Interference is the idea that prior learning can interfere with new learning. In linguistics, interference, also known as the negative transfer of habits, is usually implicated in the difficulty people have learning a second language. Nearly every adult student of a second language can tell stories of the intriguing ways their native language influences acquisition of the target language.
Interference may create accents. Few adults, no matter how proficient, can entirely rid their second language speech of traces of their native language. The mother tongue is so powerful. In fact, children who grow up as linguistic minorities may hear their mother tongue from no one except their mother, and yet grow up to be fully bilingual in both the minority and the majority language. Such native speakers of more than one language are everywhere in the world.
Therefore, I am not surprised to find out that Cantonese-speaking children do not rely as much on phonics to read English as children whose mother languages are English or Spanish. The intriguing (but not surprising) part of the findings is that Cantonese-speaking children rely on phonics as much as 50 percent. Clearly phonics helps them read.
During the 1980's, I conducted a study in Japan with Japanese seventh grade English language learners. I found that, without exception, I could readily attribute their English encoding errors to the Japanese phoneme encoding system. Japanese seventh graders did not simply misspell English words. They actually processed English phonemes as if they were Japanese phonemes, and then expressed English words by transcribing Japanese phonemes using English letters. Students often reported they could not hear the difference between certain Japanese and English phonemes.
At that time their English teachers did not utilize phonics in their English instruction. Even as the phonics wars were raging in America, the Japanese teachers of English had never even heard of phonics. They did teach the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to their students on the premise that it would help them learn English, but I observed that IPA was just one more set of symbols to learn. I did not see IPA helping students at all.
I further discovered that phonics instruction materials published in English-speaking countries confused students more often than they helped. Japanese text uses a mix of three writing systems, hiragana, katakana and kanji.
Hiragana expresses the sounds of Japanese using letters. Each letter stands for a syllable, not separate consonants and vowels. Katakana is also a syllabary containing a counterpart to each hiragana symbol and pronounced exactly the same as the corresponding hiragana symbol. Katakana is generally used for non-Japanese words like “makudonarudo”* (McDonalds). Kanji are Chinese characters. Japanese mixes all three writing systems together. For example, I ate a hamburger would be written watashi(in kanji) wa(in hiragana) hambaga(in katakana) wo(in hiragana) tabe(in kanji)mashita(in hiragana).
I ended up creating a phonics program designed for Japanese students, and subsequently training Japanese teachers to use the materials. Many teachers and students found the idea that you could actually sound out English words amazing. They had long thought that learning to read English must be as tedious an undertaking as learning to read the ubiquitous Chinese characters. They were thrilled to find that while they must memorize some English words, most words, probably 85 percent, follow a particular and predictable pattern. Students who learned the patterns could decode many more words than they could relying on discrete memorization alone.
At least Japanese students have the concept of sounding out words because they sound out hiragana and katakana words all the time. Mandarin Chinese has a few phonetic characters, such as the three characters that “spell” out chocolate (chao-ke-li)*, but Chinese is all about memorizing many characters. Chinese has 405 discrete syllables, but over 10,000 characters because each syllable can take on one of four tones and many, many syllables have multiple meanings, each expressed with a different character.
I believe that if Yuuko Uchikoshi, the assistant professor of education at the University of California, Davis, who conducted the study with Cantonese-speaking children, were to replicate her study with Japanese-speaking children, she may find that Japanese children rely more on decoding than the Cantonese-speaking children because they already sound out hiragana and katakana. She may also want to consider that all Chinese, whatever their native language, receive their education in Mandarin, not their native language.
The use of decoding depends on the linguistic community of the child, and appears to fall on a continuum from the phonetic systems of English and Spanish speakers, to the mixed system of the Japanese, to the almost entirely ideographic system of the Chinese.
Some people believe the lesser dependence on decoding manifested by the Cantonese-speaking children should be construed as ammunition in the phonics wars. Sadly, even though a truce was called long ago, some people still fight and see studies such as this one as recommending less phonics and more sight reading. More likely, the study supports the continued use of phonics as a reading tool without diminishing the value of sight reading as another tool.
*I have transcribed Japanese and Chinese syllables and words using English letters as an aid to non-speakers. The Japanese transcription is called "Romaji" and the Chinese transcription is called "Pinyin."