Language Learning

Universal Reading: Chinese and English Readers Spend the Same Amount of Time to Process Information

This study, "Universality in eye movements and reading: A trilingual investigation," suggests that Chinese, English and Finnish readers spend the same amount of time reading texts and comprehending information in their own language. Regardless of the differences of these written forms, readers of these three languages process texts in a similar manner, suggesting the universality of information processing during reading. Many might find the results of this study a bit surprising due to the differences in the written forms of these languages (Chinese, English and Finnish). I will briefly summarize the most distinct features between Chinese and English. 

    Reading in Chinese is indeed the most difficult task for English-speaking learners. A couple of self-evident differences in reading in Chinese and in English are:

    • Chinese: Logographic (Character-based), word unspaced
    • English: Alphabetic, word spaced

    To read in Chinese, learners have to first learn to read characters, that is, to establish an association between the form, its sound and its meaning.

    1. 你 - form
    2. nǐ - sound 
    3. You -meaning

    Moreover, a Chinese word could be made up of one character or two characters. 

    • 你 nǐ - You (one character, one word)
    • 你好 nǐhǎo - Hello (two characters, one word)

    A typical Chinese sentence is composed of a string of characters without spaces between words. Reading in Chinese is challenging because one has to dissect each word as one reads to process the meaning. A sentence can be particularly difficult to comprehend if one does not recognize a character or a set of character combinations. Thankfully, Chinese Romanization "Pinyin" System separates each individual word with spaces as in English sentences. The following example provides a clear illustration: 

    • Chinese: 考試包括漢字、生詞和語法。[Logographic, Unspaced]
    • English: Test includes Chinese characters, vocabulary and grammar. [Alphabetic, Spaced]
    • Pinyin: Kǎoshì bāokuò Hànzì, shēngcí hé yǔfǎ. [Romanization, Spaced]


    Speaking Mandarin Makes Children More Musical

    Does the early development of one's language affect one's musical development? The study, "Speaking a tone language enhances musical pitch perception in 3–5-year-olds," contends that Mandarin-speaking children tend to be better at differentiating pitch difference in music in comparison with English-speaking children. The results suggest that this tendency is related to having a tonal language, Mandarin, as one's first language and its influence on the child's pitch perception.  

    Mandarin is a tonal language, meaning speakers use tone or pitch patterns to express different word meanings. The famous example is the syllable "ma." The syllable's meaning varies according to the tone:

    1) 媽 mā - mother, 2) 麻 má - hemp, 3) 馬 mǎ - horse, 4) 罵 mà - scold.

    Consider another well-known example: 

    我要睡覺。Wǒ yào shuìjiào. - I want to sleep.

    我要水餃。Wǒ yào shuǐjiǎo. - I want dumplings. 

    This feature in Mandarin makes it challenging for English speakers to learn to speak Mandarin without embarrassing misunderstandings on occasion. 

    In this study, Creed and colleagues (2017) at the University of California San Diego conducted a test between two groups: English-speaking children in the United States and Mandarin-speaking children in China. The age of both groups is between 3 to 5 years old. The researchers ask the children to distinguish between two tracks in three different musical tasks:

    1st task: two tracks of different pitch pattern, the same musical instrument

    2nd task: two tracks of the same pitch pattern, different musical instruments 

    3rd task: two tracks of the same pattern, the same musical instrument 

    Children of both English and Mandarin are able to tell the two tracks in the 2nd task are created by different instruments. However, Mandarin-speaking children in China tend to be better at distinguishing the difference between the two tracks in the 1st task. In other words, children of Mandarin Chinese are more aware when the pitch pattern changes, indicating that learning a tonal language during an early developmental stage may have an effect on one's musical development.

    The researchers of this study also provide a video abstract of this study: 

    Better Brain Connectivity Leads to Success in Second Language Learning?

    Are some people's brains wired up better to learn to speak in a Second Language (L2)? An interesting study published on the Journal of Neuroscience investigates this question. Chai and colleagues conducted this research at McGill University and found that there is a positive correlation between a) one's brain connectivity in the brain region for speaking and b) the production of spontaneous speech in L2. In other words, the more connected one's speaking region is, the more accurate one's spontaneous speech in L2. 

    The researchers scanned the brain activities of English speakers before and after their participation in a French intensive program for 12 weeks. They found that, after the program, English speakers with stronger connectivity in the speech region of their brain tend to produce spontaneous speech in French accurately, whereas English speakers with greater connectivity in the reading region of the brain are more likely to show improvement in their reading speed in French. The result implies that some people have an advantage to learn to speak in a Second Language due to the neuronal connectivity in their brains. 

    The Difference Between Second Language (L2) and Foreign Language (FL)

    Second Language (L2):

    A speaker (child or adult) who has already acquired a native language is learning another language that is widely spoken in the region s/he live in. For instance, an English speaker living in Montreal (a bilingual city in French and English) would be learning a Second Language - French. 

    Foreign Language (FL): 

    A speaker (child or adult) who already acquired a native language is learning another language that is NOT commonly spoken in the region s/he lives in. For example, an English speaker living in the United States is learning a Foreign Language - Chinese.  

    Study: Babies Remember Birth Language

    If you are a heritage student of Chinese or if you are learning another language related to your birth place or family, don't give it up just yet!

    A study in 2015 did research on the linguistic memories of Chinese children who were adopted by French-speaking families at 12 months. The results indicate that these children's brain response to tonal sounds is similar to that of bilingual children in French and Chinese, suggesting the brain of Chinese adoptees recognizes the tonal feature of the Chinese language. The full article, ‘Lost’ first languages leave permanent mark on the brain, new study reveals, is available on the Guardian. 

    Another recent study supports this hypothesis, suggesting that if you were exposed to a language as young as a prelinguistic baby, your brain actually remembers and retains this ability in your adulthood. Simply put, one can in fact "re-learn" one's first language. Read the full article, Babies Remember Their Birth Language, on BBC News. 

    According to the definition by New York University, Heritage Students are: 

    1) learners who were born in a Chinese speaking country but grew up in a non-Chinese speaking environment

    2) learners who were raised in a home where Chinese was spoken

    3) learners who have lived in a Chinese-speaking country for a extended period of time