LINGUIST List 25.5066

Fri Dec 12 2014

Review: Applied Ling; Lang Acquisition: Wang (2013)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 09-Jun-2014
From: Clare Wright <>
Subject: Grammatical Development of Chinese among Non-native Speakers
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Xiaojing Wang
TITLE: Grammatical Development of Chinese among Non-native Speakers
SUBTITLE: From a Processability Account
PUBLISHER: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Clare Wright, University of Reading

Review's Editor: Anthony Aristar


This monograph, based on the author’s PhD thesis, is an examination of eight
learners at a UK university, acquiring Chinese as a Second Language (CSL). The
research takes the perspective of Pienemann’s (1998) Processability Theory to
investigate learners’ stages of development over 11 months, confirming and
adding further detail to existing PT-based models. The book relates the
empirical language evidence to the textbooks and exposure of the participants,
to see how their language did or did not reflect the teaching materials they
used. So this book has both a theoretical and empirical value to SLA
researchers, for whom it is primarily intended, but also with additional value
to CSL teachers keen to familiarise themselves with theory in order to inform
their teaching.

Chapter one is a very brief introduction of the wider context of CSL research,
referencing some of the key works underpinning this book, and providing a
helpful summary of the book’s structure. Chapter 2 reviews literature on the
theoretical and empirical foundation of Processability Theory (PT), and its
accompanying syntactic model of Lexical Functional Grammar (LFG). The author
also includes a section of studies critiquing PT, which strengthens the
overall perspective of this work within the wider context of SLA. The final
substantive section covers teachability and learnability questions, how the
principles of PT-based hierarchies can connect with syllabus design and
teaching plans. The section concludes with the strong claim that “the effect
of teaching is constrained by processability” (p37), and that the
“Teachability Hypothesis in conjunction with PT allows the teachers to know
which structures to teach and how to avoid ineffective structural teaching
objectives” (p40).

Chapter 3 takes a structural descriptive approach to Chinese syntax in eight
main sections dedicated to different phenomena at morpheme/lexeme level,
phrasal level and sentence level. The structures overviewed are mainly those
most closely related to the author’s principal research focus in terms of
processing concerns and developmental considerations. These also provide a
very helpful overview of key learnability issues for anyone interested in what
structures might pose difficulties for CSL learners.

Starting with nouns and classifiers, the author briefly mentions the lack of
any case or plural marking on nouns and some different types and functions of
classifiers. Moving on to ‘de’-morpheme structures, the author highlights six
instances of ‘de’-morpheme use with nouns and verbs (although a typing error
gives us two sections 3.2.2). Noun + ‘de’-morpheme uses are primarily
attributive, including ‘de’-possessive or ‘de’-adjectival marking.
‘De’-morpheme can similarly be used with verbs to create a V-complement or
adverbial use, and to mark descriptive clause elements in relative clauses
which, in Chinese, unlike in English, are left-branching. The author points
out when ‘de’ can be optionally or usually deleted, and highlights the
prevalence of optional deletion in Chinese in general, making for various
learnability problems for CSL learners.

Next, regarding verbal morphemes, the author focuses on two progressive
markers (‘zhengzai’ and ‘zhe’) and perfective markers ‘le’ and ‘guo’, which
the author variously terms “tense markers” (p50) or “aspect markers” (p51).
Next the author points out syntactic or sentence level issues, starting with
topicalisation, identified as one of the major “distinctive syntactic
features” of Chinese (p52), and including questions, passive voice
(‘bei’-structure) and ‘ba’-structure (unique to Chinese). All these phenomena
are seen by the author as relevant for syntactic awareness relating to
higher-level PT stages, marking “the disentangling of the canonical
association between the position of the elements at the sentence level” (p56).
The structures are highlighted as posing particular problems for learners,
particular the ‘ba’- and ‘bei’-structures which are claimed to be poorly
mastered by nearly “50%” (p62) of students taking the standardised Chinese
test of proficiency (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi or HSK, equivalent to IELTS or

In Chapter 4, the author provides an overview of other studies of Chinese as a
Second Language. She reveals there is still relatively little CSL research
available, particularly in English; the studies focused on here are divided
into studies focusing on specific morpheme acquisition, those focusing on
sentence-level structures such as topicalisation, and finishing with the very
few studies that exist for L2 Chinese using PT. The author’s main interest is
in the evidence of two PT researchers, Zhang (2001, 2008) and Gao (2005),
arising from their PhD dissertations, who have claimed a predictable PT-based
order of five stages of acquisition for certain morphemes and syntactic
word-ordering from two relatively small scale studies, covering de-morpheme
acquisition, interrogatives, subordination, topicalisation and use of
‘ba’-structure. The chapter highlights the research gap in terms of the
restricted and unrelated choices of structures currently studied, and the lack
of sufficient information about the potential effect of instructional order on
acquisitional order.

The author concludes that there is still little to “provide us with an
understanding of CSL as a whole” (p86), leading to the study’s five research
questions detailed in the following brief Chapter 5, which is more of a
pre-section for the methodological discussions in Chapter 6.

Chapter 6, on Methodology, covers some general issues informing acquisition
research and specific decisions taken in this specific study. Section 6.2
justifies the choice of the eight participants (two first year students and
six second year students, all with varying prior knowledge of Chinese or
experience of China before the study started). Section 6.3 is a lengthy
section discussing problems and issues in designing appropriate tasks for data
elicitation. Section 6.4 provides a rationale for using the “emergence”
criterion for acquisition, as used in PT studies when assessing presence or
absence of acquired structures. Details of specific task design and procedures
are not detailed in this chapter, but are added as a final section in Part 2,
towards the end of the book.

Chapter 7 presents a justification of evidence from the participants in
support of the proposed hierarchy of five stages. The evidence is not
presented in full from all participants, but six of the eight are used to
justify similarities and differences in the proposed acquisitional hierarchy
including one second year student who failed to get beyond stage 3, and
another first year who reached stage four most rapidly among the whole group.
The middle section (7.2.4) provides a concise presentation of the new claims
of the author’s research. She identifies more detailed structures within the
proposed 5-stage hierarchy, giving a useful table (p153) to confirm evidence
from her data of the main stages of the PT models previously suggested by
Zhang and Gao. The current study adds interesting variability in stages for
topicalisation from stage 2 to stage 4 (rather than locating all
topicalisation in stage 4 in Zhang and Gao’s models), and provides new
evidence of co-ordinate clauses at stage 2, conditional clauses at stage 3,
and ‘bei’ structures at stage 5.

Thus it seems that the case studies from this UK group echo the stages found
by the studies done in Australia by Zhang and in New Zealand and China by Gao,
as robust support of the claimed universality of the PT hierarchy. In a useful
application of PT hierarchies to the input provided through textbooks, the
author compares the main textbooks used by Zhang, Gao and her own students, to
see if the textbooks are similar to the PT stages of acquisition in order of
presenting these structures – in order to test the “myth” of the power of
formal instruction in the process of language development (p157). The UK
textbook does not in fact seem to reflect a clear hierarchy in the way that
Zhang and Gao’s learners’ textbooks do, potentially supporting the claim that
acquisition follows a natural universal order rather than the formal
instructed order. The author here reflects on the variety of additional
exposure to Chinese among her participants, e.g. the benefits of working in a
local Chinese restaurant for the learner with the widest range and accuracy of
structures. The author concludes that quality and quantity of input does,
after all, tend to lead to “overwhelming benefits”(p168) compared to formal
instruction only, though she notes that among the formal learners, high levels
of motivation also play a role.

The book then provides a Part II, giving a stand-alone chapter 8 on Task
Design, with more detail on how tasks were refined during the data collection
process, in order to elicit specific structures which were relatively few in
the original planned activities such as free conversation, information gap

The book concludes with Chapter 9, summarising the main findings and
presenting some personal reflections on how to deal with the inevitable
confounding element of “unpredictable factors” brought by individuals in SLA
research (p193), and limitations in the study design both in task design and
length of data collection. The author concludes, with some justification, that
“even though influential factors may, to different degrees, affect the
acquisition speed of CSL learners, the Chinese acquisition sequence driven by
PT cannot be violated” (p194). Following the references, there are appendices
linking the PT stages in Chinese to a teaching syllabus, a task-based approach
to teaching ‘ba’ structure, some sample extracts of one participant’s data
provided in pinyin, though without any instructions or explanations linking
these items to any particular section in the preceding book.


The timeliness of this research focus is clear, given the exponential increase
in CSL learners, so the book in principle meets its objective of being
valuable not just to SLA researchers but also CSL teachers. The main aim of
the book is to remain close to the original research topic of a PT-based
approach, which somewhat limits its approachability. Nevertheless, for anyone
interested in how L2 Mandarin is acquired, this book is a helpful and
informative addition to the field which is, as yet, rather narrow and
radically under-researched.

The book follows a good thesis in its layout, is well written, and has clear
chapter introductions and summaries. Section headings in the table of contents
would have been helpful to cross-reference details of specific grammatical
structures, participant data and tasks used, depending on the reader’s

The general overview of PT in Chapter 2 provides a fairly accessible
introduction to the theory through the main sources, familiar to most SLA
students. For those less familiar with PT, the explanation is fairly
quick-moving when discussing this very densely constructed and complex model.
Since the book itself proposes nothing novel about the theoretical aspects of
this model, I will not review the description here, or comment on any
potential shortcomings of PT as a theory in itself. I would recommend that the
chapter is read alongside other works on PT and LFG for a firm grasp of how
the model itself is designed to work, and that readers follow up the
references to other accounts of SLA mentioned in passing in Chapter 4 (such as
Schwartz and Sprouse’s Full Transfer/Full Access model, 1996).

Chapters 3 and 4 were on the whole well integrated into other accounts of
Chinese L2 acquisition. The properties focused on by the author reflect a good
range of phenomena familiar to linguistics students with any knowledge of
Mandarin, although not very deeply explored. The author did mention in places
how the structures related to acquisitional order, but Chapter 3,
particularly, needed greater clarity on structure selection, and better
signposting between sections. In Chapter 4, the author’s reliance on
unpublished doctoral material, and lack of empirical studies available in
internationally reviewed journals, reveals the gap in current research into L2
Chinese acquisition. The two main sources for PT-based research were
reasonably well covered, given limitations of space, including tables
helpfully summarising the PT studies done by Zhang and Gao (e.g. p91), which
underpinned this study. It would have been good, given the book’s proposed
audience, to specify why other phenomena covered in Chapter 3 were not
discussed in the hierarchy, notably classifiers and the ‘-le’ perfective

Readability was less easy from Chapter 6 onwards, as sections did not always
appear to logically flow, or be well signposted for main points at paragraph
level. Tables to summarise the relevant bio-data of the participants would
have made cross-comparisons easier, since these clearly were relevant when it
came to analysing individual rates of progress in the results. The discussion
of tasks in Chapter 6 focused on background issues in designing tasks, rather
than either probing theoretical claims about task-based learning, or giving
detail of the design process used here. More information about tasks were
provided later in Chapter 8, perhaps reflecting ongoing methodological
problems; this chapter came over here as an addendum, and the illogical order
would make it hard to get at the necessary detailed information for
researchers keen to replicate these findings.

A major issue affecting analysis and replicability is the lack of consistency
in presenting data – not all eight participants’ data were individually
presented, nor were the transitions clear within the chapter of sections
relating to each participant, making comparisons difficult. It would have
been less frustrating to see as full a set of data as possible, rather than
just having selected portions of individual data used as here, as the basis
for drawing out implications for the PT stages. One participant had some data
exemplified in extracts of production from different tasks in an appendix – it
would have been useful for more evidence like this in the text or in
appendices, though the lack of links to the appendices to the main text made
them hard to interpret.

Given the lack of data, there was no chance to see what other structures may
have been produced, relating to empirical studies reviewed in Chapter 4, or
even structures that may have not been widely researched before at all -- it
would have been interesting to know how far these eight participants reflected
evidence from other non-PT studies such as Yuan’s studies (2002, 2007), all
cited by the researcher in the literature chapter but not revisited in the
discussion chapter. The inclusion of teaching implications throughout,
especially chapters 7 and 8, was very welcome, if somewhat superficial, and
the discussion of the influence of syllabus design on acquisition order was
left rather inconclusive and lacking depth. Nor was there any
theoretically-based or rigorous discussion of individual differences that are
known to affect rate of L2 development, such as motivation, or cognitive
differences, e.g. working memory (Wright 2010).

This 11-month longitudinal SLA study for CSL is interesting and valuable,
despite its limitations, for which the author is commended. But the main
challenge in reading this very useful book lay in getting an in-depth
understanding of the data, how exactly it was collected, and seeing precisely
how the additional considerations of textbook-based vs. natural input and
individual differences should be considered, if the study was to be
replicated. Such factors would have been beyond the scope of a doctoral
thesis, particularly one so clearly rooted in a particular specific framework,
but could have been added in preparing the published book version. The author
admits the limitations of the study, and calls for more in-depth and rigorous
examinations of stages of development in CSL in future.


Gao, X.D. (2005). Noun phrase morphemes and topic development in L2 Mandarin
Chinese. Unpublished doctoral dissertation: Victoria University of

Pienemann, M. (1998). Language processing and second language development:
Processability Theory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Schwartz, B. and Sprouse, R. (1996). L2 cognitive states and the Full
Transfer/Full Access model. Second Language Research 12. 40-72.

Wright, C. (2010). Variation, asymmetry and Working Memory in the process of
second language acquisition. In K. Franich, K. Iserman and L. Keil (eds.)
Proceedings of 34th Annual Boston University Conference on Language
Development. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press. 468-479

Yuan, B.P. (2001). The status of thematic verbs in second language acquisition
of Chinese. Second Language Research 17. 248-272.

Yuan, B.P. (2007). Japanese speakers’ second language Chinese wh-questions: a
lexical morphological feature deficit account. Second language Research 23.

Zhang, Y.Y. (2001). Second language acquisition of Chinese grammatical
morphemes: a processability perspective. Unpublished doctoral dissertation:
Australian National University.

Zhang, Y.Y. (2008). Adverb-placement and wh-questions in the L2 Chinese of
English speakers: is transfer a structural property or a processing
constraint? In J. Kessler (ed.) Processability Approaches to Second Language
Development and Second Language Learning. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars


Clare Wright, PhD, is assistant lecturer in multilingual acquisition at
University of Reading, UK, and part of the University's new Research Centre
for Literacy and Multilingualism. Clare’s teaching and research focus is on
the processes involved in building grammatical knowledge and oral fluency,
currently looking at L2 English, L2 Mandarin and L2 French. Her special
interest lies in how working memory can aid L2 development in and out of the
classroom, as featured in TESOL Quarterly and other publications.

Clare also teaches and researches on issues in improving
internationalisation of higher education, looking at student adaptation and
academic pedagogy in international study settings.

Page Updated: 12-Dec-2014