Interpreting state-change: Learning the meaning of verbs and verb compounds in Mandarin

Chen, J. (2005). Interpreting state-change: Learning the meaning of verbs and verb compounds in Mandarin. In Proceedings of the 29th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development.
This study investigates how Mandarin-speaking children interpret state-change verbs. In Mandarin, state-change is typically encoded with resultative verb compounds (RVCs), in which the first verb (V1) specifies an action and the second (V2) a result, for example, zhai-xia 'pick-descend' (= pick, pick off/down). Unlike English state-change verb such as pick, smash, mix and fill, the action verb (V1) may imply a state-change but it does not entail it; the state-change is specified by the additional result verb (V2). Previous studies have shown that children learning English and German tend to neglect the state-change meaning in monomorphemic state-change verbs like mix and fill (Gentner, 1978; Gropen et al, 1991) and verb-particle constructions like abplücken 'pick off' (Wittek, 1999, 2000) - they do not realize that this meaning is entailed. This study examines how Mandarin-speaking children interpret resultative verb compounds and the first verb of an RVC. Four groups of Mandarin-speaking children (mean ages 2;6, 3;6, 4;6, 6;1) and an adult group participated in a judgment task. The results show that Mandarin-speaking children know from a very young age that RVCs entail a state-change; ironically, however, they make a mistake that is just the opposite to that made by the learners of English and German: they often incorrectly interpret the action verb (V1) of an RVC as if it, in itself, also entails a state-change, even though it does not. This result suggests that children do not have a uniform strategy for interpreting verb meaning, but are influenced by the language-specific lexicalization patterns they encounter in their language.
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