Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Threshold-Style Processing of Chinese Characters for Adult Second-Language Learners

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Threshold-Style Processing of Chinese Characters for Adult Second-Language Learners

Article excerpt

To assess the learning of word form and meaning in an unfamiliar writing system, we carried out primed-naming experiments with learners of Chinese at the end of their first and second terms in a Chinese class at an American university. The subjects were required to name a target Chinese character after a prime character had been presented for 500 msec. There were three priming conditions defined by the relation between the prime and the target: orthographically similar, homophonic, and semantically related. At the end of the first term, there was a significant facilitation for naming speed in the orthographic condition, but not in the homophonic or semantic conditions. However, at the end of the second term, orthographical facilitation disappeared. Instead, naming speed was facilitated by semantically related primes. A threshold-style framework was proposed to illustrate the processing of Chinese orthography, phonology, and semantics by second-language learners.

Learning to read a second language in a new writing system presents complex challenges. An English speaker learning to read Chinese must acquire knowledge of the visual forms of characters, knowledge of the mappings of these forms to meaning and pronunciation, and knowledge of the language itself. Research with college learners suggests that acquisition of the first of these-learning the visual form of characters-is fairly rapid. Students can discriminate novel legal characters from illegal ones within at least the first 4 months of classroom learning (Wang, Perfetti, & Liu, 2003). Beyond this learning of form, it becomes a question of the acquisition of character representations that include orthographic, phonological, and semantic constituents that can be activated by the character form. This is the question we address here.

The question must be considered in the context of how Chinese differs from English and other alphabetic orthographies. Chinese is considered a logographic, or morphosyllabic, system (see DeFrancis, 1989; Mattingly, 1992) in which the units of the orthography (characters) correspond to both syllables and morphemes. The typical Chinese character is a square-shaped symbol that, with some exceptions, represents one pronunciation and one morpheme. The characters are composed of radicals. Some radicals are characters by themselves, and some are not. Characters containing only one radical are called simple characters, and those containing more than one radical are called compound characters, which can contain two to eight radicals.

The radicals can be further decomposed into strokes. There are five classes of strokes (-, I, J, \ and 7). A spatial combination of strokes in specified ways makes a radical, and a specific combination of radicals makes a character. There are two standard character printing form sets used in contemporary Chinese: simplified and traditional. In the two sets, some character forms are identical, but other forms in the traditional set have more radicals and strokes than do the same characters in the simplified set. The simplified set was used in the present study. The number of strokes in all simplified Chinese characters ranges from 1 to 30.

Although the visual complexity of Chinese writing, as compared with linear alphabetic writing, is a striking feature, a deeper difference is that it allows form mappings that go directly from orthographic form to meaning. Although some evidence suggests that the reading of Chinese works by a direct route to meaning (Hoosain, 1991 ), research now clearly supports the involvement of phonology in reading for meaning (see the review by Tan & Perfetti, 1998). Phonological effects are not found as often in simple orthographic tasks that do not require reading for meaning (Shen & Forster, 1999; Zhou & Marslen-Wilson, 1996) as in semantic relation judgment and meaning categorization tasks (Chua, 1999; Perfetti & Zhang, 1995; Xu, Pollatsek, & Potter, 1999). …

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