Selected Annotated Bibliography: Mandarin Chinese Learner Language

Fang (Andie) Wang, University of Minnesota, Dec. 12, 2011

A note on organization:
Within each topic area (e.g. tense-aspect), all research studies focused on that topic are listed in chronological order, beginning with the oldest and ending with the most recent, assuming that each research study entails and builds on the findings of previous studies.


Zhao, Y. (2011). A tree in the wood: A review of research on L2 Chinese acquisition. Second Language Research, 27(3), 1-14.

This article reviews research studies on second language acquisition (SLA) of Chinese from the 1970s to the present, with a focus on English-written studies published in well-established journals. It synthesizes research findings on the acquisition of language features such as the unaccusative/unergative distinction and verb-raising, reflexives, pronouns and noun phrases, aspect markers, WH-words, causatives and resultative verb compounds, topic structure, BEI-structure and BA-structure, and relative clauses. It demonstrates that SLA Chinese research has contributed to the broader discipline of SLA, through verification, modification or the raising of new questions. For example,  Chinese SLA research findings substantiate the variability and complexity occurring in L1-L2 transfer, which can both facilitate and hinder L2 acquisition. These Chinese SLA studies also problematize the claim of “being native-like” based only on observable syntactic structures but not on unobservable thematic structures in interlanguage grammars. These studies indicate that variability or fossilization may occur as a result of failure or retreat from overgeneralization or negative transfer, failure in acquisition of functional morphology, or failure in theta-role assignment. The article also discusses limitations of research on Chinese SLA and points out directions for future research. Chinese SLA studies need to include a greater variety of L1s in addition to English, Korean and Japanese, explore problems within the framework of SLA research in general, and conduct longitudinal as well as cross-sectional studies using various data sources beyond questionnaires and interlanguage corpora.

Thematic Verbs

Yuan, Boping. (2001). The status of thematic verbs in the SLA of Chinese: Against inevitability of thematic-verb raising in SLA. Second Language Research, 17(3), 248-272.

Yuan investigated the status of thematic verbs in the acquisition of Chinese by French-speaking, German-speaking, and English-speaking learners at university level. The location of the main verb in relation to its complement and adverbs varies across these languages. In some languages such as French and German, the main verb is allowed to raise from its base position, whereas in English and Chinese this is prohibited. For instance, in English and Chinese, the verb “drink” is not allowed to appear before the adverb “often” in the sentence “He often drinks beer”. To examine learners’ acquisition of the thematic verb in Chinese, this study conducted an oral production task for describing people’s daily activities based on given information and a judgment task to assess learners’ awareness of the positions of thematic verbs. Results showed that thematic verbs remained remarkably stable in L2 Chinese and no optionality occurred at any proficiency level. This provided robust evidence that the thematic verb does not raise in Chinese learner language, which is in striking contrast with what is reported in the rest of the L2 literature.


Yuan, Boping. (2004). Negation in French-Chinese, German-Chinese and English-Chinese interlanguages. Transactions of the Philosophical Society, 102(2), 169-197.

Yuan examined the acquisition of Chinese clausal negation, specifically the negator “BU”, by French-, German- and English-speaking learners at university level. It was hypothesized that it would be easier for English-speaking learners than for French- and German-speaking learners to acquire the syntactic structure of Chinese negation, based on the fact that the syntactic structure of clausal negation in French and German are different from Chinese while English and Chinese are similar. However, the results of the study showed little variation between the L2 groups in the acquisition of Chinese negation. This suggests that L2 grammars can have fully and appropriately specified features of functional categories at early stages of L2 acquisition, despite L1 influence.

Aspect markers

Wen, Xiaohong. (1995). Second language acquisition of the Chinese particle LE. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 5(1), 45-62.

Wen investigated the use of Chinese perfective aspect and the sentence-final modal particle by adult English speakers at an American university. The specific focus was the acquisition order of the verb suffix LE and sentence-final LE, and reasons for this order. Over a period of three weeks, data were collected three times. In each session, 3 tasks were given to the learners: informal question-answer, picture-based question-answer and picture description tasks. The results showed that although the surface forms of the perfective aspect LE and sentence-final LE were identical, they were learned differently, with the perfective aspect LE acquired first. The explanation for this variation in acquisition order was that the perfective aspect LE is less semantically and functionally complex, whereas the sentence-final LE is structurally marked, requires contextual information and has varied pragmatic functions. For these reasons, at the early stage of acquisition of sentence-final LE, learners experienced acquisition difficulties and transferred their L1-based default values to their Chinese learner language.

Duff, Patricia A. and Li, Duanduan. (2002). The acquisition and use of perfective aspect in Mandarin. In M. Rafael Salaberry and Yasuhiro Shirai (Eds.), The L2 acquisition of tense–aspect morphology (pp. 417-453). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

To gain a better understanding of the difficulties that L2 learners of Chinese would have while acquiring Mandarin perfective aspect, Duff and Li investigated the use of perfective LE in Mandarin by a group of students at a Canada university. A semi-structured oral interview containing several tasks was conducted, including an oral video-story retell and a personal narrative followed by a written editing task. The use of LE by learners of Chinese was compared to its use by native speakers of Chinese. It was found that the learners attached LE to more generic and less prototypically perfective verbs. In comparison to the native speakers, they tended to undersupply LE, omitting it in certain obligatory contexts, and oversupplying it with certain stative and non-perfective activity verbs. The researchers hypothesized that this difference might be a result of a number of interrelated and interacting factors such as L1 transfer from English, cognitive factors or operating principles related to the functional/ multifunctional load of LE, input factors, the relationship between LE and lexical items and constructions typically co-occurring with it, the discourse features of tasks, and the effect of instruction and textbook explanations.  

SVO/SOV Word Order

Wen, Xiaohong. (2006). Acquisition sequence of three constructions: An analysis of the interlanguage of learners of Chinese as a foreign language. Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association, 41(3), 89-113.

Wen investigated the acquisition sequence of three Chinese constructions that vary from SVO to SOV word order, including the verb complement (e.g.,“de”), question words as indefinite pronouns functioning as the object (e.g., “shen me”), and “ba” sentences. Oral data were collected using picture description tasks from adult English-speaking students at four proficiency levels who enrolled in a nine-week summer intensive Chinese program at an American college. The results showed that the verb complement was acquired earliest by the participants and the “ba” construction the latest. Results supported the hypothesis that learners may prefer the SVO word order at earlier stages of language acquisition, because it contains a direct mapping of sentence-semantic relations. Constructions with a high level of linguistic complexity and language-specific features, like the “ba” construction, are usually acquired later. In addition, lexical, semantic, and pragmatic factors contributed to the processes of acquisition.


Jin, Honggang. (1994). Topic-prominence and subject-prominence in L2 acquisition: Evidence of English-to-Chinese typological transfer. Language Learning, 44(1), 101-122.

Jin investigated whether topic-prominence is a universal developmental stage or a transferrable typology by analyzing the behavior of adult English-speaking learners of Chinese in the U.S. across different proficiency levels. Three production tasks (oral interviews, a story retelling and a free write) were used to measure the learners’ overall use of Chinese topic structures such as null elements (drop of topic, subject, or object as in “Ni yao dong xi ma? Yao”), specificity marking (zero articles or bare nouns, as in “Wo mai le che”), and double nominating constructions (use of both topic and subject at the same time, as in “Na ge ren ta ma bing le”). There were three important findings. First, the study did not find a universal topic-prominent stage. Rather, learners displayed a process of systematically transferring English subject-prominent features to Chinese before their proficiency reached a level at which topic prominence emerged. Second, learners’ topic-prominent typological interaction and realization of Chinese as a topic-prominent language revealed a process of typological transfer from English. Third, not only topic-prominence but also subject-prominence were transferable typologies.


Chen, Qinghai. (1997). Toward a sequential approach for tonal error analysis. Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association, 32(1), 21-39.

Chen analyzed American adult learners’ tonal errors in producing Chinese. To evaluate the learners’ awareness of Chinese tones, a tonal production test was done using English words and phrases as hints for learners to produce oral utterances on two topics. Results identified two tonal sequential patterns in the learners’ interlanguage: characteristics of level tones that do not exist in standard Mandarin and contour tones that do not realize their full values. It was concluded that both patterns occur as a result of interference from English prosodic features. The learners’ oral production did not seem to correlate with their performance in tonal perception tasks.

Sun, Sylvia Henel. (1997). The development of a lexical tone phonology in American adult learners of Standard Mandarin Chinese. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

This is a longitudinal and cross-sectional, statistical study of adult American students’ acquisition of Mandarin tone in Beijing. Sun investigated whether differences in the learners’ perception and production of tone were related to differences in the effects of certain phonological, task, or learner variables. The phonological variables of interest were the four lexical tones and the positions of tones within words of varying syllabic lengths. The task variables were word frequency, elicitation task type and time of data collection. The learner variables were academic proficiency level and previous tone language experience as a child. Data were elicited from the learners on two types of perception and three types of production task administered twice across eleven weeks. The results show that learners’ perception and production of tone varied by the phonemic categories of the tones themselves and by the phonological positions in which the tones occurred. Learners’ processing of each of the four tones did not respond in the same way to change in phonological position. Academic proficiency level did not interact significantly with tone identification or production except for Tone 2 substitutions. Word frequency and production task type were both related to performance outcomes. Time and academic proficiency level were related to performance on all tasks except the oral repetition task. Prior tone language experience was related to performance on the oral repetition task but not to other tasks. Unlike academic proficiency level, tone language experience interacted significantly with the variables of tone and position.

Winke, P. (2007). Tuning into tones: The effects of L1 background on L2 Chinese learners’ tonal production. Journal of the Chinese Language Teacher Association, 42(3), 21-55.

Winke investigated L2 learners’ production of Chinese tones in relation to memory and L2 development. The participants were 52 university-level learners of Chinese categorized into three groups: native speakers of English, heritage learners, and native speakers of Asian languages other than Chinese. Data were elicited from a range of tasks conducted with these learners, including a questionnaire, four tests of memory, two oral proficiency tasks and a test of Chinese proficiency. The results showed that regardless of L1 background or heritage, tone 3 was the most difficult to produce, tones 4 and 2 were the next most difficult, and tone 1 was easiest. Correlation studies also indicated that successful production of tones was related to reading proficiency, but not to measures of rote or working memory. Learners self-repaired their tonal errors during natural speech production, with tones 3 and 4 repaired the most. Problems with tones were less related to L1 transfer than to learners’ lack of familiarity with tones.

Tao, Liang, and Guo, Lijuan. (2008). Learning Chinese tones: A developmental account. Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association, 43(2), 17-46.

Tao and Guo examined the developmental stages of tone production by American college students in their first year of Mandarin Chinese learning. Data were collected through both rehearsed conversations and spontaneous questions and answers. The results show that tones 1 and 4 were produced more accurately at the Initial Stage; however, at the Sequential Stage, there was no difference in accuracy among the four tones. It is interesting that there was no systematic avoidance of difficult tones in learner production. Instead, the most difficult tone, Tone 3, was used the most frequently.

Nominal Classifier

Polio, C. (1994). Non-native speakers’ use of nominal classifiers in Mandarin Chinese. Journal of the Chinese Language Teacher Association, 29(3), 51-66.

Polio examined the use of nominal classifiers in Chinese by adult native speakers of English and Japanese across proficiency levels in Taiwan, and compared their use with native speakers’. Nominal classifiers are distinguished from measure words in this article, in that classifiers are related to permanent characteristics of a noun, such as “tiao” for long and thin objects, whereas measure words refer to temporary characteristics. Oral data were collected using the Pear Film as an elicitation device. Results showed that classifiers were seldom omitted; rather, they were overused in learner language. Also, special classifiers were rarely used, often being replaced by the general classifier “ge” or avoided.

Nominal Reference

Polio, C. (1995). Acquiring nothing? The use of zero pronouns by nonnative speakers of Chinese and the implications for the acquisition of nominal reference. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 17(3), 353-377.

Polio examined how Japanese and English learners of Chinese across 3 different proficiency levels in Taiwan used zero pronouns (also called null elements, or omission of pronouns depending on syntactic position); the study examined the semantics of the noun and discourse factors in language use. Oral data were elicited using the Pear Film. The findings showed that learners did not use zero pronouns as often as native speakers and that the use of zero pronouns increased with proficiency. Learners had difficulty using zero pronouns at the discourse level but with a syntactic or semantic restriction. The underuse of zero pronouns found in this study corresponds with other research indicating that learners tend to prefer full noun phrases to use of pronouns.

Adjective Suffix DE

Zhang, Yanyin. (2004). Processing constraints, categorical analysis, and the second language acquisition of the Chinese adjective suffix –de (ADJ). Language Learning, 54(3), 437-468.

Zhang investigated the acquisition of the adjective marker DE in Chinese by exploring the interaction between processing constraints as represented in Pienemann’s Processability theory and the learner’s categorical analysis of Chinese adjectives and stative verbs in the acquisition process. Longitudinal data were collected over a period of one academic year (37 weeks) from 3 Australian English-speaking university learners in their first year of Chinese. A range of production tasks such as picture description and story retell were used to elicit spontaneous learner language with obligatory contexts for the use of adjectives or stative verbs. The study revealed more stative verbs than adjectives in the learners’ Chinese. Furthermore, there appeared to be a correlation between the number of adjectives in the L2 samples and the developmental schedule of DE.


Yuan, B. (1995). Acquisition of base-generated topics by English-speaking learners of Chinese. Language Learning, 45, 567–603. 

Yuan investigated the acquisition of base-generated topics in Mandarin Chinese by British university students learning Chinese as a second language. In Chinese the topic can be base-generated, whereas in English it has to go through the process of movement. The hypothesis was that it would not be difficult for English speakers to acquire the base-generated topic in Chinese because in the acquisition of Chinese, English-speaking learners are exposed to positive evidence of base-generated topics. However, this hypothesis was not confirmed; the learners acquired base-generated topics quite late. The researchers suggested that the difficulty the learners had in acquiring base-generated topics in Chinese could be due to a combination of several factors. At elementary, intermediate, and higher-intermediate stages learners may have adopted an incorrect parsing strategy in processing sentences with base-generated topics. This incorrect parsing strategy would have diminished the triggering effect of positive evidence for CP projection, absent at the initial stage of acquisition of Chinese L2. In addition, misleading evidence in the learners' input data in support of the learners' adoption of the incorrect parsing strategy may further delay the acquisition of the base-generated topic in Chinese.


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