ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2024, Vol. 56 ›› Issue (1): 61-69.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2024.00061

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Effects of grammatical and semantic clues on verb acquisition in Chinese-speaking children

CHEN Yongxiang1,2(), PEI Feifei2, HUANG Jiali2   

  1. 1School of Education Science, Hunan Normal University, Changsha 410006, China
    2School of Educational Science, Shanxi University, Taiyuan 030006, China
  • Published:2024-01-25 Online:2023-11-23
  • Contact: CHEN Yongxiang


Numerous studies have underscored the ability of young children to infer the meaning of novel words; however, the learning mechanisms in these children remain unknown. Although Chinese-speaking children acquire verbs at a younger age than their English-speaking counterparts, evidence suggests that they encounter greater challenges in verb acquisition compared with English- and Japanese-speaking children. Chinese children can acquire verbs with the aid of syntactic clues until the age of 5, though the effective clues for these children remain inadequately understood. This study investigated the grammatical and semantic clues that can facilitate verb acquisition in children, focusing on Chinese-specific markers such as word length and syntactic cues.

To mitigate the effect of potential confounding factors, participants for each experiment were recruited from the same kindergarten. The sample sizes for experiments 1, 2a, and 2b were 49, 51, and 53, respectively, with all participants being native Chinese speakers. In both experiments, the Preferential Pointing Paradigm was employed to explore the impact of grammatical and semantic clues on children’s verb acquisition. This paradigm encompassed a learning phase and a testing phase. During the learning phase, the participants were presented with a standard event featuring an actress performing an unfamiliar action with an unfamiliar object, all while hearing an audio cue repeated as “Look, she is X. Look, she is X!” In the testing phase, the participants were tasked with selecting between two events displayed on the screen: an object-same event where “X” referred to the object (a noun) and an action-same event where “X” referred to the action (a verb). Accuracy was considered the dependent variable in this study.

The results indicated that 5-year-old children could use a single syntactic clue for the acquisition of novel verbs, whereas those aged 4 years demonstrated the ability to utilize double clues, encompassing either double syntactic clues or one syntactic clue coupled with one semantic clue, in their verb learning process (see Table 1). However, 3-year-old children did not exhibit this capability (see Table 3). Furthermore, the length of words had an impact on verb acquisition among 3- and 4-year-old children. In Experiment 2a, 4-year-old children were more inclined to identify monosyllabic words as verbs (see Table 2), whereas in Experiment 2b, 3-year-old children displayed a greater tendency to recognize disyllabic words as nouns when semantic cues were introduced (see Table 3).

As far as we know, this study is the first to examine Chinese participants, unveiling distinct verb acquisition mechanisms not previously observed in Western languages. Additionally, this study shows that 4-year-old children could learn verbs successfully with the introduction of semantic and more dependable syntactic clues, contradicting previous assumptions that only 5-year-old children possess this ability. Furthermore, the study highlights word length as a potential Chinese-specific factor affecting verb learning, particularly among children aged <4 years. These findings provide a robust foundation for future investigations into the unique mechanisms of verb learning in Chinese children and emphasize the importance of considering linguistic distinctiveness and the reliability of syntactic clues in word acquisition research.

Key words: verb acquisition, syntactic bootstrapping, mandarin learner, word length