Unfamiliar orthographic information and second language word learning: A novel lexicon study

Author(s): Showalter CE, Hayes-Harb R


Recent research indicates that knowledge of words’ spellings can influence knowledge of the phonological forms of second language (L2) words when the first and second languages use the same orthographic symbols. It is yet unknown whether learners can make similar use of unfamiliar orthographic symbols. In this study we investigate whether native English speakers use orthographic tone marks to help them associate lexical tone with new L2 words? Native English speakers with no knowledge of Mandarin were assigned to ‘Tone Marks’ or ‘No Tone Marks’ word learning groups. During a word learning phase, they learned to associate Mandarin nonwords varying in lexical tone with orthographic forms (written in pinyin with/without tone marks) and pictured ‘meanings’. In Experiment 1, participants were asked whether a picture associated with, for example, tone 1 matched an auditory form containing tone 2. Tone Marks participants outperformed No Tone Marks participants, suggesting that the availability of unfamiliar orthographic symbols helped them associate lexical tone with the new words. In Experiment 2, the test involved matching an orthographic representation and an auditory word. Tone Marks participants performed above chance, while No Tone Marks participants did not, indicating that Tone Marks participants learned the correspondences between auditory tones and tone marks to some extent. We conclude that the presence of a novel orthographic feature (in this case, tone marks) can support native English speakers’ ability to associate a novel phonological feature (in this case, lexical tone) with newly-learned lexical items.

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