Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics

, Volume 81, Issue 2, pp 543–557 | Cite as

Reassessing the electrophysiological evidence for categorical perception of Mandarin lexical tone: ERP evidence from native and naïve non-native Mandarin listeners

  • Yang Agnes GaoEmail author
  • Joseph C. Toscano
  • Chilin Shih
  • Darren Tanner


Some studies have argued that native speakers of tonal languages have been shown to perceive lexical tone continua in a more categorical manner than speakers of non-tonal languages. Among these, Zhang and colleagues (NeuroReport 23 (1): 35-9) conducted an event-related potential (ERP) study using an oddball paradigm showing that native Mandarin speakers exhibit different sensitivity to deviant tones that cross category boundaries compared to deviants that belong to the same category as the standard. Other recent ERP findings examining consonant voicing categories question whether perception is truly categorical. The current study investigated these discrepant findings by replicating and extending the Zhang et al. study. Native Mandarin speakers and naïve English speakers performed an auditory oddball detection test while ERPs were recorded. Naïve English speakers were included to test for language experience effects. We found that Mandarin speakers and English speakers demonstrated qualitatively similar responses, in that both groups showed a larger N2 to the across-category deviant and a larger P3 to the within-category deviant. The N2/P3 pattern also did not differ in scalp topography for the within- versus across-category deviants, as was reported by Zhang et al. Cross-language differences surfaced in behavioral results, where Mandarin speakers showed better discrimination for the across-category deviant, but English speakers showed better discrimination for within-category deviants, though all results were near-ceiling. Our results therefore support models suggesting that listeners remain sensitive to gradient acoustic differences in speech even when they have learned phonological categories along an acoustic dimension.


Categorical perception Mandarin Lexical tones ERP N2 P3 



We would like to thank Jessica Philipp, Justin Brook, and Amanda Kim for assistance with data collection. We would also like to thank Jerome Packard for helpful discussion in the early stages of this project. This project was part of Yang Agnes Gao’s undergraduate honors thesis in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This work was partially supported by NSF BCS-1431324 to DT.


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Copyright information

© The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yang Agnes Gao
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Joseph C. Toscano
    • 2
  • Chilin Shih
    • 1
    • 3
    • 4
  • Darren Tanner
    • 1
    • 4
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of LinguisticsUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignUrbana-ChampaignUSA
  2. 2.Department of Psychological and Brain SciencesVillanova UniversityVillanovaUSA
  3. 3.Department of East Asian Languages and CulturesUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignUrbana-ChampaignUSA
  4. 4.Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and TechnologyUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignUrbana-ChampaignUSA
  5. 5.Neuroscience ProgramUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignUrbana-ChampaignUSA

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