When children acquire their first language, they need to figure out not only the properties of the different linguistic components of the language they are acquiring (sound structure, sentence structure and words), but they also need to understand how these components interact. Although we have a good idea of the milestones in the acquisition of syntax and phonology, we know very little about the acquisition of the mapping rules between phonology and syntax. This project examines the acquisition of a phonological rule in Mandarin Chinese (called Tone 3 Sandhi) that partially depends on information from the syntactic structure. Although in Mandarin it is possible to differentiate words by 4 different pitch contours, not always the tones remain the same as they combine with other tone bearing units in the syntax. Tone 3 Sandhi is a rule that changes a tone called Tone 3 into a Tone 2 when followed by another Tone 3 within the same rhythmic unit. Although apparently simple, in order to apply this rule, children must learn the basic tones of particular syllables, must combine words into hierarchical structures (sentences) and must then build rhythmic units at the output of the syntax. Tone 3 Sandhi provides a unique window to determine children's ability to integrate various types of information in language production at different stages of development (2 to 6 year-olds) as compared to adults.

The results will provide information about children's initial assumptions about the mapping between phonology and syntax and will allow a comparison between children and adults in different discourse situations in order to determine whether variation in the adult language has an effect in children's ability to produce Tone 3 Sandhi. Both the adult and child experimental results will provide a testing ground for the various theories of T3S in Mandarin Chinese. Furthermore, many Chinese local dialects/languages are heavily influenced by the dominant official Standard Chinese (Standard Mandarin) and are undergoing subtle or not so subtle sound changes. This study provides the methodology and protocol that can be used to study not only the acquisition of tone sandhi in different Chinese dialects/languages in bilingual/bidialectal children but also how their acquisition could have been affected by the on-going sociolinguistic interaction and change. The more we understand how exactly a child acquires language and particular aspects of the grammar, the more likely we can understand what might have gone wrong in child language disorders and transfer that knowledge to the applied and clinical areas to help those children with language problems.

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Michigan State University
East Lansing
United States
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