"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Margaret Mead
Research Article

The Proximate Phonological Unit of Chinese-English Bilinguals: Proficiency Matters


An essential step to create phonology according to the language production model by Levelt, Roelofs and Meyer is to assemble phonemes into a metrical frame. However, recently, it has been proposed that different languages may rely on different grain sizes of phonological units to construct phonology. For instance, it has been proposed that, instead of phonemes, Mandarin Chinese uses syllables and Japanese uses moras to fill the metrical frame. In this study, we used a masked priming-naming task to investigate how bilinguals assemble their phonology for each language when the two languages differ in grain size. Highly proficient Mandarin Chinese-English bilinguals showed a significant masked onset priming effect in English (L2), and a significant masked syllabic priming effect in Mandarin Chinese (L1). These results suggest that their proximate unit is phonemic in L2 (English), and that bilinguals may use different phonological units depending on the language that is being processed. Additionally, under some conditions, a significant sub-syllabic priming effect was observed even in Mandarin Chinese, which indicates that L2 phonology exerts influences on L1 target processing as a consequence of having a good command of English.