Discourse function and grammatical acquisition: The case of aspect in Chinese


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The interplay between lexical aspect and grammatical aspect forms the research focus of the acquisition of aspect system. Since the use of grammatical aspect marker is not obligatory in Chinese, investigators made use of experimental design to elicit aspect markers in different situations. Most of these experimental studies made use of picture-story or toy-enactment, depicting contrastive actions or the temporal sequence of an event. Findings from these studies in general gave support to the Aspectual Hypothesis in that the use of perfective marker le is associated with telic verbs and imperfective zai with atelic verbs (Jin & Hendriks, 2005; Li & Bowerman, 1998). However, results from spontaneous language analysis found that the use of perfective marker le is not bound by verb telicity (Chen & Shirai 2010) and adult input should be playing an important role. Previous experimental findings may also biased in that materials used in these experiments many only be effective in highlighting a limited range of event properties, usually a change of states of person / entity or an action that moved the plot of the story forward. Furthermore the task of describing contrasting pictures may lead to an interpretation that favors the selection of perfective view point and therefore led to a predominant use of perfective le. To address these issues, the present study employed animated pictures for elicitation of aspect markers. These animated pictures depicted target events that were posed as the background of another event, such as a boy was dancing when a cat walked in the room. Children’s attention was directed to the background of the target event by prompts such as, “What happened to the boy when the cat walked in?” To further examine the role of discourse function, the scope of investigation is extended to the use of aspect markers in Cantonese-speaking children, for the reason that haidou, one of the two progressive markers in Cantonese highlights the spatial orientation of an action, which may show stronger interactions with the background function of prompts. Fifty Cantonese-speaking children and sixty Mandarin-speaking children were asked to describe events that are considered to be typical of four situation types, including activity, accomplishment, semelfactive, and mixed-telic-stative. The results showed that Mandarin-speaking children used predominantly the progressive marker zai and Cantonese children used haidou across situation types, which could be attributed to the discourse functions of the prompts used in the experiment, suggesting that existing accounts on Chinese aspect acquisition might have underestimated the role of discourse function. Its implications for research methodology in language acquisition will be discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2014


Cheung H. T. (2014, March). Discourse function and grammatical acquisition: The case of aspect in Chinese. Paper presented at the departmental seminar of Department of Linguistics & Modern Languages, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong.


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