Interesting experiment set up:
English word pairs were shown to the participants.
“The first word flashed on the computer screen so quickly (for just 59 milliseconds) that the person didn’t realise they had seen it. The second word appeared for longer; the person was supposed to hit a key indicating whether it was a real English word as quickly as possible. This was simply a test to see how quickly they were processing the word.
Although everything in the test was in English, in some cases, the two words actually had a connection – but only if you know how they’re written in Chinese. So, for example, the first word might be ‘thing’ which is written 东西 in Chinese, and the second might be ‘west’ which is written 西 in Chinese. The character for ‘west’ appears in the word ‘thing’ but these two words are totally unrelated in English.
Zhang found that, when two words shared characters in Chinese, participants processed the second word faster – even though they had no conscious knowledge of having seen the first word in the pair. Even though these students are fluent in English, their brains still automatically translate what they see into Chinese. This suggests that knowledge of a first language automatically influences the processing of a second language, even when they are very different, unrelated languages.”