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Semantic Radicals in LanguageResearch Paper

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¶ … Teaching Chinese Characters

Essentially, there are two diametrically opposed viewpoints relating to the didactic methods for learning the orthographic structure of a foreign language system. Moreover, these viewpoints definitely relate to adults trying to learn a different system of writing. The more common viewpoint is to teach a writing system and its intricacies to students implicitly (Dunlap et al., 2011). Utilizing this perspective largely involves simply appropriating aspects of another writing system into a way that adult learners can most readily comprehend via "frequency cues" (DeKeyser, 2008). Thus, this approach is based predominantly on translations and providing native language parallels between letters (or characters when utilizing certain Asian languages) that are readily grasped by those attempting to learn. Conversely, there is another approach that explicitly denotes various grammatical constructs and their applications and is more of the proverbial 'top down' method of learning. Utilizing this method involves teaching students various grammatical, syntactical, and semantic components of a language. It necessarily involves establishing rules and their accordant exceptions, particularly in terms of semantics, and that this can help adult students learn.

Research on both of these methods largely reveals conflicting ideologies. That pertaining to the implicit method is largely predicated on the fact that by simply providing interpretation of various letters or characters, individuals will be able to tacitly acclimate themselves to complex rules that might make the learning process more difficult. The tacit nature of implicit learning largely means that this learning is defined as that without awareness (DeKeyser, 2008) -- meaning that one can learn radicals and their meaning simply by learning what Chinese characters mean. Explicit learning about Chinese, on the other hand, is that in which attention to the rules of radicals is given "prominence" (Taft & Chung, 1999). However, there is a marked possibility that indicates that by formalizing and denoting various rules about a language, adult learners will simply have more information to incorporate that could possibly overwhelmed and even alienate them.

Nonetheless, there is also research that indicates that by providing adults with all of the formal rules and their exceptions about a foreign system of writing, educators are in fact equipping them with the information that they will need to know to master that writing system (Dunlap et al., 2011). Perhaps the most salient way of testing these conflicting theories is to measure how students are able to perform when tested on grammatical, syntactical and semantic irregularities. These issues become all the more eminent when one is considering teaching the writing of a foreign language such as Chinese and its characters to adult students who speak English. There is also literature that indicates that there is a correlation between explicitly informing learners about information pertaining to radicals in Chinese and a demonstrated efficacy in helping non-native Chinese students learn that character (Taft & Chung, 1999). Moreover, the value of semantic radicals certainly influences character recognition for native Chinese speakers (Williams & Bever, 2010). Based on this somewhat abbreviated review of the salient literature pertaining to the instruction of Chinese for adults who are traditionally English speakers, this study aims to determine which method is truly more efficacious: the implicit or explicit one. Specifically, it will look to examine whether or not adults can learn the role of semantic radicals, and if this knowledge can benefit them in learning to write Chinese. The author hypothesizes that adults can learn this function, and that doing so will help them to learn to write the language.


The results revealed that for the most part, implicit instruction either exceeded or was close to equal to the efficacy of the explicit instructions regarding semantic radicals. The superiority of this means of teaching is demonstrated most notably in the results from the immediate recall test, in which the mean accuracy of the students who utilized the implicit method was 43.33% for irregular semantics as opposed to a mean accuracy of 33.19% for the other group. The standard deviation of the former was 22.38%, while that for the latter was 18.83%, which mitigates these results somewhat. The margin between the groups with the regular semantic radicals was narrower, with the implicit group still surpassing its counterpart at a 46.67 percentage (22.09 standard deviation) as composed to explicit group's 43.89 percentage (18.70 standard deviation) deviation. During the delayed recall test the explicit group exceeded the implicit group on regular semantic radicals at a rate of 21.25 (18.05 standard deviation) to 19.13 (16.49 standard deviation). The groups were nearly equal with the irregular semantics radicals with the implicit achieving 12.90% accuracy (12.20 standard deviation) to the explicit group's 12.22 (13.42 standard deviation). In the immediate recall test of the semantically irregular Chinese characters, there was a substantial effect of regularity rated F (1, 92) =22.84, p<.01 evinced in the two-way repeated measures in Anova. Those who learned explicitly had a better rating than those who learned implicitly. The effect of regularity when combined with learning was significant and produced a rating of F (1, 92) = 6.29, p<.01. In the delayed recall test, the explicit irregular students were swifter as the rating of F (1, 92) = 29.81, p <.01 for regularity and F (1, 92) = 1.00, p<.01 demonstrates.


The results widely challenge the notion that explicit instruction about the rules of orthography actually produces a positive impact in adult learners. This fact is demonstrated in both the immediate and delayed recall tests. In the former, the implicit group produced higher rates of accuracy than the explicit group did, particularly in terms of irregular semantic radicals. Perhaps what is truly elucidating is the fact that the implicit group surpassed its counterpart in this same stratification of radicals a week later during the delayed recall test. The notion that there is a circumscribed degree of efficacy in explicitly teaching adults about facets of orthography is tempered, somewhat, by the results of the regular semantic radicals found in the delayed recall test, which was the only codification in which the explicit group outperformed the implicit group.

One of the most profound conclusions that the researchers drew from these results is that the results provide corroboration for the notion of some of the detriments previously associated with an explicit learning approach. Specifically, there is research that indicates that this methodology serves to confuse more than edify and clarify orthographic structure of a different system of writing in adult learners. Even in accomplished Chinese foreign language learners, there are instances in which "radicals that had no immediately interpretation related to character meaning had a strong inhibitory effect" (Williams, 2013) on learning. The evidence that readily points to this conclusion is that which pertains to the irregular semantic radical characters. The point of correlation between this evidence and the aforementioned surmise is readily apparent. Whatever explicit knowledge that those in this particular group were taught pertaining to these radicals -- such as which ones represented grain, rice, fire, etc. -- no longer applied with characters that were irregular. Thus, these concepts could likely have served as a point of obfuscation for those in this group. This fact is corroborated by the notion that Chinese radicals are used inconsistently by native Chinese speakers (Law et al., 2005).

Additionally, from a pure didactic or academic approach, those in this group were responsible for internalizing and remembering much more content than those in the other group were. Those in the implicit group simply had to associate English words with what amounted to Chinese pictures (which were, of course, characters). Those in the explicit group not only had to account for those words, but also were taught in such a method that they would have to account for the different meanings of the semantic radicals as a means of deducing the verbal meanings of those characters. And, finally, they also had to attempt to recognize in which instances the semantic radical information they learned no longer applied because they were examples of irregular semantic radicals. Therefore, those in this group not only had to memorize additional information that those in the other group did not have to memorize, but they also had to discern when that information did not apply. The results seem to indicate that all of this extra cognitive work issued for those in this group did not necessarily help them better learn these Chinese characters.

The most cogent point of evidence to buttress this conclusion is the disparity between the two group's scores in the irregular semantic radicals found in the immediate recall test, which reflects a 10% difference. One might also argue that these results are more indicative of the efficacy in teaching methods since the accuracy recorded in the delayed recall test was substantially lesser than that recorded during the initial test -- since a week had passed without any more dedicated learning about this subject. The groups managed less than half of the accuracy percentages in the delayed test as compared to the immediate test in the regular semantic radicals.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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