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Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Room 7, Faculty of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies
Event date: 
Friday, 14 June, 2019 - 16:00 to 17:00

L2 Chinese Linguistics Seminar

Second language (L2) learners’ grammars seem always more or less divergent from the natives’ grammar of the same language, even when L2 learners have reached a very advanced proficiency level. Interface Hypothesis (Sorace & Filiaci, 2006; Sorace, 2011) addresses the reason for this phenomenon by arguing that the divergent part of L2 grammars from the native grammar is interfaces where syntax and other cognitive domains (e.g. semantics) interact, and it is interface that can be permanently vulnerable in L2 grammars.

The Mandarin Chinese ba construction is an ideal test ground for this hypothesis. In the ba construction [FinP NP1 [Fin’ Fin [vP <NP1> [v’ BA [VP NP2 [V’ V XP]]]]]], ba is a phonetically realised little v (Huang, 2007). For the verb, which is syntactically C-commanded by ba, it always has [affected, resultative] semantic properties at the same time (Huang et al, 2009; Sun, 2015), otherwise the ba construction will be unacceptable. e.g.:
A. Zhangsan ba Lisi da-si-le. (Zhangsan BA Lisi beat-kill-LE) [+affected, +resultative]
B. ?Zhangsan ba Lisi da-rao-le. (Zhangsan BA Lisi beat-disturb-LE) [+affected, -resultative]
C. ?Zhangsan ba Lisi kan-jian-le. (Zhangsan BA Lisi watch-see-LE) [-affected, +resultative]
D. ??Zhangsan ba Lisi mo-fang-le. (Zhangsan BA Lisi model-imitate-LE) [-affected, -resultative]

However, if there is no ba in the numeration, then the verb will not be C-commanded by ba but raises to v in the above syntax structure, the structure will be realised as a corresponding canonical subject-verb-object Chinese sentence (e.g. Zhangsan mo-fang-le Lisi), in which there is no [affected, resultative] restrictions on the verb at all. This means that the semantic restrictions on the verb only exist when v is filled by ba and the verb is directly C-commanded by ba, hence a syntax-semantics interface at the verb in the ba construction.

This article reports an experimental study on whether English-speaking learners have such syntax-semantics knowledge in their L2 Chinese grammars, and if they are sensitive to the semantic restrictions on the verb in the ba construction in on-line sentence processing. An acceptability judgement task (AJT) and a self-paced reading (SPR) task were adopted with stimuli of ba sentences such as the above and their corresponding canonical sentences (e.g. Zhangsan mo-fang-le Lisi) as controls. In the SPR task, following up clause were added to the ba construction to capture possible spill-over effects. Comprehension questions were also used after each stimulus to make sure participants paid attention to the stimuli. Twenty-four Chinese native speakers and 83 English-speaking learners from intermediate to very advanced levels participated the experiments. The experiments find that only very advanced learners behaved native-like in the AJT, while advanced and high-intermediate groups showed great optionality in their judgement; intermediate group only had the syntactic knowledge of the ba construction but no semantic knowledge on the semantic restrictions. Although very advanced learners behaved native-like in the AJT, they, like other groups, failed to be congruent with the natives’ processing patterns of the ba construction in the on-line processing SPR task. The results suggest that internal interface properties are hard to acquire by L2 learners but not impossible, and the vulnerability at interfaces seem to be a processing problem rather than a representational problem in L2 grammars.

Sorace, A. & Filiaci, F. 2006. Anaphora resolution in near-native speakers of Italian. Second Language Research 22: 339-368.
Sorace, A. 2011. Pinning down the concept of “interface” in bilingualism. Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism 1: 1-33.
Huang, C.-T. J. 2007. Thematic structures of verbs in Chinese and their syntactic projections. Linguistic Science 6: 3-21.
Huang, C.-T. J., Li, Y.-H. A. & Li, Y. 2009. The syntax of Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Sun, C. 2015. The grammaticalization of the BA construction: cause and effect in a case of specialization. In Wang, W. S-Y. and Sun, C. (eds.) The Oxford handbook of Chinese linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 430-446.

Professor Boping Yuan: