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Research seminar

Covert objects and VP ellipsis in L2 Chinese / Definiteness in Heritage, L2 and L3 Chinese

22 February 2019, 16:00 – 18:00

Room 8-9, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (FAMES), Cambridge

Talk 1.Covert objects and VP ellipsis in English speakers’ L2 Chinese: Evidence of the incremental model of L2 speech production mechanisms

by Lilong Xu

Objects are obligatorily overt in English, but they can be covert in Chinese. The object of a Chinese sentence can be deleted if it refers to the topic of the sentence (Huang, 1984). However, it has recently been argued that some gaps in object position should be analyzed as the result of movement and VP ellipsis (Huang, 1991; G. Li, 2002; Liu, 2014). It has been argued that the object can be covert due to VP ellipsis in a sentence where the verb phrase is identical to that in the preceding coordinate sentence. However, when its verb differs from the verb in the preceding sentence, it is unacceptable to have a covert object in the second sentence (Liu, 2014) (see “the verbal identity condition”, Goldberg, 2005). This ongoing study investigates whether English native speakers who learn Chinese as their second language (L2) show developmental progress in the use of Chinese covert objects.

To achieve this goal, the study used a cross-modal picture-description task (CPT) that made use of structural priming. An acceptability judgment task (AJT) was also included. The study found that L2 beginners tended to produce complete sentences without covert objects even if they were exposed to priming sentences where objects were phonetically silent. Priming effects were not evident until later stages of L2 development (i.e. at intermediate and advanced levels). It is found in the AJT that all learner groups can accept covert objects in the verbal-identity condition. This finding is consistent with the incremental model of L2 speech production mechanisms that states that the development of L2 speech production mechanisms is incremental in nature and that derivations, such as ellipsis, are not accessible in L2 speech production until the later stages of L2 development (Yuan & Zhang, 2018).


Goldberg, L. M. (2005). Verb-stranding VP ellipsis: A cross-linguistic study (Doctoral dissertation).

Huang, C. T. J. (1984). On the distribution and reference of empty pronouns. Linguistic inquiry, 531.

Huang, C. T. J. (1991). Remarks on the status of the null object. Principles and parameters in comparative grammar, 56-76.

Liu, C. M. L. (2014). A modular theory of radical pro drop (Doctoral dissertation). Harvard University.

Yuan,B & Zhang, L (2018). An Incremental Model of L2 Speech Production mechanisms: Developmental Evidence from Structural Priming of Object Ellipsis in L2 Chinese Speech Production. Oral presentation at 18th international symposium processability approaches to language acquisition (PALA)


Talk 2. Definiteness in Heritage, L2 and L3 Mandarin grammars: Empirical evidence for the source of transfer in L3A

by Jingting Xiang

The study of L3 acquisition (L3A) within formal linguistics perspectives is still in its infancy as compared with the decades of development in the study of L2 acquisition (L2A). In particular, studies on L3A in the literature mostly involve at least two Roman-Germanic languages, and little attention has been paid to language triads with more than one Asian languages (Ranong & Leung, 2009; lan Tsang, 2009). In this presentation, we are going to report on a study on the encoding of definiteness in heritage, L2 and L3 Mandarin grammars. By investigating a less-studied combination of English, Cantonese and Mandarin, we aim to find empirical evidence that contributes to one of the most important tasks in the research of L3A: identifying the source of transfer in L3 grammars (Alonso and Rothman, 2017).

As is well-known, articles are one of the locations marking the [±definite] features in languages like English (Hawkins, 2015). In contrast, in Mandarin, an article-less language, the [±definite] features are represented through a more complicated system with the support of bare nouns ([±definite]), numerals ([±definite]), classifiers ([-definite]), or demonstratives([+definite]), and the selection of noun phrases is influenced by subject/object positions as well as different types of definiteness, e.g. anaphoric definiteness or associational definiteness. In order to examine how heritage, L2 and L3 speakers of Mandarin express different types of definiteness in real time, we conduct an online picture-elicited production task with pictures and a corresponding offline acceptability judgement task. The participants are carefully selected monolingual, bilingual, and trilingual speakers including: 1) L1 English L2 Cantonese L3 Mandarin speakers, 2) L1 Cantonese L2 English L3 Mandarin speakers, 3) L1 English L2 Mandarin speakers, 4) Mandarin heritage speakers born in the U.K., and 5) monolingual speakers of Mandarin.

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Mr Tongkun Liu

Miss Lilong Xu; Miss Jingting Xiang

16:00 - 18:00


Room 8-9, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (FAMES), Cambridge

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