Learning that classifiers count: Mandarin-speaking children's acquisition of sortal and mensural classifiers

Peggy Li*, Becky Huang, Yaling Hsiao

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    20 Citations (Scopus)


    Two experiments explored two- to five-year-old Mandarin-speaking children's acquisition of classifiers, mandatory morphemes for expressing quantities in many Asian languages. Classifiers are similar to measure words in English (e.g., a piece of apple; a cup of apples), with the main difference being that classifiers are also required when counting sortals (e.g., yi ge pinguo or "one unit apple" in Mandarin means "one apple"). The current study extended prior studies (e. g., Chien et al., J East Asian Linguist 12:91-120, 2003) to examine Mandarin-speaking children's understanding of classifiers as indicating units of quantification. Children were also tested on their knowledge of numerals to assess the relationship between children's acquisition of numerals and classifiers. The findings suggest that children first notice that sortal classifiers specify properties such as shape. Only after learning some numerals do they begin to work out how classifiers indicate units of quantification. By age four, children scored above chance on most classifiers tested.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)207-230
    Number of pages24
    JournalJournal of East Asian Linguistics
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - Nov 2010

    Bibliographical note

    Funding Information:
    Acknowledgements We are indebted to Susan Carey, David Barner, and members of the Laboratory for Developmental Studies for their discussions with us on issues related to classifiers. Special thanks go to Aijun Huang for sharing her paper and to the teachers, children, and parents at the following schools in the Taipei area for participating in our study: Yongbin (永濱), Fanmei (泛美), Shengru (聖如), Jili (吉利), Hesana (和撒那), Minquan (民權), and Chunchi (春池). This research was funded by an NRSA NIH postdoctoral fellowship to Peggy Li (F32HD043532), an NSF grant (REESE 0633955) to Elizabeth Spelke and Susan Carey, and an NIH grant (R01HD038338) to Susan Carey.


    • Classifiers
    • Language acquisition
    • Mandarin
    • Number
    • Quantification

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Language and Linguistics
    • Linguistics and Language
    • History and Philosophy of Science


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