29 August 2012Much of current thinking in the psychology of language is heavily influenced by the fact that the bulk of research studies are carried out on speakers of Western languages. Recently, psychologists have started to map out systematic differences between languages (or language families). One key issue refers to the psychological reality of speech sounds (or “phonemes”). Virtually all models of spoken language production assume that phonemes are central for speech planning, and some evidence from Western languages supports the claim. However, perhaps phonemes are central to speakers of Western languages because their alphabetic systems code speech sounds with letters (or letter combinations). By contrast, Eastern languages such as Chinese use a non-alphabetic writing system, and recently it has been suggested that speakers of, e.g., Mandarin, do not mentally represent individual speech sounds at all. Contrary to this claim, in this study Qu, Damian and Kazanina used an electrophysiological approach to investigate native speakers of Mandarin and provided clear evidence for the mental reality of phonemes even in speakers of languages which do not orthographically encode individual speech sounds.
Qu, Q., Damian, M. F., & Kazanina N. (2012). Sound-sized segments are significant for Mandarin speakers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(34). Doi: 10.1073/pnas.1200632109.