Empirical Evidence of Tone Three Sandhi Acquisition in Mandarin Chinese

  • 劉 晉廷

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The purpose of this study is to investigate the acquisition of Tone Three Sandhi (T3S) by focusing on Mandarin-acquiring children’s productions and comprehension of Tone Three Sandhi Avoidance (T3SA) The fact that T3SA overlaps with the optional T3S poses a learnability problem That is when children encounter an instance of T3SA how do they know that the instance is a real case of T3SA but not a case of optional T3S where the surface tone happens to be a citation tone (i e Tone 3)? Three experiments were conducted to shed light on this learnability problem The first experiment investigated the surface tone patterns of Mandarin-speaking adults when the critical/first syllable of two adjacent Tone 3 syllables was a topic or the noun being modified by a clause (i e a relative clause) Thirty-seven adults participated the recitation task They are invited to recite a list of sixty sentences including ten sentences with topics twenty sentences with relative clauses and thirty filler sentences The results showed that adults generally produced Tone 3 for the target syllables showing that T3S was generally avoided among topics and relative clauses Although sentence length had an effect on surface tone preference the phenomenon could be accommodated by Chen’s (2000) Minimal Rhythmic Units (MRU) analysis because the formation of MRUs can be affected by sentence length After the adults’ T3SA norm was established the second experiment investigated Mandarin-acquiring children’s production of T3SA Specifically the longitudinal data from three children aged 1;6 to 3;11 were transcribed and analyzed The results indicated that the average T3S accuracy rate was 98 55% Additionally three T3SA utterances involving topics and two T3SA utterances involving relative clauses were found The coder of the one consistently reported that all the target syllables were Tone 3 indicating that children acquired T3SA at early stages supporting the view of early acquisition of T3S As I argued Wang’s (2011) failure in observing young children’s adult-like T3S productions was due to her complex experimental designs In this connection in the third experiment I adopted a comprehension task which consumed less children’s processing capacity In this experiment twenty children aged between 3;9 to 4;3 (Mean: 4;0) and fifty-six adults were invited to judge if the heard sentence was an accurate description of a given picture The knowledge in T3SA would affect their acceptability judgment The results demonstrated that 4-year-olds comprehended T3SA involving topics in the same way as adults did adding strong support to the view of early T3S acquisition Additionally the current results support the generative approach to language acquisition because the theory successfully predicted the development of T3S acquisition in Mandarin Chinese Based on the experimental results the study concludes that: 1) Chen’s (2000) MRU analysis is able to accommodate both T3S and T3SA phenomena in Mandarin Chinese; 2) Wang (2011) failed to observe children’s early T3S performance because her experiments consumed much of children’s processing burden which in turn affected their linguistic performance (c f Liu & Lee 2014; Trueswell et al 1999); 3) The usage-based approach to language acquisition (e g Tomasello 2003) could not accommodate the current results as the environment of T3SA is a subset of the optional T3S and therefore T3SA cannot be acquired early solely by experience; 4) The generative approach to language acquisition (e g Chomsky 1981) could accommodate the current results because abstract syntactic categories are considered innate knowledge which could assist children’s acquisition of T3SA in the early developmental stages
Date of Award2017 May 1
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorLi-Mei Chen (Supervisor)

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