Processing Multi-Constituent Units in Chinese Reading: An Eye Movement

Lead Research Organisation: University of Central Lancashire
Department Name: Sch of Psychology

Abstract

Reading is vital for successful function in modern society, both professionally and socially. Furthermore, literacy is at the core of a society built around social inclusion. The ability to read contributes to an individual's self-esteem and the extent to which they develop to their full potential. Scientific investigation of reading is vital for the development of sound educational policy in relation to best teaching practice. For these reasons, research projects investigating the psychological processes underlying reading are very important.

In this project we will focus on Chinese reading, particularly, how readers linguistically process common multi-word phrases (we term these Multi-Constituent Units, MCUs), and how they decide where words begin and end when they read naturally. An important property of Chinese written text that is critical to this project is that it is an unspaced character based language. Written Chinese is not like alphabetic languages such as English in which there are individual words with spaces between them that are formed from letters. Instead, Chinese written sentences take the form of strings of characters, that is, box-like symbols that are comprised of arrangements of strokes. Characters can be grouped together to form words, but unlike English, there are no spaces between words indicating where the words start and end. Also, there is often significant ambiguity as to which characters form word units in Chinese. Given these properties, written Chinese provides an opportunity to investigate important theoretical questions that it is simply impossible to investigate in English. Here we focus on two very important theoretical issues:

(1) Do Chinese readers process MCUs (e.g., teddy bear; salt and pepper) in the same way that they process single words?
(2) How do readers decide where words, or MCUs, begin and end as they read unspaced Chinese text?

In order to do this, we will conduct a series of experiments in which we measure Chinese participants' eye movements as they read sentences that include MCUs. Eye movement research has been fundamental in shaping current theoretical accounts of the psychological processes that occur during reading. When we read, our eyes move in a series of jumps (saccades) and brief pauses lasting about a quarter of a second (fixations). Readers visually and linguistically process text during fixations before making a saccade to inspect new, upcoming portions of the sentence. In our experimental work we use sophisticated eye tracking devices to record readers' eye movements as they read sentences from a computer screen. The techniques we employ are harmless. The eye movement data we obtain provide a very rich and detailed on-line measure of exactly how long readers spend processing each word, or MCU, in a sentence. This in turn provides significant insight into the nature of the psychological processes that occur on-line in reading.

We are focusing on how Chinese readers process MCUs, and how they work out where word boundaries lie because these questions are at the core of a very contentious debate in the field of reading, namely, whether readers identify words one at a time (serially), or identify multiple words simultaneously (in parallel) as they read. It is our contention that both these positions may actually be correct, in that readers sometimes process MCUs as though they are single words. If our experiments demonstrate that this is true (and we believe they will), then we can explain contradictory findings and move the scientific debate forward from the present stalemate.

The proposed research is built on a longstanding successful collaboration between researchers in the Centre for Vision and Cognition at Southampton University and researchers at the Eye Movement Laboratories at Tianjin Normal University in China. The collaborative research team has worked together for over 10 years and have published many high profile articles together.

Planned Impact

While current literacy schemes are effective, it is still the case that in the UK around 1.2 million adults aged 16-65 only have literacy skills at Entry Level 1: "Understands short texts with repeated patterns on familiar topics, can obtain information from common signs and symbols". Within those with low literacy (below Entry Level 3; 5.1 million people), 48% do not own their own house, 51% have no qualifications, and just 56% are working (see References 55 & 56). Also, in China around 50 million people aged 15 and older are unable to read and write (the illiteracy rate was estimated by UNESCO at 3.6% in 2015, http://en.unesco.org/countries/china). Without question, the ability to read and write fluently is vital to allow people to fully realise their potential within society, and educational practice must be informed and guided by cutting edge research.

Given this, the proposed research will have significant impact, directly informing current theoretical understanding in the field of Psychology, and contributing to understanding in Linguistics and Education. In the short and medium term this research will have academic impact, contributing to the health of these academic disciplines. In the longer term, however, these advances in theoretical knowledge should inform and influence educational best practice with respect to teaching, supporting literacy development and remedial interventions. The proposed research, therefore, will make a considerable contribution to both scientific knowledge, and ultimately, cultural wellbeing and social cohesion.

Eye movement research has already demonstrated that providing word spacing cues as segmentation markers for Chinese text (which is usually presented without spaces) significantly facilitates reading in those learning Chinese as a second language (e.g., US, Thai, Korean and Japanese) (see Reference 38). More importantly, related work has shown that Chinese children learn words more effectively when they are presented in sentences with word spaced rather than unspaced sentences. Word spacing facilitates the acquisition of vocabulary in those learning to read Chinese. Our experimental findings will allow us to understand which specific patterns of text segmentation optimise learning for Chinese constituents beyond the word (i.e., MCUs). The proposed research should therefore contribute to development of more successful, individually-tailored teaching and intervention strategies for adults and children learning to read Chinese.

In China we will engage with policymakers within the Chinese Psychological Society (Co-Investigator Prof. Xuejun Bai is the current President of the CPS), the Chinese Association of Psycholinguistics, and with the publishers of Chinese literacy training schemes including the Institute of Applied Linguistic Ministry of Education, Confucius Institute Headquarters, Hanban, and the International Society for Chinese Language Teaching. The Chinese partners in this project have excellent existing links with these organisations. Impact activities will include dissemination presentations and mini-workshops. We will also disseminate our findings via presentations to Chinese and UK non-academic audiences of key stakeholders (e.g., Local Education Authorities, and teachers in schools and other organisations teaching Chinese). We will send lay summaries throughout the project to headteachers of local schools and those teaching Chinese as a second language in the UK. We will create a website (linked to the Centre for Vision and Cognition website with English and Chinese versions) providing details of the project, and we will establish a strong international social media presence (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Wechat, Webo) to disseminate progress on the project. Finally, we will provide excellent training to the postdoctoral researchers working on the project, and in this way, we will impact quality of expertise in the field.

Publications

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Vasilev M (2019) Reading is disrupted by intelligible background speech: Evidence from eye-tracking. in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance

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Zang C (2019) Word skipping in Chinese reading: The role of high-frequency preview and syntactic felicity. in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition

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Zang C (2018) Investigating word length effects in Chinese reading. in Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance

 
Title Data sets and R code analysis scripts associated with the paper Degno et al. (2018). JEP:General listed in the outputs were lodged on the Open Science Framework 
Description EEG and eye movement data and R scripts for their analysis. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact None currently known 
URL https://osf.io/uxd7c/?view_only=8257f93bea3a4b919fcd54c7cf3d719a
 
Title Data sets and R code analysis scripts associated with the paper Zang et al. (2018). JEP:HPP listed in the outputs were lodged on the Open Science Framework 
Description Eye movement data and R code analysis scripts 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact None currently known 
URL https://osf.io/e2ws6/
 
Description Delivered an invited Cambridge University Chaucer Club lecture "Processing Multi-Constituent Units during Reading: Non-alphabetic languages, word segmentation, and serialism and parallelism in oculomotor control" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Liversedge was invited to talk at the Chaucer Club in the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge, by Professor Susan Gathercole (Director). I took the opportunity to discuss the theoretical and empirical context and preliminary results from the ESRC project investigating Multi-Constituent Unit processing in Chinese reading. The lecture reached quite a large number of senior academics working in the field of cognitive psychology (e.g., Gathercole, Lambon-Ralph, Norris, among others), it provoked significant interest resulting in questions and discussion around aspects of written language comprehension that are shared between languages as well as aspects that are unique to Chinese. The talk was very well received.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://talks.cam.ac.uk/talk/index/110248