Acquisition of null objects in Mandarin Chinese by heritage speakers
Syntax-pragmatics interface knowledge without inflectional morphology
The acquisition of the grammatical knowledge related to inflectional morphology and syntax-pragmatics interface have both been shown to be challenging for heritage speakers (e.g., Montrul et al. 2008; Polinsky 2006, 2008; Sorace et al. 2009; Montrul 2009; Benmamoun et al. 2013a; Laleko & Polinsky 2016). In these previous work on heritage language acquisition, the acquisition of inflectional morphology (e.g. either agreement morphology or topic marking) is also a relevant acquisition task associated with the syntax-discourse phenomena under investigation. In this paper we focus on the acquisition of discourse-conditioned structures by heritage speakers when inflectional morphology is not part of the learning task. Specifically, we report results of a picture-verification experiment focusing on English-dominant heritage Chinese speakers’ grammatical knowledge of null objects. As a topic-prominent language lacking verbal tense/agreement morphology, the licensing and identification of null arguments in Chinese has nothing to do with agreement morphology. In addition, unlike other topic-prominent pro-drop languages, Chinese has no inflectional morphology associated with grammatical subjects/objects and topic phrases. Without the interference of co-occurring inflectional morphology, we found that there is no significant difference between heritage Chinese speakers and the monolingual baseline in their acceptance of null objects in contextually appropriate contexts. The results of our study cast doubt on the thesis that heritage speakers are unable to acquire discourse-related knowledge (cf. Sorace & Serratrice 2009; Laleko 2010; Laleko & Polinsky 2016) and support Yuan’s (2010) claim that interface categories should not be considered holistically.
Keywords: null objects, syntax-pragmatics interface, Mandarin Chinese, heritage speakers
Published online: 10 December 2020
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