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlespeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose. This study aimed at investigating (1) tone perception development among typically-developing Cantonese speakers and (2) the hierarchy of tone perception difficulty among the 15 tone contrasts. 

Method. Two-hundred typically-developing children aged 3-10 and a group of 25 normal hearing adults were recruited. They were tested on a pool of 75-item calibrated recorded speech signals. Participants responded to each stimulus by pointing at the corresponding picture displayed on a computer screen from a choice of four. 

Result. There was a gradual increase in tone perception accuracy from children aged 3-6. After age 6, tone perception accuracy was similar to adults with an average error rate of 3-8%. The two tone contrasts that listeners consistently found difficult to distinguish were T2T5 (high-rising vs low-rising) and T3T6 (mid-level vs low-level). In addition, all children groups also showed difficulty in T4T6 identification (low-falling vs low-level). 

Conclusion. Tone perception is not error-free even among native Cantonese-speaking adults. Overall tone identification performance improved steadily from age 3 to age 6. Based on the participants ' performance, a three-tier set of tone groups, with an increasing level of difficulty for identification, is proposed for rehabilitation purposes. These tone groups are (1) Easy: T1T2, T1T3, T1T4, T1T5, T1T6, and T2T3, (2) Medium: T2T4, T2T6, T3T4, and T4T5, and (3) Hard: T2T5, T3T5, T3T6, T4T6, and T5T6. Copyright © 2015 The Speech Pathology Association of Australia Limited.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-62
JournalInternational Journal of Speech-Language Pathology
Issue number1
Early online dateApr 2014
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2015


Lee, K. Y. S., Chan, K. T. Y., Lam, J. H. S., van Hasselt, C. A., & Tong, M. C. F. (2015). Lexical tone perception in native speakers of Cantonese. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 17(1), 53-62. doi: 10.3109/17549507.2014.898096


  • Tone
  • Lexical tone perception
  • Cantonese
  • Tone contrast difficulty
  • Three-tier tone groups
  • Ease of tone identification
  • Acquisition


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