Proximate units in word production: Phonological encoding begins with syllables in Mandarin Chinese but with segments in English

Padraig G. O'Seaghdha*, Jenn Yeu Chen, Train Min Chen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

143 Citations (Scopus)


In Mandarin Chinese, speakers benefit from fore-knowledge of what the first syllable but not of what the first phonemic segment of a disyllabic word will be (Chen, Chen, & Dell, 2002), contrasting with findings in English, Dutch, and other Indo-European languages, and challenging the generality of current theories of word production. In this article, we extend the evidence for the language difference by showing that failure to prepare onsets in Mandarin (Experiment 1) applies even to simple monosyllables (Experiments 2-4), and confirm the contrast with English for comparable materials (Experiments 5 and 6). We also provide new evidence that Mandarin speakers do reliably prepare tonally unspecified phonological syllables (Experiment 7). To account for these patterns, we propose a language general proximate units principle whereby intentional preparation for speech as well as phonological-lexical coordination are grounded at the first phonological level below the word at which explicit unit selection occurs. The language difference arises because syllables are proximate units in Mandarin Chinese, whereas segments are proximate in English and other Indo-European languages. The proximate units perspective reconciles the aspiration toward a language general account of word production with the reality of substantial cross-linguistic differences.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)282-302
Number of pages21
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2010 May
Externally publishedYes


  • Cross-linguistic analysis
  • Phonological encoding
  • Proximate units
  • Speech planning
  • Syllable production

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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