Does semantic activation spread across languages? An experimental study with Chinese-English bilinguals
AbstractIt has been well documented in the literature that translation equivalents have special status in bilinguals’ lexical system and can be treated as synonymy across languages. It has been claimed that translation equivalents are overlapped at the conceptual level across languages with different orthographic and phonological forms. Evidence to support this claim comes from cross-language priming studies in which subjects respond to L2 targets faster if targets are preceded by their translation equivalents (translation primes), compared to unrelated primes in lexical decision. Evidence observed in the masked priming paradigm is more convincing in the sense that subjects are not aware of the existence of primes but still produce priming effects from L1 to L2 in lexical decision. In order to have a complete understanding of the semantic organization of bilinguals’ lexical system, a question worthwhile to ask is whether crosslanguage word pairs that are semantically related but not translationequivalents bear any relation with each other at the conceptual level. Previous studies have shown even semantically related cross-language word pairs can generate priming from L1 to L2 when the primes are visible. However, visible primes usually involve strategic processing, which cannot be taken as evidence to support the argument that semantically related cross-language word pairs are conceptually-mediated. This study attempts to investigate whether an L1 prime could generate a more ‘general’ level of semantic priming to enhance the processing of the L2 target under the masked priming condition. This will test the hypothesis of whether semantically related cross-language word pairs are conceptually-mediated by using the lexical decision task. The results show strong priming from L1 to L2 for translation equivalents, but not for semantically-related word pairs. It is suggested that cross-language processing is specific and priming is unique to translation equivalents. In conclusion, it can be argued that semantically-related cross-language word pairs do not conceptually overlap and their mental representations could be very separate.