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Acquisition of generic noun phrases in Chinese: learning about lions without an ‘-s’*

  • TWILA TARDIF (a1), SUSAN A. GELMAN (a1), XIAOLAN FU (a2) and LIQI ZHU (a2)


English-speaking children understand and produce generic expressions in the preschool years, but there are cross-linguistic differences in how generics are expressed. Three studies examined interpretation of generic noun phrases in three- to seven-year-old child (N=192) and adult speakers (N=163) of Mandarin Chinese. Contrary to suggestions by Bloom (1981), Chinese-speaking adults honor a clear distinction between generics (expressed as bare NPs) and other quantified expressions (‘all’/suo3you3 and ‘some’/you3de). Furthermore, Mandarin-speaking children begin to distinguish generics from ‘all’ or ‘some’ as early as five years, as shown in both confirmation (Study 2) and property-generation (Study 3) tasks. Nonetheless, the developmental trajectory for Chinese appears prolonged relative to English and this seems to reflect difficulty with ‘all’ and ‘some’ rather than difficulty with generics. Altogether these results suggest that generics are primary, and that the consistency of markings affects the rate at which non-generic NPs are distinguished from generics.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Twila Tardif, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 530 Church Street, Ann Arbor MI48109-1043. e-mail:


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This research was supported by NICHD grant HD36043 and a joint research grant between the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. We are grateful to the teachers, staff and children of the Beijing preschools who participated. We wish to thank Catherine Wan and Jing Tan for their able assistance in running these studies and to Shanping Qiu for her assistance with Study 3. We also thank the reviewers for their thoughtful and constructive comments.



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Acquisition of generic noun phrases in Chinese: learning about lions without an ‘-s’*

  • TWILA TARDIF (a1), SUSAN A. GELMAN (a1), XIAOLAN FU (a2) and LIQI ZHU (a2)


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