Electrophysiological dynamics of Chinese phonology during visual word recognition in Chinese-English bilinguals


  • Wen Yun
  • Filik Ruth
  • Heuven Walter J. B.

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Silent word reading leads to the activation of orthographic (spelling), semantic (meaning), as well as phonological (sound) information. For bilinguals, native language information can also be activated automatically when they read words in their second language. For example, when Chinese-English bilinguals read words in their second language (English), the phonology of the Chinese translations is automatically activated. Chinese phonology, however, consists of consonants and vowels (segmental) and tonal information. To what extent these two aspects of Chinese phonology are activated is yet unclear. Here, we used behavioural measures, event-related potentials and oscillatory EEG to investigate Chinese segmental and tonal activation during word recognition. Evidence of Chinese segmental activation was found when bilinguals read English words (faster responses, reduced N400, gamma-band power reduction) and when they read Chinese words (increased LPC, gamma-band power reduction). In contrast, evidence for Chinese tonal activation was only found when bilinguals read Chinese words (gamma-band power increase). Together, our converging behavioural and electrophysiological evidence indicates that Chinese segmental information is activated during English word reading, whereas both segmental and tonal information are activated during Chinese word reading. Importantly, gamma-band oscillations are modulated differently by tonal and segmental activation, suggesting independent processing of Chinese tones and segments.

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