Fluent English speakers translate into Chinese automatically

June 14, 2011

Over half the world's population speaks more than one language. But it's not clear how these languages interact in the brain. A new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that Chinese people who are fluent in English translate English words into Chinese automatically and quickly, without thinking about it.

Like her research subjects, Taoli Zhang of the University of Nottingham is originally from China, but she lives in the UK and is fluent in English. She co wrote the new paper with her colleagues, Walter J.B. van Heuven and Kathy Conklin. She wanted to study how two are stored in the bilingual . "If you read in English, you don't really require your knowledge of Chinese. Do you switch it off?" Earlier research in European languages found that both languages stayed active in the brain. But that work was in pairs of languages, like English and French or Spanish and Italian, have a lot of similarities in spelling and vocabulary. That's not true for English and Chinese.

The subjects in Zhang's experiments were all at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. For the study, each person was shown pairs of words. The first word flashed on the so quickly that the person didn't realize they'd seen it. The second word appeared for longer; the person was supposed to hit a key indicating whether it was a real word as quickly as possible. This was just a test to see how quickly they were processing the word.

The trick was this: Although everything in the test was in English, in some cases, the two words actually had a connection – but only if you know how they're written in Chinese. So, for example, the first word might be "thing," which is written 东西in Chinese, and the second might be "west," which is written 西in Chinese. The character for "west" appears in the word "thing," but these two words are totally unrelated in English.

Zhang found that, when two shared characters in Chinese, participants processed the second word faster – even though they had no conscious knowledge of having seen the first word in the pair. Even though these students are fluent in English, their brains still automatically translate what they see into Chinese. This suggests that knowledge of a first language automatically influences the processing of a second language, even when they are very different, unrelated languages.

"As long as I can speak English to you, why would you care what my brain is doing in terms of Chinese?" Zhang asks. In daily life, it doesn't matter; it's just good enough that she can talk to the people around her. But she says understanding the way languages are linked in the brain could someday help people learn second languages. "When people learn two languages, they automatically make the link between them. We would like to find out how the link between the two languages influences processing."

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1 / 5 (1) Jun 14, 2011
There are no 'two' languages. Just one. It does not matter what language and what word extends your vocabulary. More important is the meaning associated with each added word. Which shifts the entire vocabulary's meaning , no matter how many different 'languages' the vocabulary contains. The more 'objects' you have associated with the meaning of anything you have given a meaning to, the deeper the meaning (understanding). The fundamental mechanisms that 'handled' language never changes, regardless of what 'language' or combinations thereof.

This is why 'learning' a language is associated with a task that requires 'effort'. A 'task' of 'effort' nonexistence for your 'mother' tongue. Learned with the 'mechanics' that research intentionally overlooks to maintain current theory.

not rated yet Jun 14, 2011
"As long as I can speak English to you, why would you care what my brain is doing in terms of Chinese?"
I care.
I am missing out on additional meaning Chinese provides to meanings I can only represent with one word in one language.

not rated yet Jun 14, 2011
You are seeking a link that does not exist. That link exists for one vocabulary, regardless of it's composition. There is no link "between 'two languages". This is only one language. The human language. Processed with one process for all 'languages' - better to say: One process, processing all words of just one language: The human language.
5 / 5 (3) Jun 15, 2011
This study does not show that English is translated into Chinese and they have offered no evidence at all that this process has taken place.

What they have shown is that word association learnt in Chinese is transferred to English even though those associations do not actually exist in that language eg the association between 'west' and other words.

To better illustrate this point, imagine an English person raised in a town where every roof on every house is pink. The colour 'pink' and the word 'roof' are now associated in that person's mind. If they move to another town, say where all the rooves are blue, would the embedded association remain? A study like the one outlined above would show that it is still there, even though all the roofs in the new town are blue.

This is identical to the word association carried forward from Chinese to English, no translation is necessary.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 16, 2011
Hanzi characters written above = first is dong(1st tone) which means east second character is xi(no accent) w/c means west, if written together means things or objects. Laoshi(professor) said Pinyin really has no meaning to Chinese speakers, understanding this language is in the "tones", Pinyin was created as an aid to non-Chinese speakers. Latin based languages came easily having Spanish, French background living in Asia as a child. As someone who can speak 5 languages, Mandarin as 6th, I will have to say learning Mandarin is a 2-part process. The word we are looking for is not "link" between 2 languages in the reverse (English to Mandarin). It is really more the "process" as to how the mind pulls data and translates it from one language to another depending on stimulus = English to Pinyin, Pinyin to Hanzi. This process, in my opinion, is more complex, there is a certain learning curve then the mind starts adapting to the "process", in turn, pinyin becomes obsolete.
not rated yet Jun 16, 2011
"This is identical to the word association carried forward from Chinese to English, no translation is necessary." - RKS

"Even though these students are fluent in English, their brains still automatically translate what they see into Chinese." - Author/reporter unspecified.

So all my confusion comes from a single word.

I can not see myself commenting at all, IF the above quote read - (hypothetical correction in CAPS):

"Even though these students are fluent in English, their brains still automatically ASSOCIATE what they see into Chinese." - Author/reporter unspecified

Thank you for your take on this.

One word. Like pluses and minuses in Math.
Changes the entire meaning.

4 / 5 (2) Jun 16, 2011
Understanding characters and memorizing them are also 2 different process as well. My professor used to ask me to share how I can recall characters very easily, associate the characters w/their meanings. In my case, I associate many characters w/Mathematical symbols, shapes etc., then I make my own translation. This method and process works very well for me but I am most certain not all of us in the class use this method. The question really is why is the process different for everyone? What is the most efficient way to process/translate language from one to another? Is this process customizable? What is the level of customization? Does one's background play a role in a more efficient "processing" of languages?
not rated yet Jun 16, 2011
Gosh. I am so grateful for inaccurate wording. Where is our understanding without them? lol
1 / 5 (1) Jun 16, 2011
"The question really is why is the process different for everyone?" - CrisJ8

The "process" is called ASSOCIATION. The 'process' of "association" is universal. The association itself is UNIQUE - contributed ONLY to the person who assigned meaning based on how that individual EXPERIENCED whatever at the moment in time. The associations are difference for everyone, not the process called association.
not rated yet Jun 16, 2011
And YES, there are typos in my comments. Some words are spelled incorrectly, the RIGHT words spelled incorrectly! lol
5 / 5 (1) Jun 17, 2011
There are no 'two' languages. Just one.

Well this is why we always learn additional languages by associating the words in it with those in the language we already know. Sometimes we have to learn new concepts that do not exist in the language we already know, but this is "relatively" easy (requires a bit of comprehension plus memorization). Of course one problem is the sheer number of words that will need to be associated, plus getting used to pronouncing the sounds in the new language.

But as far as the mind is concerned, any new languages always map to the existing one.
not rated yet Jun 17, 2011
Well, that's one view.
I simply group all existing languages together. And called this group the human language. The quantifier here of course is the word "human".

The are many quantifiers to group all existing languages (as well as extinct languages) into one group.

Of course, the quantifier "language" is too broad. That might include other life other than human.

And what besides "human", "language" are the universal common denominators (quantifiers) which allow me to categorize all "different" languages as one?

And it is this quantifier which is the basis for ALL forthcoming mappings. This is the "language" that existed FIRST for humans (and probably for other life as well).
This is the original mapping. This is the origin of all human language.

It is sound that is one of the first functions "accommodated for" by neurological/chemical human embryonic development.
As far as the mind is concerned.

I hope that everyone will understand this someday.
I hope you understand.
not rated yet Jun 17, 2011
Thank for your reply. You and others help me. To map my theory: The Origins of Human Language.

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