The present paper provides a comprehensive overview of the role of word order as a linguistic device in information encoding and management in Mandarin Chinese (henceforth Chinese). Specifically, it investigates its functions from a cross-linguistic perspective in order to identify acquisitional difficulties for Chinese L2 learners. The factors that contribute to shaping word order are explored and discussed, providing reference to relevant research conducted over the past decades; evidence from neurolinguistic and corpus-based studies is also provided, along with the results of a preliminary study conducted on MA Italian L1 learners of Chinese as a second language, which contributes to grounding theoretical claims on more solid empirical data. The analysis suggests that word order is a major area of interest in Chinese as a Second Language Acquisition (CSLA) because (1) it encodes functions pertaining to different linguistic domains (semantic, syntactic, discourse-pragmatic, cognitive etc.), thus displaying a high functional load; (2) due to L1 transfer, the complex interplay of all word order functions entails acquisition difficulties, especially for students whose L1 is morpho-syntactically richer (like Italian); and (3) a clear and comprehensive function-to-form mapping, accounting for L1-L2 differences and for positive and negative L1 transfer, can be an effective tool in CSLA practice. Moreover, discourse and conceptual aspects provide interesting insights for Chinese language teaching.
This work aims to contribute to CSLA as a growing area of research, in that it seeks to fill the gap between Chinese linguistic inquiry and teaching practice by showing the applicability of research findings to Chinese pedagogy. Secondly, it provides a comprehensive overview of the key factors that contribute to shaping Chinese linear order, which have often been investigated separately, resulting in partial and less effective accounts of the issue. Lastly, it hopes to be a reference tool both for SLA researchers and teachers, as it highlights possible difficulties in interlanguage development and suggests further research avenues.
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We refer to Chinese as Modern Standard Mandarin Chinese, which is also often referred to as Putonghua.
As Li observes, a fundamental difference between Chinese and other Indo-European languages like English and Italian is “the lack or marking in Chinese to indicate interclausal relationships” (Li 2005: 49).
There has been a long-standing debate over whether modern Chinese has basic SVO or SOV word order and whether there exist syntactic functions of subject and object. For a better account, see Chappell et al. (2007), Keenan (1976), and LaPolla (1993). Nevertheless, this issue is beyond the scope of the present work, and the notions of subject and object are employed in the following analysis because they are useful in outlining our cross-linguistic comparison.
According to Ho (1993: 26), the relevance of the topic is such that “even in structures that would not be recognized as thematic because of obvious selectional relations between the sentence-initial element and the predication, there is a deliberate effort made by the speakers of Chinese to divorce the two parts” (i.e. topic and comment) (Ho 1993: 26).
There is no unified consensus as to whether all topics are base-generated; however, most linguists agree that structures such as the so-called “hanging topics” cannot be derived through movement.
There is no unified consensus as to whether all first NPs in sentences are to be analysed as topics. For a more detailed description of topic properties with reference to discourse analysis, see Li (2005).
Please note that this pattern is restricted to specific classes of verbs such as verbs of existence, appearance, etc. However, due to practical constraints, this paper cannot provide a complete discussion of the issue. Another means of allowing subjects to be interpreted as indefinite is provided by the verb 有 “to exist,” when it occurs in the sentence-initial position. This form is very common at the beginning of a text/discourse, as for example with: 有一个学生,他的名字叫许仙, […]。 Lit. “There was a student, his name was Xu Xian, […]” (Ho 1993: 195).
In this example, there is actually a second topic chain: the topic 我 (wo, “I”) is coreferential with the subject of the last predication 也不想买 (bu xiang mai, “don’t want to buy”) and is therefore omitted.
Marked word order patterns like SOV or VOS are possible and acceptable in specific contexts and with specific communication purposes.
Event-related potentials (ERPs) are very small voltages generated in brain structures in response to specific events or stimuli (in this case linguistic input). Recording event-related brain potentials (ERPs) is a psycholinguistic technique that allows for a good understanding of the stages involved in language processing and their timing since it has very good temporal resolution. For further information, see for example Kaan (2007).
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The author would like to acknowledge the support of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney through the provision of the 2017 CSC Research Students Support Grant.
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Morbiato, A. (2017). Information Encoding, Mandarin Chinese Word Order and CSLA: A Cognitive-Functional Account. In: Kecskes, I. (eds) Explorations into Chinese as a Second Language. Educational Linguistics, vol 31. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-54027-6_4
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