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Acquisition of English Articles by Mandarin Speakers

PIs: Dr. Gita Martohardjono & Dr. Veneeta Dayal

Project Manager: Michael Stern

(Click here to see the poster we recently presented at the Workshop on Identifying (In)definiteness at Yale University)

In many languages, articles (such as “the” or “a” in English) provide information about aspects of the world (particularly those aspects encoded as noun phrases or “NPs”). Some languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, lack articles of this sort, and theorists have argued that NPs in these languages lack the information normally expressed by articles. Moreover, experimental studies have found that adult language learners whose first language (L1) does not have articles have difficulty acquiring the article system of a second language (L2), such as English. The problem is hypothesized to be the ambiguity of article-less (or “bare”) NPs in the L1.

However, researchers have noted certain contexts in which a bare NP in a language without articles actually does express some of the information otherwise encoded by articles. This more textured view of article-less languages can provide new insights about L2 acquisition of article systems.

This study utilizes acceptability judgment tasks (where participants read and listen to a sentence and select a numerical rating of acceptability) and picture-sentence matching tasks (where participants read and listen to a sentence and choose the picture it best describes) to examine the interpretation of English articles by L1 Mandarin Chinese speakers who are intermediate learners of English. The goal is to examine whether and to what extent the constraints on ambiguity in the L1 affect the L2 acquisition of articles.

The results will have implications for our understanding of semantic transfer in second-language acquisition, and will allow language teachers, curriculum specialists and education administrators to more effectively serve students, particularly those from Mandarin-speaking backgrounds.

Michael Stern, project manager, with Florence Tse, Director of the Queensborough Community College Port of Entry English language program, whose help with recruiting and running participants has been invaluable for the project

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