L2 Chinese character recognition: exploring the developmental patterns and benefits of radical awareness training via lexical decision priming tasks

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Zeng, Yun
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University College Cork
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Due to the features of the Chinese writing system, character reading is a challenging task for L2 learners with an alphabetic background. In the field of Chinese character acquisition, numerous studies (Feldman and Siok 1999; Zhou and Marslen-Wilson 2000; William and Bever 2010; Wu et al. 2012; Zhou et al. 2013; Yeh et al. 2017; Tong et al. 2021) focus on the process of L1 character recognition and, to a far less extent, on L2 learners’ character decoding (Williams 2013). However, the development of L2 character processing patterns has not yet been singled out. This research is intended to contribute to this endeavour by outlining developmental stages of the intermediate and advanced level. The goal is to identify the patterns of L2 learners’ character processing at these two proficiency levels and compare them to the processing pattern activated by L1 readers. The study also aims to explore the modelling effect of a radical awareness training. The prediction is that (a) by increasing the knowledge of the semantic and phonetic information carried by character subcomponents, L2 learners can develop a more native-like word recognition pattern, and (b) that such improvement is also conditioned by L2 learners’ proficiency level. The method employed is a lexical decision task based on the (semantic or phonological) activation of primes on target characters at the lexical and sublexical levels. The present study analyses the process of visual character recognition by an experimental group of 29 L2 learners (13 in the critical group and 16 in the pilot group), compared to the performance of 37 native speakers (the control group), via priming experiments based on a set of 336 pairs of prime and target characters. The cycle test includes four stages of an average span of 10 days, including one week of formal Chinese study (about 18 hours) in between two priming tests. The second test is a repetition of the first test. More specifically, the cycle test consists of a radical knowledge test (only for L2 groups), the first priming experiment (for both L1 and L2 groups), a radical awareness training and the second priming experiment (only for the L2 critical group). The statistical significance of the data has been primarily calculated using the t-Test. Concerning the control group of native speakers, the data are consistent with previous literature and show that (i) they read single characters at about the same speed as compound characters; (ii) the default processing is associated with the semantic information retrieval; (iii) semantic radicals are prioritised over phonetic radicals. Compared to the native speakers, intermediate learners displayed a different processing pattern and advanced learners displayed a similar processing pattern showing a developmental trend: (iv) intermediate learners read single characters faster than compound characters while advanced learners read them at a similar speed to native speakers; (v) intermediate learners used more phonological strategy than semantic strategy while advance learners prioritised the semantic strategy like native speakers; (vi) intermediate learners read phonetic radicals faster than semantic radicals while advanced learners read semantic radicals faster and closer to native speakers; hence, (vii) the degree of similarity to the native speakers’ pattern increases with the level of proficiency. Lastly, (viii) the Radical Awareness Training contributes to a more native-like processing at the sublexical level for both intermediate and advanced learners. In sum, it proves a shift from phonological- and phonetic-radical- oriented processing to semantic- and semantic-radical- oriented processing. This shift took place during the third year of formal Chinese study (between 240-360 hours). The data has shown that L2 character recognition is a developing and modifiable process. As for pedagogical implications, the research has also proven that class instruction and individual study, even for a relatively short period, can speed up the development of character processing towards a more efficient, native-like pattern. In addition, the overall results have suggested the importance of formal instruction on sublexical decomposition. They also indicate the importance of presenting the phonetic information carried by the subcomponents rather than limiting the scope to their semantic value, as typically done in classroom activities on radicals.
Character recognition , Semantic and phonological activation , Primed lexical decision test
Zeng, Y. 2022. L2 Chinese character recognition: exploring the developmental patterns and benefits of radical awareness training via lexical decision priming tasks. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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