Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 10: 439–455, 1998.
The role of phonology in reading Japanese:
Or why I don’t hear myself when reading Japanese
Department of Psychology, Macquarie University, NSW, Australia
Abstract. Based on the phenomenal experience that when I read Japanese I don’t hear ‘inner
speech’, I suggest that the role of phonology may be more limited when reading text in
Japanese than in English. Although this possibility has been suggested by others, I argue for
somewhat different sources of this reduced role. Speciﬁcally, I propose that the greater visual
discriminability of kanji words under degraded conditions, and the less important role of word
order as a syntactic cue are likely to be the key factors. Relevant literature is reviewed, and
directions for future research are suggested.
Key words: Kana/kanji mapping to phonology, Reduced phonology in parafoveal preview,
Word order in sentence comprehension
C.K. Leong & K. Tamaoka (eds.), Cognitive Processing of the Chinese
and the Japanese Languages, pp. [285–301]
© 1998 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
I would like to begin this article with a personal observation: in reading
materials of comparable complexity, I do not seem to rely on ‘inner speech’
as much when reading text in Japanese relative to English. One possible
source of this difference is my level of reading skill in the two languages.
(Sub)vocalization has been suggested to play a more important role for begin-
ning than for skilled readers: hence in my case phonology may play a less
important role when I read Japanese because I may be more skilled at reading
Japanese than English. Other introspective evidence (e.g., relative ﬂuency in
auditory comprehension and speaking) suggests that for me, this is unlikely
to be the source of the difference, and for the purpose of this article I will
limit my discussion to the comparative role of phonology in skilled readers.
The idea that the importance of phonology in (skilled) reading may vary
across languages is not novel (e.g., Frost, Katz & Bentin 1987). Typically, this
variation is attributed to orthographic depth, that is, the relative complexity
of the relationship between the written symbol (letters and characters) and
sound. Japanese kanji, like Chinese characters, are logographic in that they
represent morphemes, while Japanese kana represent syllables (or more
precisely moras, that correspond to a single vowel or consonant-vowel combi-
nation). Kanji and kana are said to lie on the opposite ends of the orthographic
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