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How do Mandarin speaking children build bridges: a syntax-discourse interface study

  • Xie Yuan (Utrecht University)
Wednesday 8 May 2019
Chinese Linguistics in Leiden (CHILL)
P.J. Veth
Nonnensteeg 1-3
2311 VJ Leiden


Bridging refers to a discourse operation that allows speakers to use a definite DP without previous mention of a corresponding indefinite (e.g. A boat is on the river. The flag is blue. The flag can be bridged to a boat). Similarly, bridging can also happen between a reflexive expression and its antecedent, for the reflexivizing morpheme SELF typically establishes semantic inalienable possessive relations with its antecedent (e.g. a body part; John put a chair behind himself. Self bridges to John).

Children’s knowledge of bridging has been investigated  in various language acquisition studies. Most of these, however, have focused on Indo-European languages (e.g. Avrutin & Coopmans, 2000). Very few corresponding studies have been carried out on Mandarin Chinese(MC). Yet, MC is interesting in this respect because of its lack of overt syntax-discourse markers such as articles (e.g. the ), and the simplex reflexive ziji (self-N) shows logophoric usage (e.g. referring to a distant antecedent that is even across sentences). The question is how MC  children can acquire the knowledge of bridging in the absence of overt morphosyntactic markers and what the language developmental path is when they are compared with their IndoEuropean counterparts (e.g. Dutch, English, etc).

For this purpose we build a syntax-discourse interface processing model of MC to test MC children’s knowledge of bridging. Based on Heim’s (1982) file change semantics and Avrutin’s syntax-discourse model (1999), the model we build holds that bridging is established at the level of discourse, organized by information units stored in working memory with different degree of strength. With this model in mind we have conducted two experiments  testing MC children’s  bridging abilities in different constructions. In experiment 1 we tested how they build bridges between an indefinite DP and a definite one (e.g. flag-boat).  More specifically, we wanted to test whether discourse prominence (e.g. here specificity) facilitates bridging or not, and  added specificity as a further variable. In experiment 2, we tested how these children build bridges between a reflexive expression (ziji) and its antecedent and here we further tested whether in doing so they show sensitivity to  the difference between  anaphoric and logophoric environment for the reflexive element. Each experiment was conducted to 91 children (aged 3 - 6 years, with a subdivision in equally large age groups). A modified version of Truth Value Judgement Task was administered, with  pictures shown on a computer screen. Materials included 16 test sentences, 8 fillers and 3 practice trials.

We ran a glmer model in our experiments and the results show that MC children demonstrated knowledge of logophoricity from 3 years old. Age here had an effect (z value=6.05, p=1.47e-09, p<0.05);  the differences between anaphoric and logophoric construction for each age group are not significant(p= 0.47, 0.18, 0.31, p >0.05 respectively). Also, MC children demonstrate the knowledge of bridging around age 4 (accuracy rate: 84.17%). For the youngest group The lowest accuracy rate in all conditions  is 63.33%, which is not significantly above chance level(p=0.06, p>0.05) but slightly higher than their Dutch and Russian counterparts. Age furthermore does have an effect (z value=5.814, p=6.1e-09).  Specificity has an effect only for group 3 (5 to 6 year old) (z value=2.06,p=0.04). The reasons for such results can be explained from our model (e.g.working memory capacity and the specific morphosyntactic features of MC).



Avrutin, S., & Coopmans, P. (2000). Children who build bridges. In Proceedings of BUCLD (Vol. 24, pp. 80-91). Sommerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

Avrutin, S. (1999). Development of the Syntax-Discourse Interface (Vol. 23). Springer Science & Business Media.

Heim, I. (1982). The semantics of definite and indefinite noun phrases. PhD dissertation UMass Amherst.

Ionin, T. (2006). This is definitely specific: specificity and definiteness in article systems. Natural language semantics, 14(2), 175.

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