Language branching

One of the most difficult things for me when starting to learn Chinese was figuring out where to put relative clauses. In Syntactic Development the authors discuss the idea of branching: the position of relative clauses and adverbial clauses in relation to what they are modifying.

Take a noun phrase such as “the train that goes to Beijing.” We have “that goes to Beijing” that modifies the head noun “train.” This is called right branching.

In Chinese, the same noun phrase is “去北京的火車,” which if you break it down, means “going to Beijing train.” Here we see that the noun modifier occurs before the noun that it is modifying. As such, this is referred to as left branching.

This is an a issue that I commonly have difficulty with when speaking Chinese. For example if I wanted to say “the book on the table” I should say “桌子上面的書” which when you break it down will be “table, on top, book.” However, because my first language is a right branching language, I often misspeak and say something like “書在桌子上面” or “the book on the table.”

If you are teaching learners and they are constantly making the mistake of where to put adverbial and relative clauses, this may be one reason why they are making that mistake.

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