Chinese speakers think out of the box

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am


The brains of Chinese-language speakers work differently from those who speak western tongues, Chinese University scientists say - a finding that may have profound implications for those learning to read Chinese.

Led by Professor John Xuexin Zhang of the university's psychology department, the researchers discovered an electric brain wave - dubbed N200 - that allows readers of Chinese characters to process the information differently from how humans usually interpret pictures.

The team conducted 36 tests over three years in which mainland college students had 64 electrodes attached to their head while they looked at Chinese characters. Monitoring their brain activity, the scientists found that while N200 was not found when participants were viewing pictures, it showed up when Chinese characters were shown.

Zhang says this demonstrates that Chinese characters are abstract visual symbols instead of images. 'The popular mistake is to treat Chinese characters as pictures; they are rather visual symbols,' he said.

The study noted that the 2,800 written languages used worldwide could be grouped into two: the alphabetic form and the Chinese language.

'While an alphabetic script emphasises sound assembly, a [Chinese] meaning-spelling script stresses meaning-compounding,' Zhang said.

Each Chinese character stands for a particular concept and can be combined to form new meanings. The script for 'pig' and 'meat', for instance, would mean 'pork'.

The existence of N200 explains why English speakers, for one, may find it harder to learn Chinese than other alphabet-based languages.

'For alphabetic languages, the written language is the record of the spoken language,' Zhang said. But he added that Chinese was more nuanced since several characters had the same pronunciation, though they could mean different things.

'The written language is more important than the oral part ... This is why you must see the character sometimes,' he said.

Leo Qiang Fu, a teacher at Beijing International Chinese College, said the different tones used in Chinese were often difficult for foreigners, but the biggest challenge was the characters.

'They have trouble linking the form of the character and the pronunciation,' he said. One trick to help students is to regularly quiz them with flash cards, bearing a character on the front and its pinyin version, the romanisation of Mandarin script, on the back.

'If you use the same way to teach Chinese than to teach English, it won't be as effective,' said Zhang.

Studies have yet to show if N200 is genetic. Zhang's research on N200 was published on Monday in the journal Chinese Science Bulletin.