The research team led by Professor Yuan Zhen from the Centre for Cognitive and Brain Sciences at the University of Macau (UM) has made a series of advancements in the field of foreign language learning and bilingual processing. Their research revealed both similarities and differences between native and foreign language vocabulary representation and processing, which are informative for vocabulary learning and teaching. These achievements have been published in internationally renowned journals in the science of learning, brain sciences, and linguistics.

Words are an integral component of the human language faculty and learning process, and the “mental lexicon” in the human brain is used to store the words we learn. Morphology, however, as a significant part of the mental lexicon, has not received sufficient research attention. Meanwhile, from a typological perspective, there are significant differences in the morphological rules between Chinese and Indo-European languages. Nevertheless, the neural representation of Chinese morphological processing and the mechanisms of cross-linguistic vocabulary acquisition remain unclear.

The team’s research showed that, compared to semantic processing, morphological processing takes places later during the time course of Chinese compound word reading, and the prefrontal cortex in the left hemisphere plays a crucial role in this process. A recent study, using a combination of electroencephalography (EEG) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) techniques, explored the neural correlates of morphological processing in Chinese-English bilingual adults. Their results indicated that the morphological processing of the native language Chinese induces stronger activation in the left prefrontal region than the second language English. Both native and foreign languages share automatic morphological parsing and structural priming at the sub-lexical level, as well as top-down processing at the lexical level. These findings support a unified competition model for bilingual development, where bilinguals primarily employ a common processing strategy, thus transferring L1 resources into L2 use. This line of research has been published in the renowned journals Cortex and npj Science of Learning.

Fig 1: Brain potentials related to Chinese words, pseudowords, and nonwords among Chinese native speakers.

Fig 2: Neural correlates of morphological and semantic processing in Chinese and English among adult bilinguals

Additionally, another study by the team discussed the lexical representations units of foreign students learning Chinese. It found that as second language proficiency improves, learners tend to rely more on whole-word representations. These results have important implications for deepening our understanding of the Chinese mental lexicon and vocabulary pedagogy for Chinese as a second language. This achievement has been published in the top journal International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Furthermore, the team has led a longitudinal study on Portuguese language learning by Macau students, which tracked one-year change in motivation, language performance, brain structure, and function, with the aim of identifying neural markers for Portuguese fluency.

The research on was led by Prof Yuan. Gao Fei, PhD at the Centre for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of UM (currently Assistant Professor at Fudan University), was the first author. The studies were supported by the Science and Technology Development Fund of the Macao SAR (File no: 0048/2021/AGJ and 0020/2019/AMJ), the Education Fund of the Macao SAR (File no: CP-UMAC-2020-01), and the University of Macau (File no: MYRG2020-00067-FHS and MYRG2019-00082-FHS). The full version of the paper on bilingual morphological processing can be viewed at

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