Journal of Psycholinguistic Research

, Volume 47, Issue 6, pp 1301–1320 | Cite as

Grammatical Aspect in Early Child Mandarin: Evidence from a Preferential Looking Experiment

  • Xiaolu Yang
  • Rushen Shi
  • Kailin Xu


The study assessed 30-month-old Mandarin-speaking children’s awareness of aspectual distinctions involving the perfective marker le and the imperfective marker zhe in a preferential looking experiment. In the experiment, we presented our child subjects with a choice between two video clips (one depicting a closed event and the other depicting an on-going event), in the presence of an auditory stimulus (either the le sentence, the zhe sentence or the control sentence without any aspect marker). Children’s looking behavior in the task was recorded and analyzed. The results revealed 30-month-old children’s emerging sensitivity to the aspectual contrast between le and zhe. This was manifest by an increase in looking to the closed event when hearing the le sentence and an increase in looking to the on-going event when hearing the zhe sentence. The absence of le or zhe in the control sentence did not result in any increase or decrease in looking to either event. We also found that the effect of le on children’s looking behavior was immediate whereas the effect of zhe was late. We attributed this difference to the facilitative role of le in children’s sentence processing as well as their preference for the event boundary. The results lend support to the continuity view that functional morphemes like aspect markers are available to children early in language development.


Early language comprehension Preferential looking Grammatical aspect Mandarin Chinese 



This study was supported by the National Social Science Grant of China (11BYY080) to Xiaolu Yang. We thank Gong Huichao, Hu Han and Cao Guanghuan for their great help with the experiment. Special thanks go to the children and their parents for active participation, support and endless inspirations.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Foreign Languages and LiteraturesTsinghua UniversityBeijingChina
  2. 2.Université du Québec à MontréalMontrealCanada

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