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Review of  Grammatical Development of Chinese among Non-native Speakers

Reviewer: Clare Wright
Book Title: Grammatical Development of Chinese among Non-native Speakers
Book Author: Xiaojing Wang
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 25.5066

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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 TOEFL).

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 tasks.

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 interest.

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 marker.

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 Wellington.

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. 329-357.

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 Publishing.
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.

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