Tonal interference in word learning? A comparison of Cantonese and French

Leonardo PIOT, Hui CHEN, Anthony PICAUD, Maxine DOS SANTOS, Lionel GRANJON, Zili Lizz LUO, Wai Huen Ann TO, Regine Yeeking LAI, Hin Tat CHEUNG, Thierry NAZZI

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlespeer-review


Most languages of the world use lexical tones to contrast words. Thus, understanding how individuals process tones when learning new words is fundamental for a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying word learning. The current study asked how tonal information is integrated during word learning. We investigated whether variability in tonal information during learning can interfere with the learning of new words and whether this is language and age dependent. Cantonese- and French-learning 30-month-olds (N = 97) and Cantonese- and French-speaking adults (N = 50) were tested with an eye-tracking task on their ability to learn phonetically different pairs of novel words in two learning conditions: a 1-tone condition in which each object was named with a single label and a 3-tone condition in which each object was named with three different labels varying in tone. We predicted learning in all groups in the 1-tone condition. For the 3-tone condition, because tones are part of the phonological system of Cantonese but not of French, we expected the Cantonese groups to either fail (toddlers) or show lower performance than in the 1-tone condition (adults), whereas the French groups might show less sensitivity to this manipulation. The results show that all participants learned in the 1-tone condition and were sensitive to tone variation to some extent. Learning in the 3-tone condition was impeded in both groups of toddlers. We argue that tonal interference in word learning likely comes from the phonological level in the Cantonese groups and from the acoustic level in the French groups. Copyright ©  2024 The Author(s).

Original languageEnglish
Article number105883
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Early online dateFeb 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - Feb 2024


Piot, L., Chen, H., Picaud, A., Dos Santos, M., Granjon, L., Luo, Z., To, A. W. H., Lai, R. Y., Cheung, H., & Nazzi, T. (2024). Tonal interference in word learning? A comparison of Cantonese and French. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 242, Article 105883.


  • Phonological bias
  • Word learning
  • French
  • Cantonese


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