Learning the role of radicals in reading Chinese

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Summary Table

  • Node Title: Semantic Radicals Study
  • Researchers: Susan Dunlap, Ying Liu, Charles Perfetti, Sue-mei Wu
  • PIs: Charles Perfetti, Ying Liu, Min Wang
  • Others who have contributed 160 hours or more:
  • Graduate Students: Susan Dunlap
  • Study Start Date Sep 1, 2005
  • Study End Date Dec 31, 2006
  • LearnLab Site and Courses , CMU Chinese Online
  • Number of Students: 20
  • Total Participant Hours for the study: 60
  • Data in the Data Shop: in progress

Abstract

Does providing reliable semantic information help second language learners acquire new words? Two experiments investigated whether adult learners of Chinese benefited from explicit instruction of semantic information when learning new characters. We manipulated whether semantic subcomponents were reliable cues to word meanings (reliable vs. unreliable predictors) and whether the semantic information was taught explicitly or not (explicit vs. implicit training conditions). Results showed that explicitly providing semantic cues promoted short-tem retention of target characters and aided somewhat in transferring knowledge to new characters. Reliability of cues had early effects on learning but no effect on long-term retention or on transfer. We theorize that learners benefit from explicit instruction of the connection between semantic subcomponents of words and the meanings of individual words, even when semantic cues are unreliable. However, it is still not clear whether early learners apply this knowledge when learning new vocabulary.

Glossary

Semantic radical; Explicit instruction; Implicit instruction; Cue validity

Research Question

Does providing reliable semantic information help second language learners acquire new words?

Background

Previous research has shown that non-native learners of Chinese do not discern the presence of helpful cues in the orthography unless such relationships are taught explicitly (Taft & Chung, 1999). But because semantic cues in Chinese are not always reliable predictors of word meaning (Hanley, 2005; Shu, Chen, Anderson, Wu, & Xuan, 2003), it may actually be more confusing for a beginning learner to be taught these relationships. The aim of this study was to determine how reliability of cues can affect learning. As in every language, Chinese has rules and exceptions to those rules. The written form of Chinese contains a high percentage of compound characters, which are single, one-syllable words made up of semantic and phonetic radicals. These radicals, or linguistic subcomponents, often provide cues to the character’s meaning and pronunciation. However, a reader cannot rely solely on using this strategy to decode new words in Chinese. Therefore, we wanted to ascertain whether it is helpful to teach the sometimes ambiguous relationship between linguistic subcomponents and whole word definitions.

Dependent variables

Normal post-test measures:

- accuracy and response time on lexical decision, naming, and semantic category judgment tasks with previously learned items (Experiment 1)

- accuracy of definition recognition, accuracy of translating previously learned Chinese characters into English (Experiment 2)

Transfer measures:

- accuracy on a multiple-choice translation task with new characters (Experiments 1 and 2)

Independent variables

Training condition was either explicit (information was provided about the semantic radical’s meaning in relation to meaning of the character) or implicit (no additional information was provided). Being explicit about the radical is an instance of feature focusing instructional method. Each semantic radical was either reliable (its meaning was associated with the meaning of the characters) or unreliable (its meaning was unrelated to the meaning of the character in which it appeared).

Hypothesis

We predict an interaction between reliability and explicitness, such that learners will perform better on items studied in the explicit condition compared to the implicit condition, and this effect will be greater for characters with reliable semantic radicals than characters with unreliable semantic radicals.

Findings

In Experiment 1, we found a main effect of reliability, such that participants had higher accuracy on the lexical decision and semantic judgment tasks for items with reliable semantic cues relative to items with unreliable semantic cues. However, we found no effect of training on post-test transfer items.

In Experiment 2, we found a main effect of reliability, such that participants learned the meanings of words with reliable semantic cues better than words with unreliable semantic cues. We also found a main effect of instruction, such that explicit instruction led to more accurate recognition of definitions than implicit instruction. Again, there was no evidence of transfer to new items.

Explanation

In Experiment 1, initial learning was better for items with reliable rather than unreliable semantic cues. However, once students were explicitly shown a special characteristic of L2, they could apply it to learning new examples. Our within-subjects design allowed application of the explicit strategy to implicit items. In Experiment 2, we used a block design to separate effects of learning before and after explicit instruction. Again, learners did best with reliable items and explicit instruction.

We theorize that learners benefit from explicit instruction of the connection between semantic subcomponents of words and the meanings of individual words, even when semantic cues are unreliable. However, it is still not clear whether early learners apply this knowledge when learning new vocabulary.

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