skip to primary navigationskip to content

chinese l2 mai120301

Department of East Asian Studies

Research Students' Seminars on Second Language Chinese
Let's Not Focus on the [Result]

Interface Properties of the (Shi)…de Focus Construction in Adult L2 Acquisition and Heritage Language Acquisition of Mandarin Chinese

The third seminar of 2011-12 will take place at 4pm on Friday 2nd March, 2012 in Room 7 (ground floor) at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. The speaker will be Ziyin MAI, who will present her PhD project on Interface Properties of the (Shi)…de Focus Construction in Adult L2 Acquisition and Heritage Language Acquisition of Mandarin Chinese (see abstract below).

The Research Students' Seminars on Chinese as a Second Language are held by the L2 Chinese research group of the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. The aim of these seminars is to provide research students with a platform to discuss recent development in the field, to present their research work and to receive feedback from teaching staff and fellow students. The seminars are supervised by Dr Boping Yuan.

All are welcome!


The Interface Hypothesis (IH, Sorace and colleagues) has been discussed and tested by many empirical studies in recent years. Yet the internal/external interface distinction and the applicability of the IH are still under debate (Sorace 2011, White 2009, 2011, Montrul and Polinsky 2011). This presentation reports a recently completed experiment aiming to test the IH among two groups of English-Chinese bilinguals, namely, Chinese heritage speakers raised in English-speaking countries (HLers) and adult English-speaking second language learners of Chinese (ASLers).

Conventionally linked with the it-cleft construction in English, the Chinese (shi)…de focus construction has been shown to possess many distinctive properties. Drawing on the analyses in Xiong (2007), Paul and Whitman (2008) and Mai (2011), in the present study, shi in the (shi)…de focus construction is treated as a verbal element heading FocP and de an aspect marker encoding the [past] and [uresult] features. Apart from the tense and aspectual features, the grammaticality and felicity of (shi)…de focus sentences are also subject to complex discursive and pragmatic constraints that are not associated with the English it-cleft construction, which makes it a good testing case for the IH.

Are the features and conditions associated with the (shi)…de focus construction all acquirable by English-speaking learners of Chinese (testing the IH)? Do HLers have advantage over ASLers in any aspects of the grammar (testing Montrul's hypotheses on incomplete L1 acquisition)? Using experimental tasks such as Sentence Assembly, Acceptability Judgement, Multiple Choice and Sentence Ranking, this study collected data from 134 participants through a web-based experiment. The results indicate that for ASLers, the surface structure of the construction is acquired very early (around lower-intermediate level), followed by native-like sensitivity to the tense and aspectual features (upper-intermediate level), and finally the incorporation of the information structure constraints (advanced). The mapping between the information structure and the event structure (i.e., the [result] component of the event is excluded from the focus domain), on the other hand, seems to pose considerable, if not completely insurmountable, difficulty, as none of the 85 ASLers tested showed any sign of convergence with the natives' judgements in this respect. The HLers largely patterned with the ASLers in terms of between-condition differences (syntax>semantics>discourse), but outperformed the latter in that a sub-group of HLers successfully mapped the information structure onto the event structure as the natives did. Overall, the findings of the present study suggest that even though syntax-internal and syntax-external features are proposed to be represented differently in the mature target grammar, they are not necessarily acquired differently in L2 acquisition (along the lines of Rothman and Slabakova 2011, Slabakova and Ivanov 2011, contra Serratrice et al. 2004, Sorace and Filliaci 2006). The acquirable/unacquirable dichotomy proposed by the IH cannot explain the hierarchical patterns found in the present study. The feature reassembly approach (Lardiere 2009), however, may provide a better explanation. In terms of heritage language acquisition, the results lend support to Montrul's (2005, 2008) hypotheses that heritage speakers have advantages over proficiency-matched adult L2 learners, and interface properties are more affected than the core syntax in L1 loss.

For further information, contact:

Ziyin Mai
PhD Student, Chinese Studies
Department of East Asian Studies