Carnegie Mellon University

Seth Wiener

Seth Wiener

Assistant Professor of Second Language Acquisition and Chinese Studies

Department of Modern Languages
Carnegie Mellon University
Baker Hall
Pittsburgh, PA 15213


For most people, the ability to understand speech is remarkably effortless. That is, native speakers of a given language tend to have little difficulty understanding other native speakers, despite the fact that the acoustic properties of speech vary considerably across talkers due to age, sex, regional accent, and factors such as environmental noise. However, when listening to non-native speech or attempting to acquire a second language, we are reminded of the complexity of language processing. My research focuses on three primary areas that are central to understanding the nature of the cognitive processes and representations that enable listeners to understand language and recognize spoken words.

  1. Lexical representation – what information about a word is stored in memory? And how is this information stored?
  2. Lexical access – how is this stored information retrieved during word recognition?
  3. Acquisition – how and to what extent do these processes differ between native and non-native language processing? And what can second language learners do to achieve more native-like processing?

To answer these questions I primarily explore Sino-Tibetan languages spoken in China. Today more and more Americans of all ages are engaging with China by learning Mandarin as a foreign language. Yet, learning Mandarin poses many unique challenges; perhaps most daunting is the use of lexical tone, or pitch, to differentiate word meanings. Each syllable in Mandarin can be produced with up to four different tonal patterns. As such, listeners must pay attention to tone in order to understand whether a speaker wants to buy something or sell something.

Given this complexity in the speech signal, how do native speakers of Mandarin effortlessly and rapidly process tone and how can non-native learners improve these processes? One solution involves probabilistic predictions about speech given the listener's knowledge of Mandarin's distributional properties. All languages exhibit regularly occurring patterns in speech: certain combinations of sounds are highly predictable based on prior experience with the language. Using both corpus-based methods and experimental behavioral measures, my research program has shown that native Mandarin speakers are highly sensitive to distributional properties in the language and make use of this information during word recognition. My National Science Foundation-supported research program offers implications for our cognitive understanding of how lexical tone is learned and used during word recognition, and also for our understanding of how to better teach and acquire a new tonal language like Mandarin Chinese.


Ph.D., The Ohio State University, 2015

Selected Publications

Wiener, S., & Turnbull, R. (In press). Constraints of Tones, Vowels and Consonants on Lexical Selection in Mandarin Chinese. Language and Speech.
doi: 10.1177/0023830915578000

Wiener, S., & Ito, K. (In press). Do syllable-specific tonal probabilities guide lexical access? Evidence from Mandarin, Shanghai and Cantonese speakers. Language, Cognition, and Neuroscience.
doi: 10.1080/23273798.2014.946934

Wiener, S., & Shih, Y.-T. (2013). Evaluating the emergence of [ʋ] in modern spoken Mandarin. In Jing-Schmidt, Z. (Ed.), Toward Increased Empiricism: Studies in Chinese Linguistics. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, pp. 171-187.


82-131 Elementary Chinese I
82-888 Introduction to Linguistic Data Analysis Using R

Department Member Since