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The acquisition of constraints in child Mandarin

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posted on 2022-03-28, 23:07 authored by Shasha An
Since Aristotle, language has been conceived of as a mapping between sentences and their meanings. Assuming that children come biologically equipped with a „Universal Grammar,‟ the task of the language learner is to figure out the mapping relations between sentence structures derived within the computational system and their potential meanings. Within the Generative tradition, this mapping relation is seen to be constrained by core principles of Universal Grammar. These core principles limit children‟s initial hypotheses, either about possible structures or about possible meanings in human languages. By limiting children‟s hypotheses on both form and meaning, the core principles of Universal Grammar enable children to avoid many potential errors that they might otherwise commit. Therefore, children are expected to rapidly converge on the adult grammar, by only adopting linguistic hypotheses that are licensed by Universal Grammar. It is of considerable interest to investigate children‟s knowledge of the linguistic constraints proposed by the theory of Universal Grammar. For one thing, such investigations hold the potential to provide findings that will distinguish the theory of Universal Grammar from alternative approaches to language acquisition, which view language acquisition as largely based on experience, and using general purpose learning mechanisms, rather than being based on pre-existing linguistic knowledge. Because constraints are negative statements, it is difficult to know how they could be acquired in the absence of negative evidence (e.g., corrective feedback), which has been empirically shown to be largely absent from children‟s experience. Therefore, if young children are found to adhere to linguistic constraints, this would constitute circumstantial evidence that children are guided by the kinds of innate linguistic knowledge that are encoded in Universal Grammar. This thesis reports the findings from three studies that investigated 3-5-year-old Mandarin-speaking children‟s acquisition of linguistic constraints. In previous research, it was found that Mandarin-speaking children and adults differed in the interpretation they assigned to the Mandarin disjunction word houzhe „or‟ in simple negative sentences (e.g. Yuehan meiyou dian shousi huozhe yidalimian, „John didn‟t order sushi or pasta‟). Mandarin-speaking adults analyse disjunction as taking scope over negation (OR > NOT). Therefore, adults accept negated disjunctions in three circumstances: e.g., (i) when John only ate pasta, (ii) when John only ate sushi, and (iii) John didn‟t eat either sushi or pasta. Being more conservative than adults, children take negation to have scope over disjunction (NOT > OR). In contrast to adults, then, children only accept negated disjunctions in one circumstance, viz. (iii), when John didn‟t eat either sushi or pasta. The first study in this thesis investigated the interpretations assigned by children and adults to the Mandarin disjunction word huozhe in negative sentences with Verb Phrase Ellipsis (e.g., Yuehan dianle shousi huozhe yidalimian, Mali meiyou, „John ordered sushi or pasta, Mary didn‟t‟). Because the disjunction word is not pronounced in the second clause (i.e., the clause with the elided verb phrase Mary didn‟t…), both children and adults were predicted to assign the same meaning, according to which Mary didn‟t eat past and didn‟t eat sushi. That is, both children and adults were predicted to interpret negation as having scope over disjunction at the level of semantic interpretation, because the disjunction word was covertly introduced, as part of the elided verb phrase. The second study examined a constraint on the interpretation of dou („all‟) (e.g., Zai xiaomao huozhe xiaogou shenbian, gongfu xiongmao dou zhongle shu „Next to a cat or a dog, Kung Fu Panda planted a tree‟). The adverbial quantifier dou („all‟) quantifies over plural elements to its left. When the dou („all‟) is forced to take scope over the disjunctive phrase (Zai xiaomao huozhe xiaogou shenbian „Next to a cat or a dog‟), it is predicted to generate a conjunctive reading, called a Free Choice Inference. This study investigated the expectation that young Mandarin-speaking children would have knowledge of the constraints on the adverbial quantifier dou („all‟), including the complex semantic algorithm that is required in order to generate Free Choice Inferences. The third study explored Mandarin preschool children‟s adherence to locality constraints on the adjunct wh-word zenme („how‟) in sentences that contained youmeiyou („whether or not‟). The adjunct zenme is unlike argument wh-words in Mandarin, in that it is not always positioned in situ in the surface syntax. The study investigated children‟s interpretation of sentences like Tanglaoya zenme faxian wupo youmeiyou bian piaoliang de („How did Donald Duck find out whether the witch had become beautiful?‟). Due to a constraint, it was predicted that children would interpret such questions as asking how Donald Duck found out something, rather than how the witch had become beautiful. Children‟s interpretations of such sentences were compared with ones in which the positions of youmeiyou and zenme were reversed (e.g., Tanglaoya youmeiyou faxian wupo zenme bian piaoliang de „Did Donald Duck find out how the witch had become beautiful?‟). Due to locality constraints, the resulting sentence becomes a Yes/No question, at least for adults. The study investigated whether or not children assign the same Yes/No question interpretation as adults do to such sentences. A common feature of the structures that were investigated in the thesis is the absence of evidence corresponding to these structures in the adult input to children. They all raise a „poverty of the stimulus‟ argument. For this reason, the findings from these studies of preschool children can be invoked to distinguish between the experience-based approach to language acquisition and one based on innate linguistic knowledge. More specifically, the findings from these experimental studies demonstrate that Mandarin-speaking children interpret several abstract linguistic structures in the same way as Mandarin-speaking adults do, even without direct input from adults. Thus, the experimental investigations invite the conclusion that children do not learn these structures from experience, but draw upon innately specified linguistic knowledge.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction -- Chapter 2. The interpretation of disjunction in verb phrase ellipsis in Mandarin Chinese -- Chapter 3. The interpretation of disjunction in in the scope of dou in child Mandarin -- Chapter 4. Locality constraints on wh-movement in child Mandarin -- Chapter 5. Conclusion.


Theoretical thesis. Includes bibliographical references

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Human Sciences, Department of Linguistics

Department, Centre or School

Department of Linguistics

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Rosalind Thornton

Additional Supervisor 1

Stephen Crain

Additional Supervisor 2

Peng Zhou


Copyright Shasha An 2015. Copyright disclaimer:




1 online resource (xii, 171 pages) colour illustrations

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