Default ne in Child Mandarin Chinese

Volume 2
Issue 2
Paul Hagstrom, Joan Chen-Main, Geraldine Legendre, & Liang Tao
Transcripts of children acquiring Mandarin Chinese reveal errors in the morphological realization of inchoative aspect. Where an adult would use a sentence-final particle le, children will often either omit it, or substitute a different marker (ne). We analyze the overuse of ne in child Mandarin as a retreat to a default form that results from an impoverished syntactic representation.

We compare the actual proportions of S-le successes, ne errors, and omission errors across fine-grained developmental stages by estimating the number of inchoative “attempts,” based on the frequency of adult usage of S-le from the same transcripts. We propose an Optimality Theoretic account in which constraints requiring syntactic realization of the features of the intended meaning “float” in the ranking over constraints that require economy of syntactic structure. These partial rankings characterize a set of alternative grammars that the child uses in production. Finally, we compare these results to similar results from the acquisition of French and of Catalan, all of which display a coexistence of competing grammars, retreats to a default form, and constraints requiring economy of structure, despite obvious differences in the morphological richness of the three languages.