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Acquiring temporal meanings without tense morphology: the case of L2 Mandarin Chinese

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This presentation reports an experimental study on the second language acquisition of Mandarin temporality. Mandarin Chinese does not mark past, present or future with dedicated morphemes while the native English of the learners does. Mandarin uses discourse context, adverbs and aspectual morphemes to signal temporality. Two competing hypotheses were investigated. One hypothesis predicted that learning a many-to-one form-meaning mapping will be difficult, especially for learners whose native language uses a one-to-one mapping for the same grammatical meaning. Another hypothesis predicts that universal grammatical meanings would be easily accessible to learners. To wit, learners of Mandarin would use the deictic pattern of marking temporality (Lin 2003, 2006, Smith & Erbaugh 2005), which postulates that bounded events tend to be interpreted as past and unbounded events—as present. Twenty-eight bilingual native speakers, 25 intermediate learners and 23 advanced learners of Mandarin with English as their native language took three different interpretation tests. Learners’ temporal interpretation choices were highly accurate even at intermediate levels of proficiency, suggesting that obeying the deictic pattern in a second language is not hard. Pedagogical implications of these findings are discussed.

This talk is presented by the Cambridge Linguistics Forum.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Language Sciences series.

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