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Chinese Language Learning and the Brain

Popularity 1Viewed 3578 times 2017-2-23 10:19 |System category:News| Chinese, English, writing

As a teacher and educator and linguist (having a degree in Linguistics, the science of language) I have long been interested in how the brain learns, and especially how the brain learns language. Of course, one can learn a lot about this subject by observing one's own learning and thinking processes.

Many years ago, in college, I took one year of Chinese.  Although the Chinese I learned was limited, it gave me the opportunity to experience how differently the brain processes ideographic and phonetic writing.

In my college Chinese classes, we had separate classes for conversation and for writing.
I loved Chinese characters and I still do.  I loved to practice writing them and was several lessons ahead in character class. (We studied both traditional and simplified characters.)  I loved reading them, I loved going through Chinatown and looking for characters I recognized and proclaiming, "That says Golden Dragon Restaurant!" and asking for the Chinese menu in the restaurant and seeing how many characters I could recognize (beef, pork, etc). I loved reading the Dao De Jing and Mao's Red Book (amazing that the latter is easy enough to read, once you can recognize phrases like "feudalism" and "imperialism" and so on, that a first year Chinese student can read it).  

Oh yes, and part of learning each character was learning its pronunciation, complete with the correct tone, and I learned that, and could read the simple character texts aloud with acceptable pronunciation.

But a few years went by, and I began to forget what I had learned in class.  And what I observed was interesting, a clue about the workings of the brain.

What I forgot most quickly was the pronunciation of the characters.  But the meanings of the characters stayed with me for a long time.  After a few years, I picked up my character textbook and could understand what most of it meant, but with most of the characters, I forgot their pronunciation.  I could read the texts aloud in English, but not in Chinese.

This was a big clue for me about how the brain works differently when processing phonetic writing and ideographic writing.  Since I am a teacher, and part of my teaching has involved teaching children to read (in English) I am interested in the way the brain processes reading.
Reading and writing both involve: meaning, sound, and written symbols.

But these are processed in a different order with ideographic writing and phonetic writing.

For example, an English-speaking child is learning to read the word "fish."  The child first learns the sounds of f, i, and sh and then puts the sounds together and pronounces the word: "fish."  
The child's brain recognizes the sound of the word "fish."  The sound in turn triggers the memory of the meaning of "fish" in the child's brain.

In reading phonetic writing, then, the brain follows this order:  written symbol, sound, meaning.

If some other language had a word pronounced "fish" but with a different meaning, the speakers of that language would read "fish" with their meaning.  So the meaning of "fish" is not contained in the written symbol. It requires the memory of someone whose brain connects the sound of "fish" with its meaning.

But for Chinese-speaking child learning to read the word 鱼,the meaning of "fish" comes first.  Working from the meaning, the child's brain retrieves the memory of how to pronounce it  (whether the Mandarin or Cantonese or other pronunciation).  The child could even be like me and  say "fish" in English upon seeing 鱼. The pronunciation does not really matter because the meaning is contained in the written symbol.

So reading phonetic writing puts pronunciation before meaning, while reading ideographs puts meaning before pronunciation.  

In other words, reading phonetic writing is more like listening to another person speak (the sounds of their speech are translated into meaning in your mind), while reading ideographic writing is more akin to forming thoughts within your own head (the thoughts or feelings come first, and the brain converts those thoughts into sound).

This means that the two writing systems create very distinct neural pathways in the brain.

It is well known to brain scientists that bilingualism has enormous benefits to brain development, because it creates more different neural pathways.  But bilingualism (and biliteracy) in a phonetic language and an ideographic language would surely have even vaster benefits to the brain. Indeed, I have heard more than one bilingual Chinese person say that their thought processes go in different ways when they are thinking in Chinese or English.  That means that they have much more flexibility and ability to think of things from different angles. Being able to think well from multiple different angles will be an important ability in the globalized world.

Someone posted here that if Chinese people could combine their traditional knowledge with the mastery of western ways, they would be supermen.  I think that one reason for that is the unique brain strength of combining bilingualism in a language like Chinese and a language like English.

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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