HAYDEN, Jeffrey J.: Breaking the camel's back: Cognitive load and reading in Chinese
For many students whose first language is an alphabetic one, learning to read Chinese as a second or foreign language is a long and oftentimes laborious process, fraught with seemingly endless and demoralizing frustrations. Unlike the relationships of English to French, German, or Spanish, which share varying but useful amounts of cognates, English and German share no cognates with Chinese, which means that from the start learners have nothing to rely on to help them navigate their way through seas of Chinese text. Yet, with time, non-native learners of Chinese do come to comprehend novel texts they are faced with on their own. In order to understand the paths alphabetic readers of Chinese take to comprehend the texts they read, this study examines and attempts to identify and describe effects of text complexity and difficulty level on cognitive processing based on eye-tracking data. The data from three groups of participants (non-native Intermediate level, non-native Superior level, and native Chinese) were gathered during a computer-adaptive test (CAT). Quantitative (descriptive) and qualitative analyses were conducted on the data.
The study shows that non-native readers of Chinese at an Intermediate level demonstrate different reading strategies than non-native readers of Chinese at a Superior level, who in turn use a similar strategies as native Chinese readers, but at different times during the reading process. There were also indications that there are two distinct types of readers within the non-native Superior level participants, i.e., those who were still more non-native in their approach to texts and those who displayed native-like reading strategies. The study shows the phases of cognitive abilities learners of Chinese go through as their knowledge of vocabulary and structures increases and they expand their reading experiences with a variety of text types.
This research is important in that it supports several theoretical and pedagogical positions. First, the results support the creation, development, and implementation of graded readers. Providing a wealth of reading materials that students at varying levels of proficiency can comprehend with minimal additional effort would allow learners to more fully develop familiarity with characters and words as they occur in context. Second, having materials that the reader feels is neither condescending nor overwhelming should maintain if not increase learner motivation towards the reading of Chinese.
Keywords: Chinese language, cognitive processes, eye movement, reading comprehension, working memory
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Figure 1. Eye-tracked Sample 1: NNI(T). An example item from a participant
who declared a preference for traditional Chinese characters.
Figure 2. Eye-tracked Sample 2: NNI(S). An example item from a participant
who declared a preference for simplified Chinese characters.