Author: Kasumi Yamamoto TITLE: The Acquisition of Japanese Numeral Classifiers SUBTITLE: The Case of Japanese Children SERIES: Studies on Language Acquisition 27 PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter YEAR: 2005 ANNOUNCED IN: https://linguistlist.org/issues/16/16-2256.html
Robert Albon, unaffiliated scholar.
This book is based on Yamamoto's dissertation on Japanese preschooler acquisition of numeral classifiers (hereafter classifiers) and the development of comprehension in children. It differs from previous work in its use of ''strong contrast'' testing. Yamamoto finds that children are more sensitive to the semantic and conceptual components of classifiers than previously thought, and grasp the world in cognitive rather than perceptual terms.
There are four chapters: Chapter 1, ''Introduction'' (pp. 1-53), Chapter 2, ''Previous acquisition research on numeral classifiers'' (pp. 54-96), Chapter 3, ''Present study'' (pp. 97-153), and Chapter 4, ''General discussion and conclusion'' (pp. 154-180), Notes and Reference sections, and an Index.
Chapters 1 and 2 include a prodigious amount of background information on classifiers and classifier acquisition in Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and many other languages. The correlations Yamamoto draws between classifiers in Asian languages and gender in European languages, and her superb summary of Chinese classifiers, were especially interesting.
In Ch. 3, Section 5 (Strong contrast comprehension test; pp 126-140), Yamamoto details the primary difference between her study, the first to control stimuli, and previous work. Uncontrolled stimuli tests looked only at children's production, giving the impression that children do not fully understand the conceptual component of classifiers because they cannot reproduce it. Strong contrast testing created an environment that forced children to use classifiers they did not know. Children substituted default classifiers, showing that they understand the concept of a classifier even though they do not always know ''correct, adult-like'' usage, evidence that children have a better conceptual grasp of classifiers than previously thought, and that children understand the world conceptually as opposed to perceptually. The graphs in this and the following chapter, which clearly illustrate how Yamamoto's work differs from previous work, are used to good effect.
Yamamoto proposes the following order of classifier acquisition:
- Bound form (child repeats what is heard, possibly mistaking the classifier for part of the number);
- Filler (child realizes there is a classifier, but does not know what it is, so uses a filler in the space where the classifier should be);
- Conceptual (child can guess unknown classifiers based on category);
- Cultural (child learns complex phonological constructions and idiosyncratic classifiers that are culturally, and not conceptually, based).
Yamamoto finds that a ''mixed approach'' is superior to completely conceptual or completely cultural descriptions of the Japanese classifier system. Yamamoto believes that the influence of caregiver input on acquisition and the significantly slower acquisition of classifiers by Japanese children living overseas is evidence that environmental factors may limit child acquisition more than cognitive factors. The author concludes (in Chapter 4) that the extent of children's exposure to a classifier and its complexity affect acquisition speed, but communicative and pragmatic factors, not cognitive limitations, shape children's usage. She adds that general classifiers are sufficient for semantic distinction and adult-like usage is not crucial for communication.
The book does not seem to have an abstract or a true introduction: Ch. 1 launches into a detailed description of classifier systems around the world. A brief introduction to the study first would have made introductory materials more meaningful. I recommend readers to take a quick look at pages 181-2 (Closing Remarks) first. Otherwise, editing was excellent: I found only one typo ('zhan' [sic] on p. 4 should be 'zhang').
Yamamoto limited her final conclusion to a discussion of strong contrast testing, and, in the text, Yamamoto focuses on child acquisition, skirting the debate over whether classifiers are conceptual or cultural, claiming that they are a little of each.
At least for this reader, it was impossible to not contemplate implications for the conceptual-cultural debate beyond the context of child language acquisition. A conceptualist might take Yamamoto's finding that children acquire conceptually-based classifiers before culturally-based classifiers as evidence that classifiers are more conceptual than cultural. On the other hand, Yamamoto's conclusions that variation in the classifier system is unnecessary for communication, that the speed at which children acquire classifiers is related to exposure to Japanese culture, and that children continue learning classifiers well into their teens, suggested to me that classifiers are cultural artifacts used for pragmatic effect: the entire system is unnecessary for communication, but inability to use the full system marks speakers as uneducated. Her findings led me to ask questions such as ''If it is a conceptual system, shouldn't it be available to all, based on common perceptual ability, and failure to use it properly would affect understanding?'' or ''Might a marked, difficult to acquire cultural component not provide an effective means for marking speaker status?'' I believe there is valuable data here for both conceptualists and culturalists.
There were some minor concerns. Yamamoto states that '-ri' is used only for humans, '-wa' for rabbits, '-hiki' for other small animals, such as dogs and cats, and '-too' for large animals, etc. Yamamoto is not alone in overgeneralizing ''correct, adult Japanese'' classifier usage, but a quick search on yahoo.jp shows that '-ri', '-hiki', and '-too' are all in productive adult use for dogs and cats. Some Japanese speakers use '-ri' for pets in unguarded speech, others use it consciously on their web pages. Scientists purposely use '-too' to refer to dogs, cats, rabbits and other animals in written reports and conference presentations. Parents jokingly count their own children using -hiki. ''Correct, adult Japanese'' classifier usage is considerably more flexible than the rigid system that Yamamoto presents.
Furthermore, the distinction Yamamoto draws between conceptually-based classifiers and culturally-based classifiers is not the only possible distinction. Especially for '-hon', used to count telephone calls, video tapes, and many other items, establishing a common conceptual relationship is difficult at best. The distinction could just as easily be drawn between unmarked and marked classifiers: it is only natural that children acquire unmarked items before marked.
As an aside, I found Yamamoto's comparison of European gender morphology with Asian classifiers provocative. As a French-English translator, I use gender morphology to keep track of anaphoric references. As a Japanese-English and Chinese-English translator, I use classifiers for the same purpose. I find that gender morphology and classifier systems are in general idiosyncratic but useful tools for following anaphora through a conversation, but had not tied the two together until reading this book.
In conclusion, the background information on classifiers in Asian languages and Yamamoto's findings on the development of comprehension in children are excellent. Yamamoto's stance that classifiers are partly cultural and partly conceptual is a safe position that leaves the book equally interesting for conceptualists and culturalists. The book is also of interest to anyone interested in Japanese linguistics in general, as it is very readable even if you are not a specialist in child language acquisition.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Robert Albon graduated from UW-Madison with a B.A. in East Asian Languages and Literature in 1995. He has been a professional translator of Japanese, Chinese, and French since 1991. His linguistics research interests include popular oral language and dialects of Japanese, Chinese, French, and Haitian Creole, and he has done field work in each in Canada, Japan, and China. A member of the American Translator's Association (ATA), Japan Association of Translators (JAT), and Linguistics Society of America (LSA), he publishes book reviews in the ATA Chronicle, Language, and LINGLIST and presents at the ATA annual conference and the annual International Japanese-English Translation (IJET) conference on a wide range of subjects. Copies of his work are available online at www.albon.us or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.