Mastering Mandarin Tones as an Adult Second Language Learner
It is important to note that for adult learners, learning a language is not an impossible task. It is of course possible for adults to reach extremely high levels of language fluency, but as language learners become older, it becomes increasingly important for them to be in the proper learning environment if they are to reach that high fluency level. For example, adults usually excel in more explicit learning environments, as opposed to children who generally excel in more implicit learning environments. Other factors such as motivation, access to input and instruction, as well as increased life responsibilities may also interfere with adult potential to acquire a second language (L2).
Factors of Age on L2 Acquisition: The Critical Period Hypothesis
One of the factors that has a major impact on second language acquisition is the influence of a learner’s age. Although this is of course out of a learner’s control, age is an important factor that will necessarily influence the way that a language learner acquires a new language for many reasons. One of the most widely studied of these factors is the Critical Period Hypothesis, which looks at a learner’s level of ultimate language attainment. The Critical Period has been identified by researchers as the limited developmental period during which it possible for learners to acquire “native-like” levels of a language. After this point, for a variety of reasons, it becomes increasingly difficult for learners to acquire language. Although researchers have not agreed upon a specific time frame at which the critical period ends, some have suggested that there may be different critical windows for different aspects of language acquisition. For example, researchers have hypothesized that the window for attaining phonological aspects of a language closes at age four, while a learner’s lexical window begins to close somewhere before the age of ten. A learner’s grammatical acquisition window closes somewhere in a learner’s mid teens. Following this critical or sensitive period, it is increasingly difficult for learners to reach the same level of language attainment that a child might.
Phonological and Tonal Acquisition of Mandarin Chinese
One of the aspects I would like to focus on in particular is my own experience of learning the phonological and tonal system of Mandarin Chinese as an adult L2 learner. As noted above, the difficulty of mastering a language’s phonological system becomes increasingly difficult as one ages. While babies before the age of ten months are able to differentiate between any phonological sound regardless of the language it is found in, after this age, children will go through a so-called weeding process, in which they begin to prioritize the sounds that are specific to the language in which they are situated. Thus, as an adult, without the power of a baby to differentiate between all sounds, one of the most challenging aspects of learning a language is learning to accurately pronounce and distinguish between sounds. This is something that extensive training can help one master, however as an adult, mastery of the phonological system
of a language takes work. An additional consideration is that “native-like” pronunciation is also not necessarily a worthwhile or necessary goal for many language learners, and there are often other aspects of the language acquisition process that may be more worthwhile to focus one’s attention on.
However, in languages that contain tonal systems, pronunciation and the necessity of “correct” pronunciation is increasingly complex. Without the accurate pronunciation of tones when speaking Chinese, is nearly impossible to accurately convey one’s intended meaning and to be understood by Chinese speakers. Mastering the tonal system is one of the most difficult aspects of learning Chinese as a native English speaker. In my own experience learning the language, I have struggled to correctly pronounce tones and in particular to understand tones when listening to people speaking Chinese. I often confuse what they were saying with similar sounding words of a different tone. In addition, my pronunciation of tones can be unreliable. For example, I may find myself going through a several day period in which my tones are good, before having a day where my tones seem to completely disappear. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of learning the language: one day I feel my pronunciation is not so bad, and the very next day my Chinese speaking friends will look at me and ask, “where did your tones go?” Eventually, with continued training, my tones will hopefully become more consistently accurate.
One of the most important factors in building phonological awareness and accuracy in a
language as an adult is phonological training. Extensive listening and practicing of pronunciation and tones is necessary in order to improve one’s phonological awareness as an adult learner. In my own language learning experience, I have tried to increase the amount of input I receive on a daily basis and to listen to a wide range of Mandarin input so that I can regularly hear the correct pronunciation and use of tones.
Ultimately, although it is more difficult to achieve high levels of fluency in a language as an adult, and is especially difficult to distinguish between and produce phonemes or tones in an L2 coming from a vastly different L1, it is not an impossible task. In the right learning environment and with enough practice, it is possible to achieve high levels of fluency as an adult.
*Rebecca graduated from Middlebury College in 2016 with a BA in Classical Studies. She went on to teach high school for several years after graduating and is a current MA student in the Applied Linguistics and TESOL program at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is an avid language learner and is currently learning Mandarin.