Chinese character decoding: A semantic bias?

Clay Williams, Thomas Bever

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


The effects of semantic and phonetic radicals on Chinese character decoding were examined. Our results suggest that semantic and phonetic radicals are each available for access when a corresponding task emphasizes one or the other kind of radical. But in a more neutral lexical recognition task, the semantic radical is more informative. Semantic radicals that correctly pertain to character meaning facilitated reaction time in semantic categorization tasks (Experiment #1), while radicals that had no immediately interpretable relation to character meaning had a strong inhibitory effect. Likewise, phonetic radicals that accurately indicated a character's pronunciation facilitated a homonym recognition task (Experiment #2), whereas phonetic radicals that differed significantly in pronunciation from their character inhibited homonym recognition. In a lexical decision task (Experiment #3) where each character had either a blurred semantic radical or a blurred phonetic radical, the characters with a blurred semantic radical elicited a significantly higher error rate and a trend for longer response times. These results are interpreted to indicate that while educated native Chinese speakers have full use of both semantic and phonetic paths to character decoding, there is a slight predisposition to semantic decoding strategies over phonetic ones indicating that the semantic path is the default means of character recognition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)589-605
Number of pages17
JournalReading and Writing
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2010


  • Chinese character processing
  • Chinese reading
  • Dual route
  • Phonological activation
  • Semantic activation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Education
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Speech and Hearing


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