Journal of East Asian Linguistics

, Volume 12, Issue 2, pp 91–120 | Cite as

Chinese Children's Comprehension of Count-Classifiers and Mass-Classifiers

  • Yu-Chin Chien
  • Barbara Lust
  • Chi-Pang Chiang


Two experiments were conducted to test Chinese children's comprehension of count- and mass-classifiers. The participants for each experiment were 80 Chinese-speaking children between the ages of 3 and 8, plus 16 adults (recruited from Taipei, Taiwan). The results of the study indicate the following points: (1) Chinese children, in early stages of language acquisition (even as young as 3 years), honor the grammatical count-mass distinction which, as suggested by Cheng and Sybesma (1998, 1999), is reflected at the level of the classifier. (2) Chinese children are capable of making fine differentiations between and among a given set of count-classifiers. They know that the relationship between a count-classifier and an entity denoted by a noun is relatively fixed. (3) Chinese children's abilities in dealing with mass-classifiers are comparable to their abilities in dealing with count-classifiers. (4) Although there are developmental differences across the classifiers tested (presumably due to lexical learning), these differences tend to fade by age 4. (5) The general classifier ge differed in that it does not require that the entity denoted by the noun be of a particular type. This was seen even in adults to some degree. The results of this study cohere with the linguistic analysis proposed by Cheng and Sybesma that the count-mass distinction is in fact relevant in Chinese grammar. These results also cohere with the current theory in cognitive development proposed by Soja, Carey, and Spelke (1991) that the ontological constraint reflected in the count-mass distinction is available in early stages of language acquisition.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Ahrens, Kathleen (1994) “Classifier Production in Normals and Aphasics,” Journal of Chinese Linguistics 22, 203–247.Google Scholar
  2. Allan, Keith (1977) “Classifiers,” Language 53, 258–311.Google Scholar
  3. Bloom, Paul (1994) “Possible Names: The Role of Syntax-Semantics Mappings in the Acquisition of Nominals,” Lingua 92, 297–329.Google Scholar
  4. Brown, Roger (1957) “Linguistic Determinism and the Part of Speech,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 55, 1–5.Google Scholar
  5. Carpenter, Katie (1991) “Later Than Sooner: Extralinguistic Categories in the Acquisition of Thai Classifiers,” Child Language 18, 93–113.Google Scholar
  6. Chang, Hsing-Wu (1988) “Preschooler's Use of Classifiers in Mandarin Chinese,” ms., Nation Taiwan University.Google Scholar
  7. Cheng, Lisa L.-S. and Rint Sybesma (1998) “Yi-wan Tang, Yi-ge Tang: Classifiers and Massifiers,” The Tsing Hua Journal of Chinese Studies, New Series 28(3), 385–412.Google Scholar
  8. Cheng, Lisa L.-S. and Rint Sybesma (1999) “Bare and Not-So-Bare Nouns and the Structure of NP,” Linguistic Inquiry 30(4), 509–542.Google Scholar
  9. Chierchia, Gennaro (1994) “Syntactic Bootstrapping and the Acquisition of Noun Meanings: The Mass-Count Issue,” in B. Lust, M. Suñer, and J. Whitman (eds.), Syntactic Theory and First Language Acquisition: Cross-Linguistic Perspectives: Heads, Projections, and Learnability, Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, pp. 301–318.Google Scholar
  10. Doetjes, Jenny (1996) “Mass and Count: Syntax or Semantics?” in Proceedings of Meaning on the HIL, Occasional Papers in Linguistics, Holland Institute of Linguistics/Leiden University.Google Scholar
  11. Erbaugh, Mary S. (1986) “Taking Stock: The Development of Chinese Noun Classifiers Historically and in Young Children,” in C. Craig (ed.), Noun Classes and Categorization, John Benjamins, Amsterdam, pp. 399–436.Google Scholar
  12. Fang, Fuxi (1985) “4–6 Sui Ertong Zhangwo Hanyu Liangci Shuiping De Shiyan Yanjiu (An Experiment on the Use of Classifiers by 4-to-6-Year-Olds),” Acta Psychologica Sinica 17, 384–392.Google Scholar
  13. Gandour Jacm, Soranee Holasuit Petty, Rochana Dardarananda, Sumalee Dechongkit, and Sunee Mukngoen (1984) “The Acquisition of Numeral Classifiers in Thai,” Linguistics 22, 455–479.Google Scholar
  14. Gleitman, Lila and Henry Gleitman (1994) “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words, But That's the Problem: The Role of Syntax in Vocabulary Acquisition,” in B. Lust, M. Suñer, and J. Whitman (eds.), Syntactic Theory and First Language Acquisition: Cross-Linguistic Perspectives: Heads, Projections, and Learnability, Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, pp. 291–299.Google Scholar
  15. Gordon, Peter (1985) “Evaluating the Semantic Categories Hypothesis: The Case of the Count/Mass Distinction,” Cognition 20, 209–242.Google Scholar
  16. Gordon, Peter (1988) “Count/Mass Category Acquisition: Distributional Distinctions in Children(s Speech,” Journal of Child Language 15, 109–128.Google Scholar
  17. Hu, Qian (1993a) The Acquisition of Chinese Classifiers by Young Mandarin-Speaking Children, Ph.D. dissertation, Boston University.Google Scholar
  18. Hu, Qian (1993b) “Overextension of Animacy in Chinese Classifier Acquisition,” in E. Clark (ed.), The Proceedings of the Twenty-fifth Annual Child Language Research Forum, Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford, California, pp. 127–136.Google Scholar
  19. Huang, C.-T. James (1982) Logical Relations in Chinese and the Theory of Grammar, Ph.D. dissertation, MIT.Google Scholar
  20. Krifka, Manfred (1995) “Common Nouns: A Contrastive Analysis of Chinese and English,” in G. Carlson and F. Pelletier (eds.), The Generic Book, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 398–411.Google Scholar
  21. Lee, Kwee-Ock (1994) “Acquisition of Korean Classifiers: Syntactic and Semantic Factors,” paper presented at the Symposium on Linguistic Theory and the Acquisition of Korean Semantics and Syntax, Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea, August 26, 1994.Google Scholar
  22. Lee, Thomas H.-T. (1996) “Theoretical Issues in Language Development and Chinese Child Language,” in C.-T. J. Huang and A. Li (eds.), New Horizons in Chinese Linguistics, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, pp. 293–356.Google Scholar
  23. Loke, Kit Ken (1991) “A Semantic Analysis of Young Children(s Use of Mandarin Shape Classifiers,” in A. Kwan-Terry (ed.), Child Language Development in Singapore and Malaysia, Singapore University Press, Singapore, pp. 98–116.Google Scholar
  24. Loke, Kit Ken and Godfrey Harrison (1986) “Young Children's Use of Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin) Sortal Classifiers,” in H. S. R. Kao and R. Hoosain (eds.), Linguistics, Psychology, and the Chinese Language, Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, pp. 125–146.Google Scholar
  25. Lü, Suxiang (ed.) (1981) Xiandai Hanyu Babaici [Eight Hundred Function Words in Modern Chinese], Commerce Press, Beijing.Google Scholar
  26. Lust, Barbara, Suzanne Flynn, Claire Foley, and Yu-Chin Chien (1999) “How Do We Know What Children Know? Problems and Advances in Establishing Scientific Methods for the Study of Language Acquisition and Linguistic Theory,” in W. C. Ritchie and T. K. Bhatia (eds.), Handbook of Child Language Acquisition, Academic Press, San Diego, pp. 427–456.Google Scholar
  27. Mak, David (1991) The Acquisition of Classifiers in Cantonese, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Reading.Google Scholar
  28. Matsumoto, Yo (1985) “Acquisition of Some Japanese Numeral Classifiers: The Search for Convention,” Stanford University Papers and Reports in Child Language Development 24, 86–89.Google Scholar
  29. Matsumoto, Yo (1987) “Order of Acquisition in the Lexicon: Implication from Japanese Numeral Classifiers,” in K. E. Nelson and A. Kleeck, (eds.), Children's Language 7, Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, pp. 229–260.Google Scholar
  30. Pinker, Steven (1984) Language Learnability and Language Development, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  31. Soja, Nancy N. (1992) “Inferences about the Meanings of Nouns: The Relationship Between Perception and Syntax,” Cognitive Development 7, 29–45.Google Scholar
  32. Soja, Nancy N., Susan Carey, and Elizabeth S. Spelke (1991) “Ontological Categories Guide Young Children's Inductions of Word Meaning: Object Terms and Substance Terms,” Cognition 38, 179–211.Google Scholar
  33. Tai, James H.-Y. (1992) “Variation in Classifier Systems Across Chinese Dialects: Toward a Cognition-Based Semantic Approach,” Zhongguo Jingnei Yuyan Ji Yuyan Xuie: Hanyu Fangyan [Chinese Languages and Linguistics] 1, 587–608.Google Scholar
  34. Tai, James H.-Y. (1994). “Chinese Classifier Systems and Human Categorization,” in M. Y. Chen and O. Tzeng (eds.), In Honor of William S.-Y. Wang: Interdisciplinary Studies on Language and Language Change, Pyramid Press, Taipei, pp. 479–494.Google Scholar
  35. Tai, James H.-Y. and Lianqing Wang (1990) “A Semantic Study of the Classifier Tiao,” Journal of the Chinese Language Teacher's Association 25, 35–56.Google Scholar
  36. Yamamoto, Kasumi and Frank Keil (2000) “The Acquisition of Japanese Numeral Classifiers: Linkage Between Grammatical Forms and Conceptual Categories,” Journal of East Asian Linguistics 9, 379–409.Google Scholar
  37. Ying, Houchang, Guopeng Chen, Zhengguo Song, Weiming Shao, and Ying Guo (1983) “4–7 Sui Ertong Zhangwo Liangci De Tedian [Characteristics of 4-to-7-year-olds in Mastering Classifiers],” Information on Psychological Sciences 26, 24–32.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yu-Chin Chien
    • 1
  • Barbara Lust
    • 2
  • Chi-Pang Chiang
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyCalifornia State UniversitySan BernardinoUSA
  2. 2.Department of Human Development, Cornell Language Acquisition LaboratoryCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyNational Chengchi UniversityTaipeiTaiwan

Personalised recommendations