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Chinese ESL Learners' Understanding of the English Count-Mass Distinction
Dongfan Hua and Thomas Hun-tak Lee
138-149 (complete paper or proceedings contents)


The English count-mass distinction is defined on the basis of formal distribution rather than ontological distinctions. It is context-sensitive, and is characterised by language specific rules. The complexity of the English count-mass distinction poses problems for Chinese ESL learners, whose first language lacks the count-mass distinction or localizes the count-mass distinction in the classifier rather than the noun. This study investigates Chinese ESL learners' understanding of the English count-mass distinction using a grammaticality judgment task and a forced-choice task. The authors find that regular semantics-syntax mappings between individuated object and count noun, and between attribute and mass noun, are exploited by both intermediate and advanced ESL learners, who are aware of the diagnostic environments for the count-mass distinction. The concrete/abstract ontological distinction plays a role only in the absence of positive evidence for the count-mass status of the nouns, while syntactic position and referentiality are highly relevant to the mastery of this distinction.

Published in

Proceedings of the 7th Generative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition Conference (GASLA 2004)
edited by Laurent Dekydtspotter, Rex A. Sprouse, and Audrey Liljestrand
Table of contents
Printed edition: $280.00