Factors Affecting Perception of English Vowels by Native Chinese Learners

Valerie Perkins & Aimee Roekle, “Factors Affecting Perception of English Vowels by Native Chinese Learners”
Mentor: Jae Yung Song, Linguistics

Previous studies have indicated that native speakers of Chinese have difficulty perceiving differences in English vowels, but there is little data to indicate what factors affect their perception. We examined first the relevance of the presence of the target English vowels in Chinese, and second the effect of degrees of difference between vowels on the rate of improvement over time.  Data was collected from eight native Chinese learners of English who were asked to identify a target word that contained a vowel that was a part of one of three vowel pairs (/i/-/ɪ/, /ɛ/-/ae/, /ɑ/-/ʌ /). In the pre-test and post-test, each word was presented to the listener in a sentence such as “You will hear bit now,” with a total of 120 targets in each test. In the three training sessions, each sentence contained one of the target vowels that received contrastive focus (ex. “He said bit, not beat”) as recorded by a native English speaker. We predicted that the English vowel that also exists in Chinese (/i/) would be perceived accurately more often than the other vowels. This was reflected by the data as pair 1 (i/-/ɪ/) received the highest scores overall.  Second, we found that vowel pair that demonstrated more degrees of difference (/ɑ/-/ʌ /) was the only pair that saw statistically significant improvement between the pre and post-tests. Degrees of difference were measured by the qualities used to describe vowels, which are tongue height, tongue frontness, and vowel tenseness. These data can be used as the basis for further exploration into the most effective ways of teaching perception to native Chinese speakers learning English.


  1. Interesting study! Do you have ideas about how to teach vowel perception? In the/i/ vs /I/ contrast, there is a visual difference that language learners can learn to look for (and also produce). The seat-vowel spreads the lips much more than the sit-vowel. Teaching students to look for a smile helps train their ear.
    Very nice presentation of your work into an abstract. I hope you both will be able to continue with this interesting project.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *