Bilingualism, biliteracy and metalinguistic awareness: Word awareness in English and Japanese users of Chinese as a second language

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Cross-linguistic research shows that some aspects of metalinguistic awareness are affected by characteristics of different writing systems. Users of writing systems that mark word boundaries (such as English) develop word awareness, while users of unspaced writing systems (such as Chinese) do not. Previous research showed that English-speaking users of Chinese as a Second Language (CSL) have higher levels of Chinese word awareness than Chinese monolingual speakers. The present study aimed at disentangling the effects of bilingualism/biliteracy and the effects of L1 writing system characteristics by comparing users of Chinese whose L1 writing system does or does not mark word boundaries. Three groups (Chinese, English-Chinese and Japanese-Chinese) performed two Chinese word segmentation tasks. Results showed significant differences among the groups in mean word lengths and mean level of intra-group agreement. The English group had higher intragroup agreement rates and shorter word lengths than the other two groups; the Japanese group had higher agreement rates than the Chinese group. It is argued that Chinese word awareness as revealed by word segmentation tasks is mostly affected by literacy in a writing system that marks word boundaries, but bilingualism and biliteracy also play a role.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
JournalBirkbeck Studies in Applied Linguistics
Publication statusPublished - 2007


  • word awareness
  • metalinguistic awareness
  • Chinese
  • writing systems
  • bilingualism
  • biliteracy
  • second language writing systems
  • japanese

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