Whether native speakers of non-tonal languages can acquire categorical representations of lexical tones remains controversial. This study investigates the acquisition of lexical tone categories by native English speakers learning Mandarin Chinese as a foreign language by comparing the categorical perception (CP) of lexical tones between three groups of listeners: (1) native English speakers who had taken advanced Mandarin courses in colleges; (2) native English speakers with no knowledge of Mandarin Chinese; and (3) native Mandarin speakers. Two tonal continua derived from natural speech within carrier phrases were created through interpolation within two tonal contrasts (tone 1/tone 4, T1/T4; tone 2/tone 3, T2/T3). Results showed categorical-like perception of tones by native Mandarin speakers. The inexperienced English speakers performed near chance on discrimination tasks and showed significantly broader identification boundaries than the other two groups. The learners of Mandarin showed similar pattern of CP to native Mandarin speakers, but with higher overall discrimination scores. Findings suggest that CP of lexical tone may be available to advanced second language learners.

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