Project Details
Funding Scheme : Early Career Scheme
Project Number : 28605120
Project Title(English) : L2 Phonemic Quantity Contrasts: Production and Perception by Cantonese, French, English and Japanese Speakers 
Project Title(Chinese) : L2音長差別:以粵語、法語、英語和日語為母語人士的產出與感知 
Principal Investigator(English) : Dr Lee, Kwing Lok Albert 
Principal Investigator(Chinese) : 李烱樂 
Department : Department of Linguistics and Modern Language Studies
Institution : The Education University of Hong Kong
E-mail Address : albertlee@eduhk.hk 
Tel : 2948 7961 
Co - Investigator(s) :
Panel : Humanities, Social Sciences
Subject Area : Psychology and Linguistics
Exercise Year : 2020 / 21
Fund Approved : 406,000
Project Status : Completed
Completion Date : 30-6-2023
Project Objectives :
To reexamine the nature of L1 transfer in L2 phonological acquisition ('categorical' vs. 'featural').
To find out whether the use of a phonetic cue or a phonological feature in L1 leads to better performance in perceiving non-native length contrasts.
To identify primary and secondary cues used by listeners from different L1 backgrounds when perceiving length contrasts.
Abstract as per original application

Realisation of objectives: The project commenced in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, posing significant challenges in recruiting and testing participants. Despite these obstacles, my team worked tirelessly to ensure the proposal objectives were met. Following a reviewer’s suggestion, we sought approval to change one participant group from Mandarin speakers to French speakers, resulting in a more cohesive line-up of L1 backgrounds compared to our original plan. Overall, the project objectives were achieved, and some unexpected findings may contribute to a more sophisticated understanding of our overarching research question: the “category vs. feature” debate. For the first objective, although numerous empirical studies have examined the acquisition of L2 phonemic quantity distinctions, most only compared (i) two languages at a time and (ii) participants of varying proficiency levels (e.g., ‘beginner’ is a relative term). In this project, we lined up four L1 groups (i.e. French, English, Cantonese, Japanese) that use duration to mark quantity distinctions to varying extents. This broader comparison provided a fuller picture for understanding the category vs. feature problem. For (ii), we tested naïve listeners of the target languages (i.e. Japanese and Estonian, except when the Japanese group listened to Japanese stimuli), to enable direct comparisons among these groups. This careful selection of participants was necessary to test the “category vs. feature” debate, as McAllister et al’s (2002 [JPhon]) study had remained the only multi-group comparison on this topic. This project is thus the first to compare as many as four L1 groups with equal proficiency levels (i.e. naïve). For the second objective, we compared the performance of Cantonese and English speakers in the production and perception tasks. Both languages exhibit partial quantity contrasts but in different ways. Our results showed that English participants outperformed Cantonese participants in most tasks. For the third objective, we collected perception data using stimuli contrasting in multiple acoustic cues, as well as audio recordings that would allow us the analyse primary and secondary cues in production. Therefore, the original objective was achieved. In addition, our findings may have revealed an interesting role of pitch in quantity distinction. Unexpectedly, Cantonese participants performed the worst in both production and perception among all L1 groups, when pitch was held constant and duration was the only varying cue. Since Cantonese was the only language analysed in this project with lexical tone, this new finding may have implications for the role of pitch as a secondary cue for non-native quantity distinctions.
Summary of objectives addressed:
Objectives Addressed Percentage achieved
1.To reexamine the nature of L1 transfer in L2 phonological acquisition ('categorical' vs. 'featural').Yes100%
2.To find out whether the use of a phonetic cue or a phonological feature in L1 leads to better performance in perceiving non-native length contrasts.Yes100%
3.To identify primary and secondary cues used by listeners from different L1 backgrounds when perceiving length contrasts. Yes100%
Research Outcome
Major findings and research outcome: In the perception task, we found that only Japanese listeners unambiguously outperformed the others. Meanwhile, the relative performance of Cantonese and English (partial quantity distinctions) as well as French (‘quantity-insensitive’) in different tasks does not seem to be easily attributable to their respective use of duration as a quantity cue (contra McAllister et al., 2002 [JPhon]). A similar pattern was observed in the production task, although the differences among L1 groups were less pronounced. Interestingly, the Cantonese group unexpectedly performed the worst. This puzzling observation prompted us to conduct a new analysis on an old dataset, leading to new insights and a deeper understanding of L2 quantity acquisition (Lee et al., 2023 [SLR]). Overall, through a direct comparison of four L1 backgrounds, our findings suggest that using phonemic quantity as a test case for addressing the 'category vs. feature' problem is more complex than initially anticipated.
Potential for further development of the research
and the proposed course of action:
In this project, we tested naïve participants using synthesized stimuli created with VocalTractLab 2.0, where acoustic cues were controlled. Future researchers could verify our findings using natural speech stimuli and test learners of different proficiency levels. If such a setup yields the same findings as the present project (including the Cantonese group being the worst-performing), we could conclude that L1 duration use may play a much smaller role in L2 quantity acquisition than previously assumed.
Layman's Summary of
Completion Report:
Mastering the pronunciation of a new language is challenging, and success depends on the similarity between the sound system of one's native language and that of the new language. Researchers believe that if one's native language already includes short vs. long sounds, mastering the same contrast in a new language should be manageable. In this project, we were particularly interested in how well people distinguish unfamiliar length contrasts if their native language only partially contrasts short vs. long sounds. We found that Japanese speakers consistently distinguished short vs. long sounds better, but the other groups (i.e., English and French) were not very different. This is surprising because many believe that French does not have short vs. long sounds. Unexpectedly, we found that Cantonese speakers performed the worst, even though Cantonese partially features short vs. long vowels (e.g., gai1 'chicken' vs. gaai1 'street').
Research Output
Peer-reviewed journal publication(s)
arising directly from this research project :
(* denotes the corresponding author)
Year of
Author(s) Title and Journal/Book Accessible from Institution Repository
2023 Albert Lee, Xiaolin Li, *Peggy Mok  False geminates as an effective transitional strategy for Cantonese learners of Japanese  Yes 
*Albert Lee, Yasuaki Shinohara, Faith Chiu, Tsz Ching Mut  Perception of vowel and consonant quantity contrasts by Cantonese, English, French and Japanese listeners  No 
Recognized international conference(s)
in which paper(s) related to this research
project was/were delivered :
Month/Year/City Title Conference Name
Seattle, WA Non-native length contrast perception by Japanese and Cantonese speakers  The 181st Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America 
Prague Perception of vowel and consonant quantity contrasts by Cantonese, English, French, and Japanese speakers  The 20th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences (ICPhS 2023) 
Leiden Production of non-native quantity contrasts by native speakers of Cantonese, English, French, and Japanese  The 12th International Conference on Speech Prosody (SP2024) 
Other impact
(e.g. award of patents or prizes,
collaboration with other research institutions,
technology transfer, etc.):
Realisation of the education plan: