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An investigation into the existence of processing biases against lexical tone and sinoxenic writing systems

Despite the obvious contrasts between the two, and the interesting conclusions that could be drawn with respect to universals of language, there are very few studies which compare Chinese to Indo-European languages, namely English, from a psycholinguistic perspective. It seems reasonable to hypothesise that should two languages display such great superficial differences, then the mechanisms employed in the processing of these languages may also differ. Furthermore, as suggested in part by the lower attestation of tonal and sinoxenic languages in typological data compared to those which do not demonstrate these characteristics, it seems plausible that there may even be a processing bias against these linguistic phenomena. To explore these hypotheses, a study was carried out in which both native speakers of Mandarin Chinese, and native speakers of English participated. By the means of a lexical decision task, participants were required to indicate whether or not a “word” presented visually or via headphones existed in their native language. Performance was measured in terms of accuracy and speed of responses. It was found that in the listening trials, Chinese-speaking participants responded significantly slower than their English-speaking counterparts. However, no significant difference was detected in the reading trials. Interestingly, although in the listening trials mean error rates were largely similar across the two participant groups, in the reading trials the English-speaking participants were significantly less accurate than the Chinese-speaking participants. The extent to which these findings point towards a bias against the processing of lexical tone, as well as further implications are discussed.