Purpose: Previous studies reported that children acquire Cantonese tones before 3 years of age, supporting the assumption in models of phonological development that suprasegmental features are acquired rapidly and early in children. Yet, recent research found a large disparity in the age of Cantonese tone acquisition. This study investigated Cantonese tone development in 4- to 6-year-old children.
Method: Forty-eight 4- to 6-year-old Cantonese-speaking children and 28 mothers of the children labeled 30 pictures representing familiar words in the 6 tones in a picture-naming task and identified pictures representing words in different Cantonese tones in a picture-pointing task. To control for lexical biases in tone assessment, tone productions were low-pass filtered to eliminate lexical information. Five judges categorized the tones in filtered stimuli. Tone production accuracy, tone perception accuracy, and correlation between tone production and perception accuracy were examined.
Results: Children did not start to produce adultlike tones until 5 and 6 years of age. Four-year-olds produced none of the tones with adultlike accuracy. Five-and 6-year-olds attained adultlike productions in 2 (T5 and T6) to 3 (T4, T5, and T6) tones, respectively. Children made better progress in tone perception and achieved higher accuracy in perception than in production. However, children in all age groups perceived none of the tones as accurately as adults, except that T1 was perceived with adultlike accuracy by 6-year-olds. Only weak association was found between children's tone perception and production accuracy.
Conclusions: Contradicting to the long-held assumption that children acquire lexical tone rapidly and early before the mastery of segmentals, this study found that 4- to 6-yearold children have not mastered the perception or production of the full set of Cantonese tones in familiar monosyllabic words. Larger development was found in children's tone perception than tone production. The higher tone perception accuracy but weak correlation between tone perception and production abilities in children suggested that tone perception accuracy is not sufficient for children's tone production accuracy. The findings have clinical and theoretical implications.