Are tones phones?

Denis K. Burnham, Jeesun Kim, Chris Wayne Davis, Valter Ciocca, Colin Schoknecht, Benjawan Kasisopa, Sudaporn Luksaneeyanawin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Citations (Scopus)


The psycholinguistic status of lexical tones and phones is indexed via phonological and tonological awareness (PA and TA, respectively) using Thai speech. In Experiment 1 (Thai participants, alphabetic script and orthographically explicit phones/tones), PA was better than TA in children and primary school-educated adults, and TA improved to PA levels only in tertiary-educated adults. In Experiment 2 (Cantonese participants, logographic script and no orthographically explicit phones/tones), children and primary-educated adults had better PA than TA, and PA and TA were equivalent in tertiary-educated adults, but were nevertheless still below the level of their Thai counterparts. Experiment 3 (English-language participants, alphabetic script and nontonal) showed better PA than TA. Regression analyses showed that both TA and PA are predicted by reading ability for Thai children but by general nonorthographic age-related variables for Cantonese children, whereas for English children reading ability predicts PA but not TA. The results show a phone. > tone perceptual advantage over both age and languages that is affected by availability of orthographically relevant information and metalinguistic maturity. More generally, both the perception and the psycholinguistic representation of phones and tones differ.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)693-712
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2011


  • Lexical tone
  • Phonological awareness
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Reading
  • Speech perception
  • Tonological awareness


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