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Review of  The Acquisition of Japanese Numeral Classifiers

Reviewer: Robert C. Albon
Book Title: The Acquisition of Japanese Numeral Classifiers
Book Author: Kasumi Yamamoto
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Japanese
Issue Number: 18.989

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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

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

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

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 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

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.

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 or by email at
[email protected]

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 3110183676
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: vi, 205
Prices: U.S. $ 109.20