The Chinese language is not only has the largest number of native speakers in the world, with approximately 1.2 billion native speakers (Lewis, 2009), but it is also gaining increasing use as a global language (McKenzie, 2006). However, Chinese is typically very difficult for Westerners to learn because of tones and a non-alphabetic character system. The growing popularity coincides with the staggering difficulty to people aiming to learn this language. The purpose of this literature review then is to examine the literature on the cognitive processes surrounding non-alphabetic languages and to see how these processes may differ for native and non-native speakers of Chinese. To do this, it is necessary to first build a fundamental base of general linguistic terms. This will then provide a groundwork to discuss some general differences between alphabetic and non-alphabetic languages, as well as discuss the structure of the Chinese language. Third, literature on native Chinese readers cognitive processes will discussed. Lastly, the developmental nature by which children from different background learn the same writing system will be discussed.
Although many linguistic terms will be defined throughout this paper, several fundamental terms should be briefly introduced first. A morpheme is a linguistic term that refers to the smallest semantic meaning. In English, common morphemes are words such as “garden” and endings such as “s” or “er.” Thus, the words “garden – s” and “gardene – r” both contain two morphemes. A phoneme is another linguistic terms that refers to the smallest unit of sound (e.g. “ch”, “a”). Semantics refers to the smallest unit of meaning, which generally means words and sentences in English, but in Chinese the smallest unit of meaning are simple and complex characters. Syntax is grammatical rules for combining words together in a meaningful way (Goldstein, 2008b). These terms outlined above provide a stable background, from which the Chinese written language can be discussed in detail.
Chinese Character Writing System
As stated previously, Chinese ranks as the number one used language in the world with over 1.2 billion speakers world-wide. Interestingly enough, Chinese is further subdivided into 12 different dialects, each of which share the same written language, but differ in pronunciation. Even the main Chinese dialect, Mandarin, has more speakers world-wide than both Spanish (ranked #2 with 329 millions speakers world-wide) and English (ranked #3 with 328 million speakers world-wide (Lewis, 2009). The orthographic system of the Chinese writing system is made up of 4 different levels: strokes, or the individual lines; radicals, or simple semantic and phonetic characters; characters, or complex, multi-radical characters; and words, consisting of multiple characters (Ding, Peng, & Taft, 2004). Chinese is an interesting language because it is morphosyllabic language, meaning that each character is both a morpheme and a syllable. Chinese differ from alphabetic languages (e.g. English) because Chinese uses morphemes as their language base, in which morphemes are the smallest linguistic unit, while in alphabetic languages uses phonemes as their language base (Bialystok, McBride-Chang, & Luk, 2005). Because of this, phonological awareness, awareness of and ability to use speech sounds, is important for learning to read alphabetic language, while morphological awareness, awareness of and ability to use morpheme structures, is integral for learning non-alphabetic languages (McBride-Chang, Shu, Zhou, Wat, & Wagner, 2003). However, this will be discussed more in depth in the section on “Chinese language development.”
In order to understand how Chinese characters are read, it is necessary to understand how characters are composed. As stated above, Chinese characters are generally composed of several radicals and give some clue as to semantic and phonetic composition of the character (Ding et al., 2004). These radicals are then arranged into various positions (e.g. left, right, top, bottom), which distinguish them from other characters with similar or the same radicals (Ding et al., 2004). A helpful way to understand this is to compare how two words may use the same letters in English, but are arranged in a different order and represent two completely different words (e.g. “dog” and “god”). Ding et al. (2004) reported past research examining positional specificity in radical representation and how two characters with the same radicals but in reverse positions (top-bottom and bottom-top) are not confusable. Increasing evidence also supports that radicals are represented in lexical memory separately of each other (Ding et al., 2004).
Ding et al. (2004) designed several priming studies to examine their proposed radical representation modal by priming radicals, visually similar radicals (differing in only one stroke), and similar radical-positioned characters and timing recognition to reveal differences in lexical representation. This model classifies the orthographic system of Chinese into three groups; feature consists of different types of stroke; form consists of both radicals and characters; and concept consists of words. This study found several interesting results by using priming to activate and recognize certain character relationships. First, studies 1 and 2 found support that priming simple characters increases recognition of complex characters that contained the primed simple character as a radical. This suggests that simple and complex characters are processed on different orthographic levels and that radicals are processed similarly both when they are simple characters or when they are part of a complex character. Last, studies 3 and 4 found a facilitation effect for priming form-similar complex characters only if they are position-similar, suggesting that position is a significant characteristic in processing radicals (Ding et al., 2004).
Chinese is thought to be more analytical than English because words are typically constructed with two complex characters that help identify the word’s underlying concept (McBride-Chang et al., 2003). While many English words and words in other Western languages do have morphemic Greek and Latin word stems (e.g. photo- = light, di- = two, etc.), this system is not universal as it is in Chinese (McBride-Chang et al., 2003). A study by Saalbach and Imai (2007) examined if and how the Chinese classifier grammar system (as well as other Eastern languages, such as Japanese) affects native speakers’ cognitive object and concept categories. This classifier grammar system separates nouns into more than 100 distinct semantic categories, each found within the character and word composition and semantics. The researcher reported past research supporting a differing conceptual organization and that this classifier grammar system differs from taxonomic and thematic relations. This is because the grammar system includes relations not found in either taxonomic relations, where objects are related by class inclusion (e.g. animal -> dog -> Collie), or thematic relations, in which objects are related together in space and/or time (e.g. chair and table) (Saalbach & Imai, 2007). This study tested and compared native Chinese and German speakers on a variety of tasks, such as categorization, similarity judgment, property induction, and speeded word-picture matching. These study found some support for native Chinese speakers attend more strongly to classifier categories than native German speakers, which was likely because of repeated associations. Preliminary support was also found for a weak influence of the classifier categories on two cognitive tests: similarity judgments and inductive reasoning. However, they are unsure if these are related to linguistic or nonlinguistic cognitions. Saalbach and Imai argued that this was preliminary evidence for change in general cognition. This result was identified as requiring future research to determine if the cause was due to the methodology used or if the cognitive processes between these two native speakers are different. This study helps connect the literature on the Chinese writing structure with literature about Chinese readers’ cognitive processes of semantic information while readings Chinese text.
Cognitive Processes and Reading
The first two studies discussed in this section both use similar methodologies to measure eye movement when reading and provide a framework through which to explore research on these cognitive processes, therefore this methodology will briefly be discussed as it relates to cognitive processes during reading. When people are visually perceiving something, they go through quick and rapid moments of fixating on one point of interest and quickly moving to the next point of interest and typically happens several times over the span of a few seconds. One can notice this occurring when they are perceiving some text or visual scene and are quickly scanning the object of interest. Fixations are brief pauses at some point of interest, while saccades are the rapid movements between two fixations. During saccades, information moves too quickly and is impossible to process. The duration of fixations and length of saccades are also important because it indicates how long that information generally takes to process and perceptual span of visual processing. Various methodologies are used to track eye movements, but recent studies have typically used camera-based eye trackers, where images of eye movements are superimposed on top of a stimulus (e.g. text, photo) and researchers can go through and mark where participants makes fixations and saccades (Goldstein, 2008a). This allows the researchers to determine what information humans attend to the most in various situations and the order that humans process visual information.
Compared to most alphabetic systems (excluding Thai, which is alphabetic and uses no spaces), non-alphabetic languages, such as Chinese, do not use spacing to separate words (Bai, Yan, Liversedge, Zang, & Rayner, 2008). This difference in itself may indicate a difference in both the importance of words as information units and also the use of spacing to facilitate reading (Bai et al., 2008). Bai et al. (2008) reported previous research finding that spacing affects recognition of low-frequency words and average saccade lengths in English, indicating a potential facilitation effect of word spacing in Chinese. This lead them to use eye movements in their own study to examine if spacing aids reading times in Chinese and if words are the primary unit of information when reading. This study used 4 different spacing conditions: normal no spacing, every character spacing, word spacing, and nonword spacing conditions (separating normal character-word pairs with spaces). The researchers found that both the no spacing and word spacing conditions produces shorter reading times than the character and non word spacing conditions. A secondary study was performed to help eliminate potential confounds by using highlighting in place of spacing, but this study found similar results as study 1. These results taken together support the importance of word units in reading Chinese, but the researchers reported previous research on the importance of processing characters in reading Chinese with cases of unreliability in marking clear word boundaries. Taking the body of research together, characters and words are both important in reading Chinese, but processing characters is likely important because it affects how words are processed.
Although it was not discussed in the article itself, it would be interesting to examine how syntax may help mark distinctions between words. This is sometimes the case when reading Japanese where complex characters are generally used as indicators to help mark distinctions between strings of syllable characters. If these characters are not present, reading time increases and knowledge of Japanese syntax helps parse words apart. Lastly, this research may be connected to speech segmentation, perceiving clearly distinct words from unbroken string of sounds. Native Chinese speakers may be able to make these distinctions simply because of their knowledge of the language and repeated exposure make it just as easy to read as word spaced text (Goldstein, 2008b). Future longitudinal research could be conducted to study varying levels of Chinese literacy and see if spacing aids at various points. It could be that until sufficient exposure to the written language, word spacing may help increase reading times in younger learners.
Yang, Wang, Xu, and Rayner (2009) reported past research finding many similarities and differences that exist between fluent Chinese and English readers eye movements. The perceptual span to the left and right of a fixation while reading Chinese is 1 character to the left and 2 to 3 characters to the right. For English, the perceptual span to the left and right of a fixation is 3 to 4 letters to the left and 14-15 letters to the right. Average saccade lengths for Chinese readers is about 2.6 characters, while saccades average 7 to 8 letters in length for English readers. (Yang et al., 2009). These differences however, do not indicate if these are differences in these cognitive processes or differences simply as a result in different spacing and character size. However, past research also indicates that both Chinese and English readers were found to have the same average duration (225 to 250 ms), possibly indicating similar processing speeds in both languages. Other similarities include less fixation duration for high-frequency and predictable words, similar probability of skipping high-predictable words, also both languages obtain preview benefits to the right of fixated characters (Yang et al., 2009).
Similar to the study by Bai et al. (2008), a study by Yang et al. (2009) used eye movement methodologies to examine preview benefits in native Chinese readers. Preview benefit effect is when word processing occur to the right of a fixation. Researchers reported previous research finding that preview benefit was found to process character n + 2 (two characters to the right of fixated character), but only if the previewed word is a 2 character word. This study found that characters n and n + 1 are processed and that preview benefits were extended to character n + 2 even when that character is a single character word. This study examined if this preview benefit exists on the character level or the word level too. Thus, a second study was designed and found support word preview of character n + 1 and to a certain extent words beginning at character n + 2 (Yang et al., 2009).
Chinese Language Development
Formal written Chinese instruction typically begins around age 3, around which time children typically enter a 3 year kindergarten program (McBride-Chang et al., 2003). As children develop, morphological awareness becomes increasingly important to develop subsequent reading skills. As previously stated, morphological awareness refers to awareness of and ability to use morpheme structures. In English speakers, morphological awareness is thought to develop when a child is aware of and can manipulate suffixes. However, an important element of morphological awareness in Chinese languages is radical awareness, which is the awareness of semantic and phonetic radicals and the ability to use semantic radicals to complete a sentence without knowing that specific character (McBride-Chang et al., 2003).
A study by McBride-Chang et al. (2003) examined the role of morphological awareness in varying levels of Chinese literacy in young children. Morphological awareness must have the ability to separate meaning of homophones and to help construct meaning. Using two groups of Hong Kong children, kindergartners and 2nd graders were compared in their morphological awareness to see if it increases with age as well as other measures such as vocabulary knowledge and general speed of processing. The researchers found support for their hypothesis that both types of morphological awareness improved with age, indicating that morphological awareness is uniquely important for Chinese character recognition and subsequent reading skills (McBride-Chang et al., 2003).
A study by Bialystok et al. (2005) examined learning to read in two different writing systems and metalinguistic awareness in three groups of varying English and Chinese proficiencies. Metalinguistic awareness includes many various forms of linguistic awareness, including phonological and morphological awareness. The researchers reported past research on bilingual’s knowledge of additional languages aid children’s language acquisition in other languages, however, this study hypothesized that if the two languages had different writing systems, this benefit would fail to be present. This is likely due to different languages having writing systems with different primary metalinguistic bases, such that the English writing system is based primarily on phonetics, Japanese on syllables, and Chinese on morphemes. Due to these differences, language instruction is likely to differ (Bialystok et al., 2005). An interesting result from this study was that the bilingual English-Cantonese group showed no benefit from knowing English when they began learning Cantonese, but the bilingual Cantonese-English group showed a benefit from knowing Cantonese when they began learning English. The researchers hypothesized that this difference arose because of the transfer of greater morphological awareness in the Cantonese-English group, which is useful in both languages, while phonological awareness is not very useful when learning written Chinese. They also think that differences in language instruction may account for some variance because rote memorization is emphasized in Hong Kong schools, which may aid vocabulary acquisition (Bialystok et al., 2005).
In this literature review, the cognitive processes used in reading Chinese, the most used non-alphabetic language as well as language itself in the world (Lewis, 2009), were reviewed and compared against alphabetic languages. This was accomplished by first building general linguistic terminology, then reviewing characteristics of the Chinese language as compared to alphabetic languages, then research on a few general cognitive processes were discussed, and finally Chinese literacy development was reviewed and compared.
Bai, X., Yan, G., Liversedge, S. P., Zang, C., & Rayner, K. (2008). Reading spaced and unspaced Chinese text: Evidence from eye movements. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 34 (5), 1277-1287.
Bialystok, E., McBride-Chang, C., & Luk, G. (2005). Bilingualism, language proficiency, and learning to read in two writing systems. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(4), 580-590.
Ding, G., Peng, D. & Taft, M. (2004). The nature of the mental representation of radicals in Chinese: A priming study. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 30 (2), 530-539.
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Yang, J., Wang, S., Xu, Y., and Rayner, K. (2009). Do Chinese readers obtain preview benefit from word n + 2? Evidence from eye movements. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 35 (4), 1192-1204.