Relative clauses (RCs) are one of the most difficult sentence structures for children, foreign language learners, and even adult native speakers. It is well-known in the linguistics research, however, that not all the RCs are equally difficult. In many languages, subject RCs (e.g. the dog that hits the cat, 打小猫的小狗) are typically acquired earlier, understood more easily, and produced more accurately, than object RCs (e.g. the dog that the cat hits, 小猫打的小狗). This subject advantage is traditionally considered a language universal in the field of second language acquisition, a view corroborated by many works on the acquisition of English and other commonly taught European languages. Recent studies on typologically diverse languages, however, have raised a possibility that subject RCs are not always easier than object RCs in some languages. Mandarin Chinese is a case in point. This talk draws on the oral elicitation data from foreign language learners of Chinese whose native language is English and shows that they were more accurate in producing subject RCs than object RCs. This result is particularly striking because the learners in our study were explicitly taught only object RCs and had received only limited instruction on subject RCs, suggesting that they were able to generalize their knowledge of object RCs to subject RCs, in line with previous findings that subject advantage also has implication on the effect of instruction.
Dr. Nozomi Tanaka is an Assistant Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Indiana University. Her research interests focus on first and second language acquisition, as well as language processing. Using experimental methods, she investigates how different structures are understood and produced by children, adults, and second language learners.