The teaching of Mandarin prosody : a somatically-enhanced approach for second language learners

  • Felicia Zhen Zhang

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    For adult English speakers studying Mandarin (Modern Standard Chinese),the acquisition of the Mandarin prosody presents major difficulties. One particularly problematic aspect of the Mandarin prosodic system, and the one singled out for research here is the acquisition of tones by second language (L2) learners of Mandarin. This thesis involves a literature review and a description of an experiment conducted for the purpose of assessing the effectiveness of a new teaching method for educating students in Mandarin prosody generally, but especially with regard to "tones." Most studies investigating the acquisition of Mandarin tones by L2 learners have treated tones as separate from other aspects of Mandarin prosody such as stress, loudness and duration. The teaching method examined in this thesis, however, takes an alternative approach. Here the acquisition of Mandarin prosody is approached as a complex dynamic that has tones as an integral part. The aims of the study are twofold: (1) to identify the principal problems encountered by most learners in order to discover the causes of recurrent error patterns and,(2) to find out how a multi-sensory approach, which in this study was called the Somatically Enhanced Approach (SEA),might influence the acquisition of Mandarin prosody in these areas. The experiment involved 22 adult Australian students studying Mandarin in the first three months of language training. The experimental component of the study consisted of an evaluation of two groups of students' oral conversations. The two groups of students were divided into a control group and an experimental group. The control group was trained in a non multi- sensory but communicative approach in 2001 and 2002. Their results are compared with those of a test group and with a group of students trained in the multi-sensory communicative approach (SEA) in 2003 and 2004. The test materials consisted of short dialogues that were likely to occur in everyday communication. Data was collected from each group, once during the first half of the first semester of study in each year. The findings of the experiment were that the order of difficulty of the four Mandarin tones was found to be similar for both the experimental and control groups of students. However, the order of difficulty differed from what has been reported by previous researchers. This suggests that the input and the type of task used to collect data might exert a significant influence on the learning of tones. In other words, the performance of subjects in the dialogues suggests that in the initial stages of learning, the major cause of errors was first language (L1) interference rather than the physical "difficulty" of articulating particular phonemes (or any features of Universal Grammar). Therefore, by using a multi-sensory approach (SEA) to the learning of Mandarin, it may be possible to considerably lessen the influence of learners' L1 from the outset. Finally, a number of suggestions for improving the teaching of Mandarin prosody are made and future research directions outlined. Some salient suggestions for teaching of Mandarin prosody that arise from the research are: (1) To use movement and gesture in the early stages of learning to enhance students' perception and production of Mandarin. This approach provides students with useful memory tools for learning both in class and in self-accessed learning; (2) To teach Tone 3 not as a full Tone 3 but as a low level tone. This should not be done solely through a simple verbal explanation but through a combination of movement and gesture, provision of visual and auditory feedback and a large amount of exposure and perception training so that Tone 3 is recognised as a low level tone rather than a full Tone 3. By so doing confusion is reduced between the various realizations of Tone 3 during the initial learning stages; and (3) To caution students about the common error patterns caused by interference from their L1. This should be supplemented with opportunities for students to observe their own production of Mandarin and then experience how physically they can find ways of reducing the interference. A qualitative analysis of interview and question data obtained from this research also revealed that the extensive use of computer enhanced language learning and SEA work well together, not only efficiently conditioning students to the phonology of Mandarin, but dramatically changing students' strategies in learning and increasing their learning opportunities.
    Date of Award2006
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorAndrew Lian (Supervisor) & Michael Sawer (Supervisor)

    Cite this