Corpus Pragmatics

, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 149–166 | Cite as

“Physical Space First!”: A Corpus-Based Study on the Use of Localizer ‘Shang’ in Early Child Mandarin

  • Dandan Wu
  • Carrie Lau
  • Hui Li
Original Paper


The study investigated the pragmatic use of localizer ‘shang (上)’ by 168 Mandarin-speaking preschoolers (aged 2;6, 3;6, 4;6, 5;6) in the Early Childhood Mandarin Corpus (ECMC) (Li and Tse in Early Childhood Mandarin Corpus, The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam, 2011). Six types of pragmatic meaning of ‘shang (上)’ were proposed based on literature review, the four about physical space (including the meaning of supporting, attaching, positioning and containing) were produced by 62 children with 118 tokens from the four age groups, whereas the two about psychological space were not found in the corpus. No significant age and gender differences were found in the production of ‘Noun (N) + shang (上)’ expression. The localizers, ‘shang (上, on)’ and ‘li (里, in)’ were often used interchangeably, although they have different meanings in spatial expression. The developmental trends of use of ‘shang (上)’ were discussed with reference to cultural context, cognitive development and language acquisition.


Early child Mandarin Spatial expression Locative terms Localizer Spatial perception 


Spatial expression plays an important role in daily communication and is a critical part of human language, by which children learn to describe their perceptual space as well as establish the basis of other expression such as time (Bowerman 1996; Bowerman and Choi 2001; Clark 1973a). Spatial relation in Chinese cannot be expressed by simply using prepositions; instead, it should employ a combination of prepositions and localizers (Yip and Rimmington 2006; Chu 1997). In the expression of ‘on the table’, for instance, ‘on’ is a spatial localizer and should be presented as ‘zai … shang (在…上)’ in Chinese, in which ‘zai (在)’ is a preposition and ‘shang (上)’ is the spatial localizer. Therefore, Chinese children need to acquire these localizers to express spatial relation appropriately and purposively, which could be regarded as an important milestone in early language acquisition. Some studies have investigated the acquisition of Chinese localizers, especially the developmental sequence in the early years, and found shang (上) and li (里) the most frequently used and therefore acquired earliest ones (Jia 2010; Kong and Wang 2002; Xiong 2014). What’s more difficult for the children to acquire the spatial language is that there are distinct pragmatic meanings of the same localizer ‘shang (上)’. For instance, Chinese linguists proposed seven to ten types of pragmatic meaning of ‘shang (上)’ in spatial expression according to different standards and perspectives (Gou 2004; Tong 2006), and some studies found that the two types with support and containment relationship were acquired earlier and better than that of the others (Jia 2010; Xiong 2014; Kong and Wang 2002; Zhang 2008). However, the acquisition of pragmatic meanings of the same localizers is related to different levels and stages of cognitive development, which has rarely been noted by Chinese psycholinguistics. In particular, few studies have systematically and comprehensively examined the acquisition of the exact proposed types of pragmatic meaning of ‘shang (上)’ in early childhood. Along with the aim of clarifying the typology of pragmatic meanings of ‘shang (上)’, this study endeavors to fill this gap by analyzing all the cases of ‘shang (上)’ elicited from the Early Child Mandarin Corpus (ECMC, Li and Tse 2011) and summarizing the patterns and trends in the use of ‘shang (上)’.

Spatial Perception and Spatial Expression

According to Protagoras (c. 490–c. 420 BCE), ‘man is the measure of all things’, including the measure of time and space (Kravchenko 2001). To systematically measure and express space, Clark (1973b) proposed P-space and L-space to denote the perceptual space and spatial expression, respectively. P-space is a perceptual space within the interaction between biological nature of human and gravity nature of environment, and L-space refers to spatial expression within the linguistic properties and constrains of human. L-space is the projection of P-space in language system thus should follow the same typology and properties. Accordingly, Clark hypothesized that spatial expression in all languages should be consistent with man’s spatial perception. Based on this hypothesis, Bowerman (1996) argued further that children should be able to use the spatial expression after acquiring the related concepts of space. In this sense, spatial expression (as well as the different level of spatial information carried on by itself) could serve as the indicator of early cognitive development with regard to spatial perception and concepts.

In P-space (Clark 1973b), upward and frontward directions are supposed to be easily perceived by young children, who would first acquire the concepts of upward and frontward and accordingly their expression in all languages. In L-space, therefore, young children need to acquire appropriate spatial terms to describe their perceptual space and to deliver different levels of spatial information surrounding them. However, this hypothesis might not be universal and cross-linguistic, as different languages have their own and unique linguistic properties that might limit the application of correspondence between P-space and L-space (Kita and Özyürek 2003). Further, language itself can also restructure cognition, and the daily used spatial terms in early years could influence and shape the development of spatial concepts (Majid et al. 2004). Therefore, early acquisition of spatial expression might have the possibility to facilitate the development of spatial concepts. This study is thus dedicated to investigating the pragmatic use of an important localizer ‘shang (上)’ in early child Mandarin, with a focus on the developmental trends of spatial concepts and expression. We believe that the pragmatic use of ‘shang (上)’ in young children’s daily discourse will provide some hints to reflect about the pattern of spatial perception and cognition, which is the ultimate goal of this series of studies on early Mandarin spatial expression.

Spatial Expression in Mandarin Chinese

Spatial expression in Chinese involves some spatial terms that have varying semantic meanings, which accordingly bear on different pragmatic meanings in the sentence (Gou 2004; Tong 2006; Wu and Wei 2007). In particular, two types of localizer are involved in spatial expression in Chinese: monosyllabic and disyllabic localizer (Chu 1997). There are many disyllabic forms for the localizer ‘Shang (上)’ such as ‘Shangbian (上边)’, ‘shangmian (上面)’, ‘shangtou (上头)’, which serve to indicate the upper location like the monosyllabic form ‘Shang (上)’ does (Lv 1992). These Chinese localizers need to have a syntactic structure to express spatial relationship. In English, one just needs to use the preposition ‘on’ to express the spatial relation with the meaning of ‘support’, i.e. ‘on the desk’. In Chinese, however, one needs to employ the combination of ‘zai (在)’ (preposition) and ‘shang (上)’ (localizer) to express the same meaning: ‘zai zhuozi shang’ (在桌子上, on the desk). In this structure, ‘shang (上)’ can be seen as a suffix of the noun ‘桌子(desk)’ to indicate its location (Chu 1997). This ‘N(Noun) + L(Localizer)’ structure is very commonly used in daily Chinese discourse as it can apply to other localizers such as ‘li (里)’, ‘xia (下)’, and so on (Chu 1997). Therefore, acquiring this structure and its pragmatics will be a remarkable milestone in early child language acquisition. Below are four examples of this structure:

Example #1




Diban shang

Floor on

‘On the floor’

Example #2



chuang shang



‘on the bed’

Example #3



shan shang

Mountain on

‘In the mountain’

Example #4



Tian shang



‘In the sky’

The Pragmatics of the Localizer ‘shang (上)

Pragmatics conveys extended meaning beyond the original ones within context, while semantics refer to the original or ordinary meanings of a word in a language and can only be used in certain sentences (Griffiths 2006). In Chinese, the original meaning of ‘shang (上)’ is ‘high altitudes’, and its ordinary meaning which is commonly used is ‘on the surface of the objects’ and ‘supporting’ (Modern Chinese Dictionary, P1105, 1999). However, it has many extended pragmatic meanings, one of which serves to convey the locative meaning of ‘in certain range of some object’. Each of the pragmatic meanings is highly associated with the distinctive feature of the object being described and their corresponding spatial relations (Liu 1994). For instance, when saying ‘在桌子上 (zai zhuozi shang, on the table)’, people focus on the supporting function of the table (N) and the spatial relation between the object and the table; however, ‘在窗户玻璃上 (zai chuanghu boli shang, on the glass of window)’ guides people’s attention to the ‘attaching’ surface of the window glass. Similarly, in English, the distinctive pragmatic meanings of ‘on’ could lead to the preference in focus for the described object. For example, in ‘he climbed on to the roof’, the ‘roof’ is regarded as destination; while in ‘he was on the roof’, the ‘roof’ is considered as position (Wu and Wei 2007). Therefore, young children need to acquire all these semantic and pragmatic meanings of ‘shang (上)’ in Chinese to express spatial relationships appropriately. Analyzing children’s pragmatic use of ‘shang (上)’ will allow us to better understand the development of spatial concepts and expression in the early years.

However, linguists have different views on the pragmatics of ‘shang (上)’ in Mandarin Chinese. Gou (2004) proposed a seven-type framework to understand the pragmatics of ‘shang (上)’ in Mandarin Chinese based on the status and spatial functions of ‘N’ in the structure of ‘N + shang (上)’:(1) ‘N’ has the function of supporting, e.g. ‘桌子上 (zhuozi shang, on the table)’; (2) ‘N’ has the function of presenting, e.g. ‘黑板上 (heiban shang, on the blackboard)’; (3) ‘N’ is around the upper position in the view of the speaker, e.g. ‘天花板上 (tianhuaban shang, near the ceiling)’; (4) ‘N’ has a status of attaching with something, e.g. ‘窗户上(chuanghu shang, on the window)’; (5) ‘N’ has the function of containing, e.g. ‘车上 (che shang, in the car)’; (6) ‘N’ is the aspect of something, e.g. ‘思想上 (sixiang shang, of one’s mind)’; and (7) ‘N’ is just an abstract nouns, e.g. ‘边防线上(bianfangxian shang, on the frontiers of). Tong (2006), however, argued against this seven-type framework and suggested to classify the pragmatic meanings according to their cognitive distinctions, which is shown as follows: (1) Group One regards ‘shang (上)’ as the locative expression to describe the physical space, and has three types of pragmatic meaning: (a) referring to the higher location; (b) referring to the vertically spatial relation ‘up/above’; and (c) referring to the inside of the described container; (2) Group Two uses ‘shang (上)’ to express the psychological space instead of the physical space, and could be further classified into seven subtypes according to the described object (‘N’): (a) ‘N’ is a concrete noun expressing certain spatial metaphor, e.g. ‘生命线上 (shengmingxian shang, on the lifeline)’; (b) ‘N’ refers to psychologically existing place, e.g. ‘电视上 (dianshi shang, on TV)’; (c) ‘N’ is an abstract noun that expresses spatial metaphor, e.g. ‘历史上 (lishi shang, in history)’; (d) ‘N’ refers to some events, e.g. ‘会议上 (huiyi shang, in the meeting)’; (e) ‘N’ is an abstract noun referring to involved scope, e.g. ‘经济上 (jingji shang, economically)’; (f) ‘N’ is an abstract noun referring to perspective aspect of objects, e.g. ‘名义上 (mingyi shang, nominally)’; and (g) ‘N’ is abstract noun referring to the philosophical aspect of objects, e.g. ‘人权问题上 (renquanwenti shang, on the issue of human rights)’. In the Group Two of the framework proposed by Tong (2006), the pragmatic meanings of the type (c) ‘历史上 (lishi shang, in history)’ and type (e) ‘经济上 (jingji shang, economically)’ are similar but really different. Type (c) refers to the dimensions of time and space, whereas type (e) refers to a social aspect. Young children, however, might not be able tell the difference. Therefore, we tend to believe that the Group Two of this classification is relatively complicated for analyzing the production of the children in the early years.

Having compared the existing frameworks, we found that ‘shang (上)’ has diversified pragmatic meanings according to the semantic meaning of N in the same collative structure. The two frameworks proposed by Gou (2004) and Tong (2006) have their own strengths and weaknesses, and a compromised or combined framework might be more appropriate for this study. Accordingly, we proposed the following six-type framework of the pragmatics of ‘shang (上) to examine the language materials elicited from the corpus.
  1. (1)
    M1: Supporting the object (indicating the location in physical space and cognitively focusing on the supporting function of object)


    在 桌子

    pingguo zai zhuozi shang


    P Table


    ‘The apple is on the table.’

    Pragmatic meaning: The table is supporting the apple.

  2. (2)
    M2: Attaching the object (indicating the location in physical space and cognitively focusing on the attaching relation between the objects and the attached point, line or surface)


    nian zai chuanghu shang

    Stick P

    the window on

    ‘stick on the window’

    Pragmatic meaning: glued to the window

    In particular, corresponding to the 3-D features of the object, M2 could be further classified into three subtypes: Subtype 1: M2-point, e.g. ‘点上 (dian shang, on the point)’; Subtype 2: M2-line, e.g. ‘在线 (xian shang, on the line)’; Subtype 3: M2-plane, e.g. ‘面上 (mian shang, on the plane)’.

  3. (3)
    M3: Locating the object in the higher position compared with the horizon position of the speaker (indicating the location in physical space and cognitively focusing on the object-location of vertical relation with other objects)


    在 天空

    xiaoniao zai tiankong shang


    P sky


    ‘The bird is in the sky’

    Pragmatic meaning: The bird is flying in the sky (so that the position of the bird is higher than the speaker)

  4. (4)
    M4: Containing (indicating the location in physical space and cognitively focusing on the containing function of object)

    shou shang

    Hand on

    ‘in the hand’

    Pragmatic meaning: contained in the hand

  5. (5)
    M5: Involved scope of things (extending meaning of ‘shang (上)’ in physical space to psychological space and focusing on the scope of things)


    dianshi shang



    ‘in TV program’

    Pragmatic meaning: in the TV program

  6. (6)
    M6: Philosophical aspect of things (extending meaning of ‘shang (上)’ in physical space to psychological space and focusing on the aspect of things)


    jingji shang

    Economy on

    ‘in economy’ or ‘economically’

    Pragmatic meaning: in the aspect of economy

In this framework adapted from the previous works by Gou (2004) and Tong (2006), M1 indicates the supporting function of the object; M2 emphasizes the attaching/sticking/bonding relationships according to the features of ‘N’ which could be point/line/plane; M3 discloses the higher location in vertical view, M4 highlights the containing feature. The first four types (M1–M4) refere to the ‘physical space’, whereas last two ones (M5 and M6) refer to the ‘psychological space’ and focus on the involved scope and philosophical aspect of things, respectively (Fang 2002; Wu and Wei 2007; Gou 2004; Tong 2006). We hypothesize that young children might have some difficulties to understand and acquire the M5 and M6 pragmatic meaning of ‘shang (上)’, which highly demand the speakers’ understanding of the ‘psychological space’. This study will examine the corpus data to see whether children aged from 2 to 5 use the six pragmatic meanings in their daily communication.

The Interchangeable Localizer of ‘shang (上)

In Chinese, there are some localizers that could be used interchangeably, for instance, ‘shang (上)’ and ‘li (里)’ share some common pragmatic meanings when referring to spatial relationship in physical space (Gou 2004). In some spatial expressions regarding physical space, ‘shang (上)’ could even be replaced with ‘li (里)’, which also conveys the meanings of supporting and containing. As shown in the following examples, they share the same pragmatic meaning and could be interchangeable.
  1. (1)
    Spatial Expression with ‘shang (上)’


    在 车

    Wanju zai che shang


    P  car


    ‘Toys are in the car’

    Pragmatic meaning: Toys are contained in the car.

  2. (2)
    Spatial Expression with ‘li (里)’

    玩  具

    在 车

    Wanju zai che li


    P  car


    ‘Toys are in the car’

    Pragmatic meaning: Toys are contained in the car.

However, Ge (2004) and Tong (2006) argued that when expressing spatial range, even though ‘shang (上)’ and ‘li (里)’ could be interchangeable, the structure of ‘N + shang (上)’ and ‘N + li (里)’ could have different meanings, as ‘N’ itself could change its meaning depending on the associated localizers. As shown in the following two examples, ‘手上(shou shang, on the hand)’ and ‘手里 (shou li, in the hand)’ have similar but noticeably different meanings. The similar meaning is that the object is held in hand. But, ‘手上(shou shang, on the hand)’ implies the open hand, whereas the second ‘手里(shou li, in the hand)’ indicates clenched hand (Tong 2006). Apparently, ‘手里 (shou li, in the hand)’ and ‘手上 (shou shang, on the hand)’ are interchangeable to indicate the location of the object, however, they differ in the cognitive foci and the meaning of N.
  1. (1)
    Containing (cognitively focusing on the containing function of object and recognizing the open status of the hand: the object is supported by an open hand.)

    Shou shang

    Hand on

    ‘in the hand’

    Refined meaning: contained in open hand

  2. (2)
    Containing (cognitively focusing on the containing function of object and recognizing the clenched status of the hand: the object is held in a clenched hand.)

    Shou li

    Hand in

    ‘in the hand’

    Refined meaning: held in clenched hand

This means that young children will have to acquire the nuance of pragmatics in ‘shang (上)’ and ‘li (里)’ and other similar interchangeable localizers to be a mature and skillful communicator in Chinese. However, the existing studies have not explored whether the young Mandarin speakers are able to understand such kind of complex system of pragmatic meanings. In addition, this kind of pragmatic development in early childhood is an underexplored but very promising research area. Exploring young children’s pragmatic development could help to understand their cognitive and language development and the interactions. For instance, previous studies on spatial cognition revealed that male outperformed female in the tasks of mental rotation and so on (Bryden et al. 1990; Coluccia and Louse 2004; Vasta et al. 1996), whereas our previous study (Tse et al. 2002) found that Chinese girls outperformed boys in syntactic development such as mean utterance length, sentence types and structures, and syntactic complexity. Will this gender difference also be found in the pragmatic development in early childhood? If yes, who will performance better in the pragmatic use of this Chinese spatial structure? All these questions remain unanswered.
Therefore, this study will elicit all the natural utterances with localizers from the Corpus (Li and Tse 2011), with a focus on the pragmatics of ‘shang (上)’ in the structure of ‘N + Shang (上)’ and its replacement ‘li (里)’. To ascertain whether and when young children could understand and express the nuance of pragmatics between ‘shang (上)’ and ‘li (里)’ in their spatial expression, this study will also compare the two similar cases elicited from the corpus. Accordingly, the following questions guided this study:
  1. 1.

    How many types of pragmatic meaning of ‘N + shang (上)’ could be identified from the corpus?

  2. 2.

    Are there any significant differences of age or gender in producing these types of pragmatic meaning of ‘N + shang (上)’?

  3. 3.

    How many cases of interchangeable use of ‘shang (上)’ and ‘li (里)’ could be found from the corpus? Did the children realize the nuance difference between ‘shang (上)’ and ‘li (里)’?



The Corpus

The Early Childhood Mandarin Corpus (Li and Tse 2011) collected about 42 h conversations among the 168 Mandarin-speaking preschoolers participated in this study. They were randomly sampled from each class of the 8 participating preschools located in four major districts of Beijing: Chaoyang, Dongcheng, Xicheng, and Haidian. This sample represented children from four age groups (ages 2;6, 3;6, 4;6, and 5;6), with twenty-one boys and twenty-one girls in each age group. All the participants were native speakers of Mandarin, and their parents and teachers also spoke Mandarin at home and in the preschool respectively.

Communication Task

All the 168 participants were randomly paired (boy/girl, boy/boy, or girl/girl) and encouraged to play and talk with each other in this task. A toy play context area furnished with a set of toys, including cooking materials, food and fruits, furniture and electrical appliances, and hospital materials and vehicles, was set up in the participants’ classroom. Only one pair of participants was allowed to play in the room for 30 min. Their conversations during playtime were videotaped using a high-definition digital camera with two separate microphones, as well as observed uninterruptedly by the researchers. All the conversations were transcribed by experienced research assistants (RAs). All the spatial expressions were first identified by a research assistant and then confirmed by a panel of Chinese linguists.

Coding of Mandarin Spatial Localizer ‘shang ()’

The six-type pragmatic meaning framework we proposed above was used to code all the locative expressions with ‘shang (上)’: M1 for supporting, M2 for attaching with point, line and plane, M3 for higher location, M4 for containing, M5 for scope of things, M6 for aspects of things. All the data were divided into halves and two trained RAs coded each half based on the coding systems. Before starting the formal coding, the two coders coded six paired cases selected from each half. The percent agreement on the 12 paired cases was 93.8%, indicating excellent inter-rater reliability.


The 168 Mandarin speakers produced 703 locative expressions, of which 29.30% (tokens = 206, n = 168) used the localizer ‘shang (上)’. In addition, 49.5% (tokens = 348, n = 168) of the locative expressions involved ‘li (里)’, which turned out to be the most frequently used localizer in early child Mandarin. One-way ANOVA on the tokens with Age as the independent variable indicated a statistically significant difference among the four age groups in producing localizer ‘shang (上)’, F(3, 114) = 3.041, p = .032.

Using ‘N + shang ()’ Structure to Express Perceptual Space

Specifically, among all the 206 tokens of localizer ‘shang (上)’ produced by 79 children, 118 tokens of ‘N + shang (上)’ were produced by 62 children, showing a predominant use (57.28%) of this structure. Almost every child produced the locative expression with ‘li (里)’, but only 79 of them used ‘shang (上)’, indicating that ‘li (里)’ rather than ‘shang (上)’ was more frequently used in early child Mandarin. One-way ANOVA on Age effect found that there was no significant difference among the four age groups, F(3, 58) = .423, p = .737. However, an increasing trend in the distribution of pragmatic use among four age groups was found: 11.30% of the 2-year-olds, 12.17% of the 3-year-olds, 26.09% of the 4-year-olds, and 50.43% of the 5-year-olds. Specifically, the first four pragmatic meanings of ‘shang (上)’ (M1, M2, M3 and M4) produced by these children were found to increase by age as shown in Table 1. And a noticeable increase was observed between Age 4;6 and Age 5;6 (see Fig. 1). However, Chi-square test found that there was no statistically significant gender differences in producing the different types of pragmatic meanings of ‘shang (上)’(M1, M2, M3, and M4), χ (5) = 7.920, p = .161.
Table 1

The tokens and percentages of pragmatic use of ‘shang (上)’ across four age groups (N = 168)

Pragmatic use

Tokens (n)

Age 2;6 (%)

Age 3;6 (%)

Age 4;6 (%)

Age 5;6 (%)






















M3_Higher location










M5_Involved scopes


M6_Philosophical aspect


The total number of tokens is 118. The physical space includes M1, M2, M3, M4, whereas the psychological space includes M5 and M6. It shows: (1) the 5;6 group could use all the four subtypes of physical space; and (2) none of them could produce the two subtypes (M5, M6) of psychological space

Fig. 1

Developmental trend of the pragmatic use of ‘N + shang (上)’ in Beijing Mandarin-speaking preschoolers (N = 168). There is an age-related increase of the pragmatic use of all the subtypes of physical space, and the most remarkable increase could be observed between Age 4;6 and Age 5;6

Spatial Expression with the Pragmatic Meanings of ‘shang ()’

In particular, the first four types of pragmatic meanings of ‘shang (上)’(M1, M2, M3, and M4) were identified from the locative expressions made by these Mandarin young speakers aged 2;6 to 5;6, whereas the last two types-scope (M5) and aspects (M6) of things were not found. The pragmatic meaning of supporting (M1) was most frequently used (44.07%), followed by the meaning of attaching (M2) (32.20%), the meaning of higher location (M3) (12.71%) and finally, the meaning of containing (M4) (11.02%). In addition, M1 and M2 were used by the four age groups, M3 was not found in the groups under 3;6, and M4 was not found in the groups under 4;6. Further analysis indicated that all the age groups were able to produce the three subtypes of M2: attaching with point, line and plane except for the group of 2;6, who did not use the meaning of ‘attaching with plane’.

Analyses on the extracted sentences from the cohort found that 31 types of nouns were involved with the structure of ‘N + shang (上)’. Among them, six types were M1, seven were M2-point, one was M2-line, eight were M2-plane, five were M3, and four were M4. The 32 types of nouns could be classified into five groups as follows (see Table 2): (1) (part of) body: tou shang (头上), bozi shang (脖子上), shou shang (手上); (2) furniture: zhuo shang (桌上), chuang shang (床上), shafa shang (沙发上); (3) place or building: caoping shang (草坪上), fangding shang (房顶上), lou shang (楼上); (4) high location: like tian shang (天上), shan shang (山上), shu shang (树上); and (5) daily object: majiang shang (麻将上), dangao shang (蛋糕上).
Table 2

The use of ‘N + shang (上)’ structure by Beijing Mandarin-speaking preschoolers (N = 168)

Pragmatic use

Age 2;6

Age 3;6

Age 4;6

Age 5;6

M1 supporting (6)

zhuo 1 shang


shafa 5 shang

gui 6 shang

chuang 2 shang


di 3 shang


yizi 4 shang


M2 Attaching-point (7)

erduo 7 shang

men 10 shang

majiang 11 shang

bozi 12 shang

zhe 8 shang


dangao 13 shang

tou 9 shang


M2 Attaching-line (1)

bian 14 shang


PreschoolersAttaching-plane (8)


yangtai 15 shang

ding 17 shang

duzi 19 shang


caoping 16 shang

lian 18 shang

jiangtai 20 shang


chuanghu 21 shang


fangzi 22 shang

M3 Indicating higher Location (5)

lou 23 shang


wuding 24 shang

tian 25 shang


shan 26 shang


shu 27 shang

M4 Containing (4)


che 28 shang


guo 30 shang


Shou 29 shang


feiji 31 shang

1. zhuo (table, 桌); 2. chuang (bed, 床); 3. di (ground, 地); 4. yizi (chair, 椅子); 5. shafa (sofa, 沙发); 6. gui (cabinet, 柜); 7. erduo (ear, 耳朵); 8. zhe (this, 这); 9. tou (head, 头); 10. men (door, 门); 11. majiang (mah-jong, 麻将); 12. bozi (neck, 脖子); 13. dangao (cake, 蛋糕); 14. bian (edge, 边); 15. yangtai (balcony, 阳台); 16. caoping (lawn, 草坪); 17. ding (peak, 顶); 18. lian (face, 脸); 19. duzi (belly, 肚子); 20. jiangtai (rostrum, 讲台); 21. chuanghu (window, 窗户); 22. fangzi (house, 房子); 23. lou (floor, 楼); 24 wuding (roof, 屋顶); 25. tian (sky, 天); 26. shan (mountain, 山); 27. shu (tree, 树); 28. che (car, 车); 29. shou (hand, 手); 30. guo (pot, 锅); 31. feiji (airplane, 飞机)

The Interchangeable Use of ‘shang ()’ and ‘li ()’ in Early Child Mandarin

Findings also revealed the interchangeable use of shang and li. In the use of M4-containing of ‘shang (上)’ such as ‘guo shang(锅上), ‘shou shang(手上), ‘che shang(车上) and ‘feiji shang(飞机上), there was a trend of using the ‘N + li(里)’ structure to refer to M4-containing, i.e. ‘guo li(锅里) (across four age groups), ‘shou li(手里) (aged 2;6 to 3;6), ‘che li(车里) (aged 5;6). In addition, the ‘N + li(里)’ was also used to express the M2-attaching, such as the M2-point type ‘dangao li (蛋糕里)’ (aged 5;6), ‘erduo li(耳朵里)’ (aged 5;6), and the M2-plane type ‘duzi li(肚子里)’ (aged 3;6 to 4;6) and ‘men li(门里)’ (aged 3;6). This indicated that in these young children’s perspective, ‘li (里)’ might be more appropriate than ‘shang (上)’ to refer the pragmatic meaning of M4-containing.


This is the preliminary part of a large-scale developmental psycholinguistic study on the early development of spatial concepts and spatial expression. In the past decades, very few studies have been done in this field, and none has been done with a corpus approach. Without contemporary theoretical frameworks, this pathfinding research has to count on the previous theories developed in 1970s. This section will further discuss our preliminary findings and the implications.

Physical Space First, Psychological Space Second

The present study found that among the six types of pragmatic meaning of ‘N + shang (上)’ structure in the Corpus, the four about physical space (M1, M2, M3, and M4) were widely used by the Mandarin-speaking young children. This finding suggests that the sampled children in Beijing have acquired the basic pragmatics of the localizer ‘shang (上)’ at a very early stage, which is consistent with the findings of other studies (Jia 2010; Xiong 2014; Kong and Wang 2002). According to the hypothesis proposed by Clark (1973b) that children could apply spatial terms appropriately only after acquiring spatial concept correctly, this finding indicated that the young children might have acquired the spatial concepts associated with the four types of pragmatic meaning.

However, the two advanced levels about the psychological space (M5 and M6) were not found in this study. This finding indicated that those young children might have not acquired abstract concepts, such as the scope and aspect of things associated with M5 and M6 that refer to the ‘psychological space’. This implies that these Mandarin-speaking young children in Beijing could have acquired the physical space concepts (P-space) so that they could express M1, M2, M3, and M4 (L-space) in their daily communication. And a developmental trend could be confirmed with this developmental psycholinguistic evidence: physical space could be acquired and expressed at first in preschool years, and psychological space might be acquired and expressed in later school years. Another interpretation is that this could be caused by the morphological development of these young children who have not acquired those vocabularies at early age, such as 经济, 心理…, etc. According to Piaget and Inhelder (1956), young children were still in the preoperational stage (aged 2–7) and could not understand some concrete logics, not to mention abstract concepts. Only from the formal operational stage (after about age 12), children can understand and express abstract concepts in daily communication (Piaget and Inhelder 1956). Therefore, follow-up studies are needed to understand when Mandarin-speaking children can understand and use the two types of psychological meanings of ‘shang (上)’, which can be a signal of the acquisition of the concepts of ‘psychological space’.

In addition, the present study found there was an increased number of pragmatic uses of ‘N + shang (上)’ and indicated that Mandarin-speaking children might still be developing their abilities of using it to express location in the early years, even though they have acquired the basic pragmatics of ‘shang (上)’. In particular, M1 and M2 were acquired by the age of 2;6, M3 by the age of 4;6, and M4 by the age of 5:6. This finding indicated that the young children had acquired the four subtypes (L-space) of pragmatic meaning about physical space (P-space), gradually and individually. And this developmental trend –the easier, the earlier– may be related to children’s cognitive development at different ages, indicating cognitive preference and ‘blind spot’ in spatial perception in young children (Clark 1973b; Kelly 2002; Lakoff 1987). For example, no utterance with the plane-type meaning of M2 was found in the 2;6 group, which may be related to the limited cognitive ability of 2-year-olds, who could not differentiate the point, line, and plane features of an object. The absence of the usage of specific pragmatic meanings provides some insights on the progress of the development of spatial concepts in the early years (Liu 1994; Fang 2002; Bowerman and Choi 2003). Nevertheless, this has provided cross-linguistic evidence to support the developmental theory of language acquisition in early childhood (Piaget and Inhelder 1956; Johnston and Slobin 1979; Casasola and Cohen 2002).

The Interchangeable Use of ‘Shang ()’ and ‘li ()’

Shang (上)’ and ‘li (里)’ have been found to be used interchangeably by Mandarin-speaking adults (Fang 2002). This was also reflected in this study with young Mandarin-speaking children in Beijing. This finding indicated that young children had acquired the language skill associated with using interchangeable terms and could use it appropriately. Both the ‘N + shang (上)’ structure and the ‘N + li (里)’ structure expressed the meaning of containing. Fang (2002) suggests that a speaker using the two structures can understand the two features of the same object. For instance, in the pair of ‘Che shang (上)’ and ‘che li (里)’ structures, children use ‘che shang (上)’ to express their understanding that the car (che) is a supporting object, whereas they use ‘che li (里)’ to highlight its function of containing (Liu 1994). In the present study, only two speakers (aged 5;6) produced ‘che li (里)’ while all the other speakers used ‘che shang (上)’. This finding indicated that the mature speakers could have better perception or understanding about the spatial information of the same object than the younger ones. Similar cases were also found, for example, some children aged 5;6 used ‘dangao li (里)’ (in the cake) and ‘erduo li (里)’ (in the ears) to better express the spatial information of the target objects. In this connection, using ‘li (里)’ to replace ‘shang (上)’ to express more precise locative information of objects might be a reliable indicator to show that the speaker has acquired the related spatial concepts and their appropriate expressions. This could be assessed in early childhood language tests to understand the developmental levels of early years. This implication, however, needs further studies to verify.

It is widely believed that children could understand spatial relationships (P-space) if they could talk about it with spatial languages (L-space) (Bowerman 1996). The present study found that all the four groups of children could use the five groups of noun objects in the ‘N + shang (上)’ structure with four pragmatic meanings to represent their body, furniture, high location, place and building, and something that is attaching to but under the described object. Piaget and Inhelder (1956) proposed that children first develop the egocentric reference, followed by the allocentric reference in their spatial representation system. Accordingly, children in the present study may have developed to the stage of allocentric reference, as they could use the ‘N + shang (上)’ structure appropriately and correctly in daily communication. Further studies may be needed, however, to verify this assumption.

The present study has some limitations. First, it is limited to the data elicited from a large-scale corpus with children aged two to five in Beijing. Some experiments in terms of the language ability in producing spatial expression in the structure of ‘N + shang (上)’ could be conducted to obtain a holistic picture of early acquisition of ‘shang (上)’ pragmatics. Second, it is limited to the play context established by the corpus. Young children’s natural speech is dependent on the context. The participating children of this study might be able to use more spatial expressions in other contexts, such as home or school activities. In addition, the missing of M5 and M6 might also be caused by the restriction of the conversation tasks of the corpus, in which the children had no chance to produce these abstract functions. Further studies are really needed to rule out this possibility. Third, spatial expression is more demanding than spatial comprehension for young children during 30 min of free play, as spontaneous speech involves the selection of appropriate localizers, the creation of rational phrases and the organization of sentences (Tse and Li 2011). And their daily life is more comprehensive and inclusive than the task setting of this corpus, so they may have more contexts and chances in real life to use ‘shang (上)’ and ‘li (里)’ and other advanced levels of the pragmatic meanings such as M5 and M6 proposed in the present study. Therefore, more studies and especially, experiments are needed in this area to further investigate the performance of using and understanding these pragmatic meanings in the real life of the preschool children.



This article is based on a project (RGC Ref No. 747109) funded to Dr. Hui Li by the Research Grants Council of the Government of the Hong Kong SAR. Thanks are given to all the participating children and their parents.


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of EducationThe University of Hong KongPokfulamHong Kong

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