Lexical ambiguity abounds in languages and multiple one-to-many form-function mappings create challenges for language learners. This study extends the theoretical approaches to the acquisition of polysemy to the Mandarin verb 打 dǎ, which is highly polysemous and among the earliest verbs in child speech. It analyzes longitudinal naturalistic data of nine children (1;05–3;10) from two Mandarin child speech corpora to explore the developmental trajectory of different senses of 打 dǎ and the role of input. The results support a continuous derivational and restricted monosemy approach: children initially extract a core feature of 打 dǎ, but only apply it in a restricted way, reflected in a small number of senses in a limited set of semantic domains and syntactic frames, revealing an early preference for initial unambiguous form-meaning mappings. Mandarin-speaking children’s production mirrors the semantic and syntactic distribution of the input, supporting the usage-based approach to the acquisition of polysemy that meaning is derived from the confluence of lexical and syntactic cues in the usage patterns in the input. Our research is the first longitudinal study of the emergence and development of polysemous verbs in Mandarin and has pedagogical implications for teaching Mandarin as a second language.
Jidong Chen, Xinchun Wang