Learning to Express Motion Events in an L2: The Case of Chinese Directional Complements


  • This study was supported by a Jiede Empirical Research Grant from the Chinese Language Teachers Association. I wish to express my special thanks to Lourdes Ortega. This study would not have been possible without her advice and encouragement throughout the entire study. I also thank Ying-che Li, Tao-chung Yao, the editor Robert DeKeyser, and three anonymous reviewers of Language Learning for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this work. I am very grateful for the students who participated in this research. I am indebted to Pei-Hua Wu, Shu-Ping Wu, Song Jiang, Ying Zhou, Tanny Tang, Karen Huang, Jia-Yin Chen, Meiping Zhu, and Ken Huang for their assistance with data collection. I am solely responsible for all the errors that may remain.

concerning this article should be addressed to Shu-Ling Wu, Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, University of Hawai`i at Manoa, 1890 East-West Road, Moore Hall 382, Honolulu, Hawaii, 96822–2318. Internet: slwu@hawaii.edu


The present study adopted a cognitive linguistic framework—Talmy's (1985, 1991, 2000) typological classification of motion events—to investigate how second-language (L2) Chinese learners come to express motion events in a targetlike manner. Fifty-five U.S. university students and 20 native speakers of Chinese participated in the study. A controlled composition task and a picture-cued written task were administered to elicit learners’ knowledge and degree of mastery of Chinese spatial morphemes, also known as directional complements (DCs). Analysis of learners’ interlanguage data shows that the difficulties came from the syntactic complexity of the target DC patterns and from the typological features of Chinese as a serial-verb language. The dual functions of DCs as path satellites and as independent verbs posed considerable difficulty for the learners whose first language (L1), English, encodes path by means of satellites only. Based on the results, a developmental order of mastery of L2 Chinese DCs is proposed. The study illuminates areas of difficulty in adjusting to the L2 thinking-for-speaking patterns (Cadierno, 2004, 2008; Slobin, 1996a) that arise when differences in spatial categorization and in conventionalized ways of path encoding exist between the L1 and L2.