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agewisdom

Chinese characters - Phonologic vs Logographic

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agewisdom

Dear All,

 

I have a very curious question I'd like to ask. I learnt English primarily as my first language and am now in the midst of learning Mandarin. I speak passably elementary Mandarin and can understand the same through conversations and watching HK TV shows. After learning some characters, I stumbled across a question that I think it's very relevant to myself. Hopefully some of you can share your experience. Do correct me if I'm wrong below:

 

Mandarin characters are logographic, so meaning at least part of the meaning of characters are represented graphically. Some characters in fact are an exact graphical representation for example horse as 马. So, my question is are there any differences between NATIVE LEARNERS (mandarin as their first language) vs. FOREIGNERS (mandarin as their 2nd, 3rd etc. language) in recognizing these characters?

 

To elaborate, in English. When I see the word HORSE, I literally HEAR the word out mentally first which is then associated with the actual animal afterwards. A sort of two step mental process. Of course, this happens so fast that it's literally automatic. This is carried over in my learning of chinese characters where I similarly associate the character 马 to the pinyin and then to the animal itself.

 

What about Chinese native learners? Do they totally bypass this process and immediately associate the character 马 to the actual animal itself without needing to associate the SOUNDS to the ANIMAL itself? What about more difficult abstract concepts then?

 

Thanks in advance for reading.

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Shelley
56 minutes ago, agewisdom said:

I learnt English primarily as my first language

Does this mean it is not actually your first language or you learnt english alongside another language?

I have read quite a few of your posts and I always thought that English was not your mother tongue.

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agewisdom
1 hour ago, Shelley said:

Does this mean it is not actually your first language or you learnt english alongside another language?

I have read quite a few of your posts and I always thought that English was not your mother tongue.

 

1. It's complicated... I learnt English and Malay formally since I'm in Malaysia.

2. As for Mandarin and Cantonese, I only picked this up informally from watching TV and talking to other people.

 

How come you had the impression that English is not my mother tongue? You're not wrong though, I speak English maybe half of the time, the other half in Mandarin and Cantonese.

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Shelley

There is just something about some of your sentence constructions and some of the words you use. I am not saying its wrong, just different. And your post above sort of cemented my suspicions.

 

I don't do the 2 step process you describe, the word either spoken or read just means horse. There is no sounding out of the word and then pinning it the concept of horse. I think though I do  do this with Chinese at the moment, but more and more words are losing that translation stage from sound through english to meaning. 

This is what I would describe as "thinking in Chinese"  or indeed "thinking in English".

 

I think you don't think in English the same way someone who's first language is English and I think you are going through English to get to Chinese. And quite possibly without you realising it from Chinese to English to Malay which may be why you sound it out as you describe.

 

I think you are doing very well keeping all those languages going and admire your grasp of these languages, as I said its not wrong just different.

 

 

 

 

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agewisdom

Thanks Shelley for the input.

 

I never really gave it much thought about this before but I tend to do voice out mentally the words rather than go directly into the concepts whether be it in English or currently now in Mandarin. Hmmm... now I'm starting to wonder whether this differs from person to person.

 

I mean sub vocalization tends to slow down reading a lot but I mentally do it almost all of the time when reading. Hmmm... so you don't actually waste time mentally sub vocalizing at all, eh. Interesting.

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Shelley

I think it is what happens when you are learning a new language, its one of the landmarks along the way that indicates you are progressing. When you think in the target language and aren't going through your first language and translating it is another one.

 

As I said I think you are doing very well, so don't stress about it, it will improve with time and practice.

 

 

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anonymoose

This is an interesting question, and I suspect there isn't a simple answer to this. I mean, what happens when you actually see a picture of a horse, or indeed a real horse? Does the sound "horse" immediately pop into your mind? I guess that probably depends on how significant the appearance of the horse is in your mind. If there's a knock on your door, and you open the door to see a horse standing there, you will almost certainly hear yourself thinking "horse!". On the other hand, if you are walking through a farm, you are unlikely to think "horse" every time a horse enters your field of vision,  even though you will still be aware of what it is. Well, if the character 马 is just a pictographic representation of a horse, then surely it's a similar situation?

 

Anyway, I also think this is not so much down to language as individual way of reading. As far as I'm aware, I sound out words in my mind as I read, regardless of whether it's in English, Chinese or any other language. But not everybody does this.

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agewisdom
2 hours ago, anonymoose said:

Anyway, I also think this is not so much down to language as individual way of reading. As far as I'm aware, I sound out words in my mind as I read, regardless of whether it's in English, Chinese or any other language.

 

Yes, that's exactly the same with me. I'm just wondering whether for native Mandarin learners GENERALLY, would there be a greater % that just see the language in terms of pictures or symbols wise, rather than sounding out the words in their mind first, and then going to the meaning.

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Publius

This may not be a good analogy but consider the Arabic numerals. The symbol "1" is universally understood, despite having different pronunciations in different languages: one, uno, and so on. Do people jump directly from the visual to the concept? It's hard to tell. According to this Wikipedia article, there is no definitive answer yet as to whether phonologic and logographic languages are processed differently.

 

It's not a simple matter of seeing the written language as a stream of symbols. Chinese characters are not emojis. All native speakers already speak the language before they learn to read. Besides, over 90% Chinese characters have a phonetic component. On the other hand, in a phonological language such as English, visual cue plays a non-trivial role in reading. I'm sure you have seen the following paragraph on the internet:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

 

So you see, it's complicated. It's a question for cognitive scientists, not language learners.

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agewisdom
1 hour ago, Publius said:

It's not a simple matter of seeing the written language as a stream of symbols. Chinese characters are not emojis. All native speakers already speak the language before they learn to read. Besides, over 90% Chinese characters have a phonetic component.

Exactly the point. I'm just genuinely curious as to whether most native Chinese see the language largely like emojis or focus more on the phonetic component. I understand it's not an easy question to answer. However, I'm not looking to do a thesis on this :P

 

I just want to know, generally... when reading, do they process it phonetically first, then onto the image/concept? Or rather just the image, thus bypassing the vocal component altogether. I guess it largely depends on the individuals, but I thought there'd be some studies on this already or whether it's a question that already has been asked, somewhere.

 

Also because I'm wondering whether I'm learning Mandarin correctly by using processing it using the sound first, then onto the concept itself. Just like how I process the English language.

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Shelley
3 hours ago, agewisdom said:

by using processing it using the sound first, then onto the concept itself.

 

I think you are trying here, to say you are processing the sound first and the the concept, if this is correct then I would not agree that this is the best way.

 

Its the same with tones. you don't learn tones, what you learn is the sound mā with first tone as a complete thing and also the meaning of mother all as one thing. 

 

To me it seems like you are making things more difficult by separating it all.

 

Try it with a character you are very familiar with, say the sound and think the meaning, so you don't think the sound-you say or read it, but you think the meaning.

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Dawei3

I think there is a difference in the thought process for the languages.  My experience has been that if I use the wrong tone for a word, my Chinese friends won't necessarily think of the word I meant based on its pinyin.  They'll more likely try to understand why I used the "wrong" word.

 

In contrast, when if I hear a non-Chinese speak a word with a wrong tone, I would immediately think of what was meant based on the word's pinyin.  In Chinese, I think in "pinyin" (similar to agewisdom's example of thinking of a horse) and I see characters as something for writing.  As a native English speaker, phonetics are dominant (and letters represent this)  

 

Hence, my sense is that Chinese tend to bypass the phonetics/pinyin and think of the character.  

 

Also, I see tones & pinyin letters somewhat separately, i.e., if I make a mistake on a new word, I'm much more likely that I get my tones wrong than I get my phonetics (pinyin) wrong.  When I start to forget a word, I tend to forget the tone first, phonetics 2nd.  For Chinese friends, the linkage between the tone and the phonetics seems much much tighter. 

 

As an English example of tone/phonetics being tight:  An American says CONtractor and whereas English say conTRACTor.  Neither speaker will forget their intonation of the word because it is integral to the word.  My sense the same is true for native Chinese speakers;  for words they know, they won't forget the word's tones - whereas as a non-native speaker, I can forget the tones of Chinese words.    

 

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anonymoose
On ‎2‎/‎18‎/‎2019 at 12:52 AM, agewisdom said:

Do they totally bypass this process and immediately associate the character 马 to the actual animal itself without needing to associate the SOUNDS to the ANIMAL itself?

 

Apart from what I wrote in my previous post, I think it's also very context dependent. I assume that 马 is more frequently encountered in combination with other characters, such as 马上, than on its own. I doubt that the concept of "horse" enters most people's minds when they read this word.

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Shelley
1 hour ago, anonymoose said:

such as 马上, than on its own. I doubt that the concept of "horse" enters most people's minds

 

Except it does have as one meaning - on horseback, so horse might enter your mind.:)

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agewisdom
6 hours ago, anonymoose said:

I assume that 马 is more frequently encountered in combination with other characters, such as 马上, than on its own. I doubt that the concept of "horse" enters most people's minds when they read this word. 

 

What about yourself? How do you process this word mentally? Do you mentally vocalize the pinyin sound and then onto the meaning?

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anonymoose
25 minutes ago, agewisdom said:

What about yourself? How do you process this word mentally? Do you mentally vocalize the pinyin sound and then onto the meaning?

 

I do mentally vocalise the sound, but I don't think it's necessarily sequential. I don't think mentally vocalising is a prerequisite to getting to the meaning. I would say that rather they happen simultaneously. Occasionally I come to a character of which I know the meaning instantly, even if I don't remember the reading.

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agewisdom
3 hours ago, anonymoose said:

I do mentally vocalise the sound, but I don't think it's necessarily sequential. I don't think mentally vocalising is a prerequisite to getting to the meaning. I would say that rather they happen simultaneously. Occasionally I come to a character of which I know the meaning instantly, even if I don't remember the reading.

 

Many thanks for sharing. Yes, it's mostly the same for me. The bulk for me, at least in Mandarin is to vocalize first, then meaning though.

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Shelley

There are times when I know what a character means but have forgotten the sound. 

 

I don't think the sound is necessary to understand a character, but I am pinning the English sound to it as such because I see the characters and think that means horse. Usually the Chinese sound follows after a bit of thinking. 

 

I don't know if this a good thing or not. Is it just me and I am odd or does this happen to anyone else?

 

  • Good question! 1

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Dawei3
On 2/20/2019 at 11:50 AM, anonymoose said:

I assume that 马 is more frequently encountered in combination with other characters, such as 马上, than on its own. I doubt that the concept of "horse" enters most people's minds when they read this word.

 

This is a good point.  I similarly would expect that few English speakers realize the "hos-" in hostile, hospital, host, and hostage are related.  I never did until a linguist pointed out that they hark back to the same Indo-European root word that related to interactions with strangers (who might or not be hostile).  

 

Or that warranty/guarantee and guard/warden derive from French, with the "gu-" version from the Norman French.  As with "hos-", I had never previously considered the relationships between these words until it was pointed out to me.  

 

For a specific Chinese example:  I remember mentioning to a Chinese colleague that words that are separate and have different meanings when put together, in English we have under- and -stand and Chinese has clear- and -white (明白).  She said "I never thought of clear-white."   (we were speaking in English)  This is likely typical in native speakers in any language, i.e., we use words without considering the elements that make them up.  

 

 

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Shelley
8 minutes ago, Dawei3 said:

we use words without considering the elements that make them up

Which one good reason I think Latin and Greek should be taught in schools as they used to be. I have a friend who did learn this at school and he has what I would consider a mastery of the english unlike anyone else I know.

He can use words correctly and precisely, he can express things very accurately and derive the meaning of unknown words from this knowledge.

 

It is the same reason why I believe learning to read and write characters and learn their etymology is helpful for the same reasons.

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