Sound-sized segments are significant for Mandarin speakers

Qingqing Qu, Markus F. Damian, Nina Kazanina

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

60 Citations (Scopus)


Do speakers of all languages use segmental speech sounds when they produce words? Existing models of language production generally assume a mental representation of individual segmental units, or phonemes, but the bulk of evidence comes from speakers of European languages in which the orthographic system codes explicitly for speech sounds. By contrast, in languages with nonalphabetical scripts, such as Mandarin Chinese, individual speech sounds are not orthographically represented, raising the possibility that speakers of these languages do not use phonemes as fundamental processing units. We used event-related potentials (ERPs) combined with behavioral measurement to investigate the role of phonemes in Mandarin production. Mandarin native speakers named colored line drawings of objects using color adjective-noun phrases; color and object name either shared the initial phoneme or were phonologically unrelated. Whereas naming latencies were unaffected by phoneme repetition, ERP responses were modulated from 200 ms after picture onset. Our ERP findings thus provide strong support for the claim that phonemic segments constitute fundamental units of phonological encoding even for speakers of languages that do not encode such units orthographically.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)14265-14270
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number35
Early online date13 Aug 2012
Publication statusPublished - 28 Aug 2012

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