The Role Classifiers Play in Selecting the Referent of a Word

Ma, Weiyi
Zhou, Peng
Golinkoff, Roberta Michnick
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An important cue to the meaning of a new noun is its accompanying classifier. For example, in English, X in “a sheet of X” should refer to a broad, flat object. A classifier is required in Chinese to quantify nouns. Using children’s overt responses in an object/picture selection task, past research found reliable semantic knowledge of classifiers in Mandarin-reared children at around age three. However, it is unclear how children’s semantic knowledge differs across different types of classifiers and how this difference develops with age. Here we use an arguably more sensitive measure of children’s language knowledge (the intermodal preferential-looking paradigm) to examine Mandarin-reared three-, four-, and five-year-olds’ semantic knowledge of four types of classifiers indicating animacy (human vs. animal distinction), configuration (how objects are arrayed), object shape, and vehicle function. Multiple factors were matched across classifier types: the number of classifiers, perceived familiarity and perceived typicality of the target, and the visual similarity of the two images paired together. Children’s performances differed across classifier types, as they were better with animacy classifiers than with configuration and vehicle function classifiers. Their comprehension was reliable for animacy, object shape, and vehicle function classifiers but not for configuration classifiers. Furthermore, we did not find conclusive evidence for an age-dependent improvement in the child’s performance. The analysis, including the oldest (five-year-olds) and youngest (three-year-olds) children, revealed a marginally significant age effect.
This article was originally published in Languages. The version of record is available at:
Mandarin Chinese , classifier , intermodal preferential looking
Ma, Weiyi, Peng Zhou, and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff. 2023. "The Role Classifiers Play in Selecting the Referent of a Word" Languages 8, no. 1: 84.