What did you say just now, bitterness or wife? An ERP study on the interaction between tone, intonation and context in Cantonese Chinese

Carmen Kung, Dorothee Chwilla, Carlos Gussenhoven, Sara Bögels, Herbert Schriefers, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour

Previous studies on Cantonese Chinese showed that rising question intonation contours on low-toned words lead to frequent misperceptions of the tones. Here we explored the processing consequences of this interaction between tone and intonation by comparing the processing and identification of monosyllabic critical words at the end of questions and statements, using a tone identification task, and ERPs as an online measure of speech comprehension. Experiment 1 yielded higher error rates for the identification of low tones at the end of questions and a larger N400-P600 pattern, reflecting processing difficulty and reanalysis, compared to other conditions. In Experiment 2, we investigated the effect of immediate lexical context on the tone by intonation interaction. Increasing contextual constraints led to a reduction in errors and the disappearance of the P600-effect. These results indicate that there is an immediate interaction between tone, intonation, and context in online speech comprehension. The difference in performance and activation patterns between the two experiments highlights the significance of context in understanding a tone language, like Cantonese-Chinese.