the brain & reading Chinese characters

An article in Science News on hyperlexia has a discussion of some recent research on reading, the brain, and Chinese characters.
The author of the article is to be commended for managing to summarize more or less accurately an important conclusion of the research: the notion that Chinese characters are ideographic and not tied to sound is, as observant Western analysts have been saying for nearly 200 years, a myth. (Asian analysts of language weren’t originally afflicted with the ideographic myth but acquired it from the West about 100 years ago. For more on this, see the book Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning.)

Recent investigations of Chinese readers suggest that people everywhere invoke core neural responses in order to read, but other types of brain activity are necessary to attain mastery of alphabetic or non-alphabetic writing systems, psycholinguist Charles A. Perfetti of the University of Pittsburgh explained last February in Washington, D.C., at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Many investigators have assumed that, unlike alphabetic systems, written Chinese employs drawings that symbolize whole words.

Even if that were the case with ancient Chinese pictographic symbols, those characters have transformed into much more abstract shapes that induce sounds of spoken syllables in modern readers’ minds, Perfetti says. Chinese characters thus represent bigger chunks of spoken words than alphabetic letters do.

“All writing systems represent spoken language, but they have different design principles,” Perfetti asserts.

Consider Mandarin Chinese. It currently includes 420 syllables. These syllables correspond to nearly 4,600 written characters, so an average of about 11 characters share a single pronunciation, which can be modified by using any of four tones.

In spoken Chinese, the meaning of the many different words that sound alike becomes apparent only in the context of conversation. People listening to English sometimes discern word meanings in this way—consider the words guise and guys—but need to do so much less often than Chinese listeners do.

Many Mandarin Chinese words consist of only one syllable, Perfetti adds. That has encouraged the false impression, at least among Westerners, that the language’s written characters represent only words, he says.

Actually, only about 2 percent of Mandarin words are monosyllabic. But those that are tend to be used frequently. (But this is also the case in English. For some tangential remarks, see Taipei street names and the monosyllabic myth.) The monosyllabic myth is fed in part by confusion about morphemes and Chinese characters. (For remarks on this, see Chinese Writing.)

Experiments show that Mandarin Chinese characters correspond to spoken Chinese rather than to the idea that the word represents, Perfetti says. For instance, if shown the written character for the word red printed in blue ink, volunteers name the ink color more slowly than if the same character is printed in red ink. Analogous results have been noted among English readers, whose writing system inarguably represents spoken sounds.

Response times for Chinese readers turn almost as sluggish if a different character with the same pronunciation and tone as red, such as the character for flood, appears in blue ink. 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.

A smaller but still notable slowdown occurs when a character with the same pronunciation as red but a different vocal tone, such as the character for boom, appears in blue ink. Again, the common pronunciation calls to mind red, causing readers to take a little longer to identify the different ink color.

A little later is the statement that “Right brain regions involved in vision also contribute to reading Chinese but not to reading English.” This is the sort of thing that causes lots of people to forget everything that came before (such as how Chinese characters are tied to sound) and go back down the path of erroneous preconceptions about Chinese characters being ideographs.