Compound Words Could Hold a Key to Language Learning

Dr. Hasibe Kahraman and Dr. Lisi Beyersmann’s compound word research was featured on Macquarie University’s News Hub (2 April 2024).

A new study has found bilingual readers approach compound words like ‘sandpaper’ and ‘snowball’ in different ways from native English speakers, offering potential insights in how we can learn languages more effectively.

The study, published in the Journal of Cognition by researchers from the Macquarie University School of Psychological Sciences, looked at the complexities of compound word processing for people who spoke only English compared to those who spoke both Chinese and English. Participants from the two language groups were asked to read English words like ‘honeymoon’ and ‘honey’, and decide if the smaller component was a real word.

The compound words were a mix of transparent compounds (which derive their meaning from both parts of the word, like ‘snowball’), opaque compounds (where the meaning cannot necessarily be guessed from the root words, like ‘honeymoon’) and orthographic forms (which happen to include a smaller word that does not contribute to meaning, in the way ‘sand’ can be seen in ‘sandwich’).

Lead author, PhD candidate Dr Hasibe Kahraman, says what they found during the study was fascinating.

“When the native speakers saw compound words like ‘honeymoon’, they seemed to automatically break them down into their component parts,” Dr Kahraman says.

“It's as if their brains were dissecting the word to understand its meaning.

“Things were different for the bilingual group. When they read compound words like ‘sandpaper,’ their brains didn't always pick up on the internal structure right away.

“Instead, they seemed to notice smaller words within the compound, even if those words didn't really belong together or add to the meaning – like ‘and’ or ‘ape’.

“They might notice the ‘sand’ in ‘sandwich’ without necessarily thinking about the meaning of the whole word.

Senior author, Dr Lisi Beyersmann, says understanding how the two groups understand compound words could help improve not only how we learn languages, but how we teach them to others.

“The key to reading fluency is being able to recognise words quickly, and we saw the monolingual participants able to access what we call shallow processing power, which we weren’t seeing as much in the bilingual participants,” she says.

“Our findings suggest that monolinguals might have a knack for digging deeper into the structure of compound words, while bilinguals might be picking up on smaller parts in a more random way.

“It’s like uncovering a secret code our brains use to unlock the meanings of words, and the more we understand it, the better we can become at mastering languages.”

The study also suggests that bilinguals face challenges in their ability to accurately interpret and use complex vocabulary in their second language.

Dr Beyersmann says that second language education could consider incorporating activities that promote deeper analysis of complex words as a way of enhancing reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition.

In future research, she would like to look at whether it could be helpful to teach bilingual readers the morphological structure of words early on, encouraging them to look for components like embedded words, suffixes and prefixes.