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Review of  Chinese Matters: From Grammar to First and Second Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Eleonora Luzi
Book Title: Chinese Matters: From Grammar to First and Second Language Acquisition
Book Author: Chris Wilder Tor Anders Åfarli
Publisher: Tapir Academic Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Norwegian Bokmål
Issue Number: 23.2496

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EDITORS: Wilder, Chris and Åfarli, Tor A.
TITLE: Chinese Matters: From Grammar to First and Second Language Acquisition
PUBLISHER: Tapir Academic Press
YEAR: 2010

Eleonora Luzi, Dipartimento di Linguistica, Università degli Studi Roma Tre,
Rome, Italy


This volume presents nine studies on Chinese linguistics, ranging from syntax
and semantics to first and second language acquisition.

Joanna Ut-Seong Sio “The syntax of [+human] terms in Cantonese”
Sio’s paper deals with the existence of referential expressions in languages
lacking DPs or ClPs. Given Abney’s (1987) hypothesis that the DP is the locus of
referential properties, article-less languages, like Chinese, have to encode
referentiality somewhere else. Sio analyzes a particular kind of nominal in
Cantonese, those which contain the particle “aa” (aa-nominals). She first
identifies two kinds of aa-nominals: aa1 nominals, which behave like bare nouns
in identifying reference and in their predicativeness, and aa2 nominals, which
behave differently. If an aa1 particle, added to aa1 nominals, is a lexical item
which does not affect syntax but simply behaves like a filler, an aa2 particle,
in contrast, is a syntactic item: it is generated in D and selects an NP as a
complement. Indeed it (a) is related to referential properties and (b) does not
contain a ClP. When an aa2 is added to a common noun or a kinship term, it makes
them radically definite. Likewise, when it is added to a proper name, which is
definite but still can be forced to have a common noun reading, this coercion is
no longer possible. Moreover, aa2 nominals are resistant to modification. Sio
concludes her analysis claiming that aa2 heads a functional projection that is
related to referential properties; in other words, it can be considered as the
head of a DP.

Tor A. Åfarli & Fufen Jin “The syntax of presentative sentences in Norwegian and
Mandarin Chinese: Toward a comparative analysis?”
Åfarli and Jin’s paper is an interesting analysis of Chinese and Norwegian
presentative structure. These constructions seem to be structurally quite
similar, but a closer examination reveals important differences. The comparison
between the Chinese “you”-structure and the Norwegian “be”-construction
highlights the fact that only the Norwegian structure is existential, whereas
the Chinese one is essentially possessive. Despite this difference in meaning,
they can both be represented through a post-verbal small clause. Moreover,
Åfarli and Jin propose that Norwegian and Chinese motion presentative
structures, despite their similarity in meaning, should be represented
differently. Consistent with the “be”-type structure, the Norwegian motion-type
(“komme”-type) presentative can be represented through a post-verbal small
clause. Chinese motion-type (“lai”-type) presentative constructions, conversely
to “you”-type possessive structures, contain a direct object. This implies a
Chinese-internal partition in that “you”-type structures, being possessive in
meaning, contain a small clause, whereas the “lai”-type structures contain a
direct object. Norwegian, on the other hand, represents both types of
presentative, the “be” and “komme” types, with a post-verbal small clause.

Chris Wilder “Chinese Relatives and the Coda Construction”
Wilder presents a semantic analysis of the Chinese coda construction and
interprets it as a restrictive relative construction on the basis of a
comparison with the integrated verb second (IV2) German construction. Current
proposals consider the coda construction as a paratactic construction (Li &
Thompson, 1981) or a secondary predication (Huang, 1987). Both proposals
explicitly reject the restrictive relative interpretations since in Chinese a
modification of an NP is expected to precede the NP. Starting from an analysis
of the IV2 construction, Wilder draws a comparison with the Chinese coda
construction. Indeed, like the German construction, the Chinese coda
construction requires the nominal modified by the second clause to be an
infinitive. The explanation given by Gärther (2001) of indefinite-only
restriction in IV2, applied to the Chinese coda construction by Wilder, is that
the coda can only be assertional and the NP modifiable only by a
non-presuppositional coda. Supporting the German parallel, Wilder also invokes
the role of intonation. As in IV2, the Chinese coda construction is pronounced
within a single intonation unit, like restrictive relative clauses. Relying on
the German-Chinese parallel, Wilder refutes Li and Thompson’s proposal about
coda construction presentatives. Moreover, Wilder rejects the secondary
predication analysis on the basis that if the coda were a secondary predication
it would presumably be an adjunct adjoined to the VP or IP. As such it would
semantically modify the VP or the IP.

Thomas Hun-tak Lee “Nominal Structure in Early Child Mandarin”
Lee’s contribution is on the acquisition of nominal structure in early L1
Mandarin. The late appearance of determiners in Mandarin, as well as in other
languages like English and German, does not fit well with nativist assumptions.
Besides other attempts at reconciliation, Lee supports the weak continuity view.
In his study he explores early nominal structure in child Mandarin, focusing on
whether the full-fledged NP is present, when numerals and classifiers appear,
how the mapping between syntactic form and referentiality takes place and
whether the earliest uses of numeral phrases are referential or non-referential.
Lee addresses the research questions by analyzing longitudinal data from two
Mandarin speaking children. The results underline the fact that, with respect to
argument nominals, structures containing classifiers appear a few months later
than the first nominals (bare nouns, proper nouns, and demonstrative locatives).
The general delay is explained by the fact that children are able to manage
number words before they can learn the syntax of classifiers. From the
classification of predicates and nominals emerges the fact that only some
nominal structures are used as arguments as well as predicates. This means that
children from the earliest stage are sensitive to form-meaning mapping.
Moreover, children seem to use early numeral phrase structures first with a
non-specific reference, contradicting the widespread idea that referentiality is
unmarked. This should not be surprising since number words are probably
introduced to mark numerosity. The data lead Lee to formulate a developmental
hypothesis made up of two stages. In stage 1 the NP is preceded just by the
Specificity Phrase which can bear [+specific] as well [-specific] features.
After a few months the NumeralP and ClP appear, between the SpP and NP, for
purposes of enumeration.

Miao-Ling Hsieh “Post-verbal Locative/Directional Phrases in Child Mandarin: A
Longitudinal Study”
Hsieh’s study is concerned with the syntax and semantics of post-verbal “zai”
and how children acquire it. Post-verbal “zai”-constructions can have a locative
and a directional meaning. Based on the use of post-verbal “zai” phrases, Hsieh
identifies five types of verbs that can occur with it, with or without
constraints, and cannot occur with it. Therefore, according to Hsieh’s analysis,
the acquisition of post-verbal “zai” means that children have to learn whether a
verb allows a locative “zai” post-verbally and what constraints the verb has on
the place noun to yield a directional reading. The study is based on
longitudinal data of a Chinese speaker videotaped until the age of 5;10. The
results indicate that the child makes errors with the locative “zai” until 3;10
and errors with the directional “zai” up till 5;8, showing that he first
acquires the knowledge that only a special class of verbs allow post-verbal
“zai” to be locative and then he learns that if post-verbal “zai” is
directional, it is sensitive to different verb types.

Yi-ching Su “Temporal reference of bare verbs in Mandarin child language”
Bare verbs in Mandarin Chinese are interesting in the context of recent research
about non-finite forms in child utterances around the ages of 2/3 years,
including verbs lacking tense and agreement marking. This phenomenon, known as
the Root Infinitive phenomenon, has been investigated in other languages like
English, French, Dutch, German, Italian, etc. The research questions arise from
the interesting literature overview; in particular, Su’s concerns are about
whether bare verbs are present in Mandarin, being a language without overt tense
and agreement marking; whether bare sentences allow present, past, or future
event reference; whether they allow imperatives like rich inflectional
morphology languages do; whether bare verbs show an eventive vs. non-eventive
contrast; whether there exists a correlation between temporal reference and
telicity; and lastly whether bare sentences in child Mandarin come mostly with
null or overt subjects. The case study carried out by Su on one subject confirms
that bare sentences have temporal references (present, past, future); there is a
correlation between telic predicates and past tense and atelic predicates and
present tense or a modal reading. Moreover, it emerges that overt subjects
gradually increase as a child grows up.

Fufen Jin, Kristin M. Eide & Tor A. Åfarli “Pro-drop in Mandarin-Norwegian
Jin, Eide, and Åfarli’s paper contributes to the debate about the two competing
positions on bilingual development: autonomous development and interdependent
development. The paper investigates the pro-drop properties in
Norwegian-Mandarin bilinguals born into Chinese-speaking immigrant families in
Norway. The literature review points out that cross-linguistic influence
manifests itself in the form of transfer, but also in the forms of
acceleration/delay and in quantitative differences. Several studies have
investigated pro-drop in child language when co-occurring with root structures
so it is generally linked to verbal inflection. The data of this study come from
a Mandarin-Norwegian bilingual and were collected in a Mandarin context and in a
Norwegian context. Results highlight the fact that there is cross-linguistic
evidence in terms of transfer, since the subject uses topic chains and topic
linked object drop in Norwegian, and in terms of quantity, since he drops
subjects at a much higher rate than monolingual Norwegian children. Moreover, he
does it more when talking to other bilingual children.

Mónica Cabrera & Nicholas Usaj “The L2 Acquisition of the Mandarin Chinese
Perfective Marker -- le by L1 English Speakers”
Cabrera and Usaj’s paper deals with the L2 acquisition of the Mandarin particle
“le” by L1 English speakers. The main concerns of the authors are the influence
of learning context and the non-equivalence in conveying completed actions
between the two languages: the particle “le” and the English past tense work
differently. Textbooks and manuals are careful to underline these differences
but they do not explain in which aspects they differ. Moreover, instructors do
not give many details to learners, and learners have to rely only on positive
evidence. This leads the authors to hypothesize that study abroad program
learners should master “le” better than at-home learners since they can take
advantage of input exposure. The hypothesis is then verified with 25 English
learners of Mandarin and five Mandarin native speakers. Five learners took part
in the summer study program, five in a semester study program and five were
at-home learners. They took a multiple choice test where they had to choose the
correct Mandarin translations of English sentences. A one-way ANOVA revealed
there was not a statistically significant difference for the correct use of
“le”, but there was a significant difference for the correct absence of “le.”
Moreover, looking at the means, it is clear that when not using “le” is the
acceptable choice, there is a difference between one experimental group and the
native speakers, suggesting that at-home learners tend to oversupply “le” to
contexts in which it is not acceptable. So the more time spent abroad, the
better the mastery of the perfective “le.”

Fufen Jin “Ultimate L2 Acquisition of the Chinese BA Construction: Two Case Studies”
Jin’s paper deals with the L2 acquisition of the complex “ba” construction,
focusing on its syntactic and semantic constraints. It generates an inversion of
the object, called the ba-object, so that the final word order in the “ba”
construction is NP-(Neg)-ba-VP-X. The research questions deal with the learners’
awareness of the kind of object the ba-NP is in its non ba-counterpart: a
V-object (a direct object, indirect object, and instrumental/locative object) or
a V’-object (an indirect object in a ditransitive construction). The research
questions deal also with the semantic constraints of the “ba” construction: the
ba-NP must be definite and the entire action describes something affected. A
final concern is about the age effect on ba-construction acquisition. Two
Norwegian advanced learners of Mandarin and 20 Mandarin Chinese speakers took an
acceptability judgment test. One participant learned Mandarin as an adult and
she now lives in Norway even though she does not miss any occasion to speak
Chinese; the other one was born in China, lived in Beijing up to seven years of
age, went back to Norway but returned to China where she now lives. They
performed differently in two aspects of the test: they were both aware of the
kind of object the ba-NP was in the non-ba counterpart of the sentence given in
the test, but one learner accepted preverbal negation (meiyou + VP) and showed
that she was not aware of the affectedness constraint. The first issue seems to
depend on the “formulaic” nature of meiyou +VP, so that the leaner remembered it
easily and even extended it to ungrammatical contexts. These differences in the
results may be considered an effect of the learners’ age: only the learner who
started learning Chinese in her early childhood has successfully acquired the
whole set of properties of the ba-construction.


This volume gathers papers presented at CHINOSAT 2 (Workshop on Comparative
Chinese -- Norwegian Syntax, including Acquisition Topics), held in Trondheim,
at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) on October 1-2,
2009. Like the first edition of the Conference (CHINOSAT 1), the second meeting
was also preceded by a volume edited by researchers of the NTNU. As the editors
say in the Introduction, linguistic considerations about Chinese and Norwegian
are quite new and therefore they suggest interesting and challenging areas of
research, in particular from the comparative and acquisitional points of view.
The idea of comparing Norwegian to Chinese is interesting due to both an
external reason, China being a new world power, and an internal reason, given
the genetic and morphological differences between Chinese and Norwegian. Chinese
is, indeed, an interesting language of comparison with European languages, both
from a syntactic point of view and from an acquisitional point of view. It is no
longer considered an exotic language, from which one can get interesting
counterexamples to overly European-centric linguistic considerations, and it is
probably this new linguistic position that has led researchers, in recent years,
to carry out numerous and interesting studies dealing with Chinese and its
contributions to linguistic and applied linguistic research (Biq, 2002; Erbaugh,
2002; Gong, 2010; Wu, 2001). This volume fits perfectly into the panorama.
Moreover, the comparison with Norwegian looks promising in revealing interesting
and innovative contributions to linguistic research.

The heterogeneous contents of the volume allow coverage of several aspects of
the languages involved: reports of syntactic analyses follow semantic ones, L1
acquisition studies precede L2 acquisition ones. Moreover, no linguistic topic
investigated in one paper is investigated in another paper of the volume, so
that the book can give the reader a complete panorama of the most interesting
aspects of the Chinese language in comparison to Norwegian, and sometimes to
English. Together with traditional linguistic issues, like the “ba”-construction
or the particle “le”, other topics, less investigated in the literature, like
coda constructions, the preventative construction, or the post-verbal “zai” are
investigated. The choice to also include a paper about Cantonese should be
highlighted and appreciated since it reminds readers that the Chinese language
should not always be identified with Putonghua (Modern Standard Mandarin).

The heterogeneity of the volume, however, can disappoint the reader who expects
a consistent analysis of linguistic aspects ranging from syntactic/semantic
analyses to acquisition investigations. On the contrary, each contribution
stands alone and deals with different aspects of linguistic research. As is
always the case in miscellaneous volumes, the limited space obliges the authors
to leave aside numerous aspects that would have otherwise deepened the studies.
Indeed, sometimes the reader is left wondering what the results would have been
if the sample had been wider, or if the sample had included speakers with
different L1s as a control group. I would consider the volume a collection of
good starting points for further and future research. This is true in particular
for the acquisitional studies. Indeed, even though the papers deal with
particular cases of bilinguals (Norwegian-Chinese bilinguals), probably not so
frequent, or in general with Norwegian learners of Chinese, the participant
samples are often limited, with the only exception being Cambrera and Usaj’s
work: the two children in Lee’s and Jin’s studies, and the one child in Hsieh’s,
Su’s, and Jin, Eide, and Åfarli’s studies. Therefore, they should predominantly
be considered case studies, very useful in future research planning or in
extending research.

Despite this, every author achieves his/her goal and tries to answer his/her
research questions. I would recommend this volume to all researchers who want to
work with Chinese from a comparative point of view, in particular within a
generativist approach and on the topics investigated in the volume. Applied
linguists who work with bilinguals and with learners of Chinese in particular
will find this volume interesting.


Abney, Steven. 1987. The English noun phrase in its sentential ASPect. MA: MIT

Biq, Yung-O. 2002. Classifier and Construction: the Interaction of Grammatical
Categories and Cognitive Strategies. Language and Linguistics 3(3). 521-542.

Erbaugh, Mary S. 2002. Classifiers are for specification: complementary
functions for sortal and general classifiers in Cantonese and Mandarin. Cahiers
de Linguistique -- Asie Orientale 3(1). 33-69.

Gong, Jiang Song. 2010. Chinese classifiers Acquisition: Comparison of L1 Child
and L2 Adult Development. Missoula: University of Montana.

Huang, C.-T. James. 1987. Existential sentences in Chinese and (in)definiteness.
In: E. Reuland & A. ter Meulen (eds.), The representation of (in)definiteness.
MIT Press, Cambridge Mass. 226-253.

Li, Charles & Sandra Thompson. 1981. Mandarin Chinese: a functional reference
grammar. University of California Press: Berkeley/Los Angeles.

Wu, S. L. 2001. Learning to express motion events in an L2: The Case of Chinese
Directional Complements. Language Learning 61(2). 414-454.

Eleonora Luzi received a PhD in Applied Linguistics from the University of Roma Tre with a dissertation on the acquisition of complex constructions in L2 Italian. Her research interests are Second Language Acquisition, L2 Italian, acquisition of syntax, and assessment and testing. She now works at the L2 Italian Certification Office of the University of Roma Tre.