Earlier this year, I was granted the opportunity to give a talk at TEDxRichmondHill. I didn’t ever envision this occurring, and it was one of the larger challenges I’ve had to work my way through (I’m horrid with public speaking), but I somehow survived; I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent preparing for the event. Some days ago, an acquaintance asked me for a link to my TEDx talk. I think the high-definition versions of the day’s presentations haven’t as yet been made publicly available, but the below is mostly what I said that day, accompanied by my slides. The theme was “Transition to Tomorrow”, and I chose to speak of an in-home study I had conducted that, whilst its results were inconclusive, enabled me to take a closer look at Chinese etymology. I’ve since reworked massive quantities of it with the assistance of a professor and fMRI, but this is what the project was then.
I first really began thinking of potential solutions to international relations issues – issues integral, I think, to consider in crafting a sustainable, global transition to tomorrow – after an interview. Because I try to fight that urge to spew nonsense which accompanies pressure, and because I don’t usually deal in disciplines directly involving social facets, I had to take a very good look at my experiences in order to generate a relatively coherent response to one of the most significant, far-reaching questions I’d ever had posed to me.
This question was “How would you resolve the current issues associated with world peace?”, and after further thought, I think I’m still in agreement with the response I gave that day, this being that two relatively manageable things are necessary to fostering international understanding (and, consequently, in part, peace): open-source education and language-learning.
As Founder of Top Tutors, a non-profit organization that has served about 400 students since its inception, I’ve seen the global, everyday validity of propagating open-source, accessible education – I’ve witnessed the transitions to individual brighter tomorrows that occur when a student who was previously uncomfortable with his or her thought processes learns to explore them. As Secretary of the Initiative for Inspiration and Innovation at U of T, a student-led endeavor to get students talking about ideas, I’ve noticed that intellectual exploration can encourage growth in localized, professional and academic environments, too.
The relationship that language, though, has to furthering and stabilizing international understanding is probably less immediately apparent, and yet, language is an entity intrinsically related to global conflict resolution. It has the ability, after all, to erect social, economic, and cultural barriers, but if correctly manipulated, it also has the ability to fall them. This is so because, in my view at least, the differences between individual language groups that result in a lack of understanding are significantly outnumbered by innate, intuitive, cross-lingual facets to human communication.
Certainly, as a polyglot, tutor, editor, and translator, I see instances of differences all the time. A Czech expression for “Oh really?”, when uttered in a particular dialect – Fakt, jo? – resembles an English curse, while a perfectly innocuous Italian word…
More profoundly, differing sentence structure, the tonality of certain languages, and ideas one can’t quite translate
But there are innate, intuitive, cross-lingual facets to human communication. Speakers of almost all language groups report experiencing imagistic speech, so everyone can not only convert space-time patterns of vibrations into spatial-temporal firings on the auditory nerve, but everyone also possesses the speech comprehension and production mechanisms necessary to creating realistic auditory and kinaesthetic images of spoken natural language.
As another example, most languages have prescribed attributive adjective orderings – in other words, there’s usually a specified order in which the adjectives preceding a noun should be written – for example, in English, words describing quantity should go first, then size, age, shape, color, and so on. Though these orderings differ from language to language, they illustrate two needs that appear to be common to all humans: firstly, to use describing words to add layers of meaning to objects, and secondly, to order ideas.
Contemplating the differences and similarities between members of different language groups is what prompted me to begin studying Mandarin.
Within English-speaking society, Chinese language speakers and readers, among others, are usually thought to possess elevated study skills and a more intuitive understanding of nature. When I began taking up the Chinese writing system, I stumbled upon some potential reasons behind the skill sets responsible for these stereotypes.
The Sinitic languages constitute wonderful examples of tongues whose roots lie in pictures.
While English words have semantic units that are made up of letters from the Latin alphabet, each Chinese character is composed of a series of pictorial components. Whilst some of these exist in words strictly for purposes of pronunciation, others harbor universal meaning. Many are similar to everyday objects.
For example, this slide depicts 口, a character used in many words dealing with mouths; it really does resemble a gaping mouth.
Not only are many components individually meaningful, though. The orientation of components in a character can be important too.
The number of each component present is also semantically relevant. Many trees (木) make up a forest (森),
and we all know three persons (人) make up a crowd (众).
I’ve relatively strong visual memory. When I remember a scene, I remember it in terms of its meaningful parts and their relationships, and I assemble these later on for more complete recall. When everyday objects are found in a given scene, I also remember the scene more readily. I’m not the only one – much of neuropsychology tells us that familiarity and grouping breed recollection.
This prompted me to wonder about something. When students are first taught to write Chinese characters, they typically learn that there is a certain order in which the strokes of a given character must be written. This order, not surprisingly, is referred to as “stroke order”, and although different standards exist, most of them consist of approximately the same rules. Stroke order tells us, for example, that we write horizontal strokes before vertical strokes and right-to-left diagonals before left-to-right diagonals.
As useful as this may be in learning how to write legibly, I wondered if Chinese readers actually utilize stroke order in recognition of previously learnt characters and acquisition of new terms. It seemed to me that given the nature of the Chinese writing system, component-based memorization would be far more intuitive.
So, I conducted a series of simple assessments.
I began by showing a group of Chinese-First-Language readers this scene, and asking them to attempt to recall what they could about it after some minutes. I found that, as a whole, they exhibited far stronger tendencies to group objects with similar functions and/or similar appearances than did readers of abjads and Latin-alphabet-based orthographies.
Then, I tried to illustrate, through video-based pupil monitoring of saccadic eye movements – the minute, jerky movements responsible for our being able to fix our gaze on a specific piece of text or other information – that Chinese-First-Language readers neglect stroke order during recognition of variedly complex Chinese characters, preferring to analyze characters in terms of their individual pictorial morphemes by allowing their eyes to wander across components, not in order of stroke
I showed readers a character set similar to this one (ranging from simple and frequent to quite complex), and asked them to attempt to tell me what the characters’ names were. It seemed that most Chinese readers indeed only used stroke order to confirm their identifications when they were uncertain that they had correctly recognized a character (i.e., when I didn’t affirm their identification right away), performing a retrosaccade – a backwards movement, in some sense, geared at revisiting information that’s already been viewed.
I then tried to show that this is also similar in acquisition – that, when Chinese-First-Language readers first acquire unusually infrequent Chinese characters, they prefer grouping techniques to stroke-order-based memorization. I found that subjects more easily acquired two words with shared components than two words that didn’t share any pictorial roots. Characters Two and Four here share the lower portion of the meaningful component 展, and the upper part of the sound-providing component 单. One and Three share their enclosing strokes, and also have very similar lower portions (though 犬 and 天 differ in meaning, they look very similar), and One, Four, and Five share 目. Subjects usually acquired at least one of the pairs that share the most components (Two and Four or One and Three) first. It also seemed that the more common the root, the easier acquisition was, regardless of how complex the character was in terms of stroke count.
Grouping and familiarity. Systematic, intuitive recognition and acquisition.
This being done, I turned to examine English. I had both Chinese-First-Language and English-First-Language readers attempt to acquire complex English words composed of very common Greek and Latin roots; even when a less mesmerizing set than the one above was provided (that one had several words with the same root), readers appeared not to take notes of the roots, and instead attempted – often unsuccessfully – to memorize words without grouping or segmenting them according to their semantic subunits. In other words, the significance and recurrence of certain Latin and Greek roots within English words was not used by most subjects to acquire new terms.
This indicates, in my mind, a possible absence of intuitive reasoning in acquisition of English terms. As a tutor, I feel that this could be extended to explain the difficulty that many students find with learning specialized vocabulary for such assessments as the S.A.T. Reasoning Test. But how can we streamline English acquisition?
I tried one more thing. In my previous trials, I had stumbled upon something that I had not at all anticipated. Verticality seemed important in acquisition and retention of Chinese characters. In other words, if a character had components that were more vertically than horizontally stacked, it was generally more frequently remembered. When students are having trouble with getting through a mathematical proof, they will often be told to write down facts beneath one another – to avoid horizontal writing.
In embracing this observation and attempting to showcase the relevance of individual roots, I did something seemingly inane. I segmented these long English words by their roots, and stacked the roots as shown here.
Surprisingly, when I presented my subjects with words arranged in this way, retention increased significantly, with at least a minor increase in degree of retention occurring in every subject participating. A subject who previously retained 1.5 of 5 words now retained three; another who previously retained two now retained all five. The difference was dramatic; the more individuals I worked with, the more apparent it became that something about this method actually functions. Perhaps it was the fact that we were isolating Greek and Latin roots – making them into more meaningful, more identifiable, more readily remembered, shorter subunits by segmenting words. Perhaps arranging information more vertically really is more useful. It could even be the fact that these fragmented words don’t generate pronunciation difficulties for audio-based learners. After all, it’s easier to create several smaller auditory images of individual word roots and piece them together than it is to visualize and retain a new, complex, compound sound.
As a student researcher working in some other fields, I am hesitant to call this a study. Virtually no typically used technology was employed. Eyetracking systems typically rely on surface electrodes, infrared corneal reflections, infrared Purkinje image tracking, fMRI, or at least search coils. This series of small trials involved solely low-level video-based pupil monitoring, which would allow for a great quantity of data-obscuring noise in the presence of a nystagmus or microsaccade.
And yet, I feel as though there is some potential, and something has been learnt. This began as an exploration of Chinese etymology, and the ways in which it constricts and crafts Chinese readers’ methods of memorization. It quickly became, though, something broader – an attempt to better understand neuropsychology as a whole – to dissect human thought, then, and, by extension, human communication. If correctly pursued, I think that work like this may, in future, aid us in making not solely language learning but also interpersonal and international communications more intuitive for all those involved. I see this, in other words, as a bridge not only between English and Chinese orthographies, but also as one between East and West – the two sides of a world jointly transitioning to a more interconnected, more understanding, and more international tomorrow.