Friday, May 06, 2005

Reading Chinese characters

Here's an interesting article about the psychology behind learning to read. Especially interesting are the experiments it describes about halfway down about reading Chinese, which are taken from Spinks et al., "Reading Chinese characters for meaning: the role of phonological information".

Many people believe that the Chinese script is ideographic. [See John DeFrancis' The Ideographic Myth for a refutation.] But some neat psycholinguistic experiments demonstrate that Chinese characters really represent sound as well as meaning, as described in the ScienceNews article.

[In the following, I describe the different cases they examined as different experiments, but really all the possible cases were presented together in one experimental session. I call them 'experiments' for my own convenience.]

Experiment 1: the Stroop effect. If we are shown a word, e.g. RED, and are asked to say what the colour the word the printed in is, it takes us a lot longer than if the the word and the colour matched, as in RED. You can experiment with it at this site.

Turns out that Chinese has the same effect. Reading the word (meaning "red") takes Chinese readers longer than if the colours matched. This establishes the baseline effect.

Experiment 2: If we give a word in Chinese that has the same pronunciation as , hong2 (that's the syllable "hong" in the second tone), such as (meaning "flood"), in an incongruous colour, a similar delay occurs! One of the experimenters, Charles A. Perfetti, of the University of Pittsburgh, explains:

"This effect indicates that written characters correspond to sounds in spoken Chinese, not to specific words. The pronunciation of flood calls to mind red and slows naming of the clashing ink color, Perfetti says. If the characters represented specific words, instead of sounds, this delay would not occur."

Experiment 3: If we give a word in Chinese that is of the same syllable but different tone, such as ("boom", hong1 - again the syllable "hong", but in the first tone), then there is still a delay, though it is now smaller. So evidently reading this word calls up the pronunciation "hong", which recalls the similar-sounding 红 and its meaning, red, which inhibits the correct naming of the colour the word is printed in.

Experiment 4: This one used only semantic information, providing a word that is very closely associated with the colour. For example, for the colour red, they provided the word for blood, (xue4). For blue, it was 'sky', . This had about the same average response time as in the second case, where a word with the same pronunciation but totally different meaning was supplied.

Experiment 5: This worked in the other direction, testing whether giving a word that sounded the same as the colour it was presented in helped. For example, they provided the word ("ponder", ) which sounds the same as the word 'green', 绿,also pronounced lü4. This shortened the response time as compared to a random word presented in the colour green, though not to the extent that it was the same as presenting the colour name itself. So semantic associations could be triggered by phonological similarities. Actually, I'm not so sure about how this experiment helps so much - it seems to me that the effect can also be explained by the fact that there isn't another totally different pronunciation to interfere with identifying the pronunciation of the colour.

But anyway, to sum up, the findings are that:
(1) phonological information is obligatorily activated when reading Chinese characters, even when it is not in the reader's interest to do so. At the very least, the pathway is parallel between triggering of phonological information and triggering of semantic information (this is called the "parallel activation hypothesis").
(2) Phonetic similarities trigger semantic associations, but not to the extent that complete orthographic identity does.

I think it's a neat effect. It's a very clever use of the amount of homophony in Chinese characters.

Also interesting is the following paragraph, from the ScienceNews article:

Studies of blood flow and electric responses indicate that Chinese readers activate many of the same left brain areas that English readers do, Perfetti adds. Right brain regions involved in vision also contribute to reading Chinese but not to reading English. This finding is consistent with the possibility that learning to read Chinese stimulates spatial perception.

I wonder if Chinese speakers are better at finding their way around, then?

2 Comments:

Blogger Ivan Chew said...

Hmm... I speak Chinese, but tend to think in English. So does that negate any supposed advantage that I have? :)

11:38 AM  
Blogger C. Callosum said...

Don't see why it should. As long as you grew up writing the language, I suppose it should have given a boost to your spatial abilities, and I see no reason why they should have declined!

7:47 AM  

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