Linguistic Flexibility Modulates Speech Planning for Causative Motion Events: A Cross-Linguistic Study of Mandarin and English

Chun Zheng, Purdue University


Producing a sensible utterance requires speakers to select conceptual content, lexical items, and syntactic structures almost instantaneously during speech planning. Each language offers its speakers flexibility in the selection of lexical and syntactic options to talk about the same scenarios involving movement. Languages also vary typologically in their linguistic flexibility to express the same semantic components of a motion event (Slobin, 1996a, 1996b, 2004; Talmy, 2000). The present study investigates the processing of causative motion events in an effort to examine how typological variations in linguistic flexibility influence the planning mechanisms that underlie language production in Mandarin and English. Specifically, this study uses three experiments (elicitation, semantic priming and structural priming) to ask the following research questions: (i) What are the linguistic variations between Mandarin and English for describing causative motion events? (ii) Does the degree of linguistic flexibility affect Mandarin and English speakers’ selection of conceptual content, words, and syntactic structures when preparing to talk about a causative motion event? The result of the video-clip elicitation (Chapter 2) provides evidence that Mandarin is typologically distinct from English in terms of the flexibility of encoding Path and Cause when describing a causative motion event. Results showed that Mandarin speakers more often used complex encoding to talk about Path by using two or more lexical items, as opposed to English speakers, who tended to use a single item. Mandarin and English speakers also differed in their use of syntactic structures. In addition to using the canonical transitive structure and passive structure, Mandarin speakers more often used the BA-construction, which consists of a light verb and a lexical verb, to talk about Cause and Manner separately. This structure is not available in English. This semantic priming experiment (Chapter 3) draws upon results from the elicitation task (Chapter 2), showing that Simple Path expression using a single lexical item is highly dominant and relatively fixed in English, whereas Complex Path expressions using serial verbs are relatively more available in Mandarin. This difference in the amount of variation in the conventional expression of Path reflects a native-language bias, which in turn affects speakers’ sensitivity to recently activated Path information from a prime sentence. Results showed that when mapping the conceptual information to the linguistic forms, Mandarin speakers were more sensitive to the linguistic cues and easily primed to specify or underspecify the Path component, whereas English speakers were more likely to use the default pattern of a single preposition to express Path. The findings from the elicitation task revealed that Mandarin speakers had greater flexibility in choosing bi-partite MAKE structure (i.e. BA-construction), the canonical structure and a passive construction, while English speakers consistently used the canonical structure. Results from the structural priming experiment (Chapter 4) showed that Mandarin speakers’ structural options were more likely to be guided by the linguistic cue to formulate the causative predicate, whereas English speakers consistently followed the default canonical structure. This experiment also suggested that there is competition among the available structural options in Mandarin. Due to structural similarity, the MAKE prime (i.e. BA-construction) did not suppress but rather boosted the likelihood of using the passive response after the activation of the passive prime, and a passive prime (i.e. BEI-constrution) did not interfere with the possibility of a BA-construction to be selected after reading a MAKE prime. The canonical structure is Agent-verb-Patient, which is different from the other two structural options. This prime inhibited the accessibility of the other two structural responses (i.e. passive and MAKE) during Mandarin speakers’ speech planning. Thus, syntactic flexibility caused processing difficulties in language production, as indicated by competition among these alternatives. This study concludes that Mandarin speakers talk about causative motion events differently and think differently from English speakers when they are preparing to tell us about their motion experience. Typological variation plays a role in speakers’ linguistic planning throughout the entire grammatical encoding process.




Francis, Purdue University.

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