Investigating the teaching of Chinese aspect markers 'zai', 'zhe', 'le' and 'guo'

Grammar-Translation approach and a communicative approach


  • Qiaochao Zhang Aston University



Chinese aspect markers, L2 Chinese acquisition, grammar-translation approach, communicative approach


This paper presents a pilot study in teaching Chinese aspect markers, le, guo, zai and zhe, as a foreign language to university level learners. It firstly reviews theories of Chinese aspect, and then L2 Chinese aspect acquisition. Based on the research findings in these two areas, experimental teaching sessions are designed and delivered to two groups of beginners’ level learners using different teaching approaches: a grammar-translation approach and a communicative approach. The research results are compared, and it indicates that communicative approach is superior to grammar-translation approach in facilitating learners’ use of the markers in comprehensive context, but the results are not long lasting when no further treatment is given. Indeed, both groups show a strong tendency of following the natural acquisition order: perfective markers before imperfective markers as claimed by Bardovi-Harlig (2000). However, the results also reveal an inadequacy in the design of the teaching sessions, which will be adjusted in future studies.

Author Biography

Qiaochao Zhang, Aston University

Dr. Qiaochao Zhang is a lecturer in Mandarin at Aston University, Birmingham,UK.


Andersen, R. W. (1989). The theoretical status of variation in interlanguage development. In S. Grass, C. Madden, D. Preston, and L. Selinker (Eds) Variation in Second Language Acquisition, Vol II, Psycholinguistic Issues, 46–64. Philadelphia, PA: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Andersen, R. W. (1991). Developmental sequences: The emergence of aspect marking in second language acquisition. In T. Huebner and C. A. Ferguson (Eds) Crosscurrents in Second Language Acquisition and Linguistic Theories. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Andersen, R. W. and Shirai, Y. (1996). Primacy of aspect in first and second language acquisition: The pidgin/creole connection. In W. C. Ritchie and T. K. Bhatia (Eds), Handbook of Second Language Acquisition, 527–570. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Baddeley, A. D. (2003). Working memory: Looking back and looking forward. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 4, 829–839.

Bardovi-Harlig, K. (1995). The interaction of pedagogy and natural sequences in the acquisition of tense and aspect. In F. R. Eckman, D. Highland, P. W. Lee, J. Mileham, and R. R. Weber (Eds) Second Language Acquisition Theory and Pedagogy, 151–168. New York: Routledge.

Bardovi-Harlig, K. (2000). Tense and Aspect in Second Language Acquisition: Form, Meaning, and Use. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bergström, A. (1995). The expression of past temporal reference by English-speaking learners of French. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, The Pennsylvania State University.

Chang, V. (1986). The Particle LE in Chinese Narrative Discourse. Gainesville, FL: Unpublished University of Florida Ph.D dissertation.

Chen, X. H. (2010). Lun ‘le2’ bu du xian (The discussion of the none solely appearance of sentence final le). Chinese Language Learning, No. 3, 54–63.

Chen, J. and Shirai, Y. (2010). The development of aspectual marking in child Mandarin Chinese. Applied Psycholinguistics, 31, 1–28.

Chief, L. (2005). Serialization of simultaneity in Mandarin. (accessed on 08.09.2010).

Chu, C. (1987). The semantics, syntax, and pragmatics of the verbal suffix – Zhe. Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association 22 (1), 1–41.

Cooper, G. (1998). Research into cognitive load theory and instructional design at UNSW. Retrieved August, 8, 2003.

Comrie, B. (1976). Aspect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Duff, A. (1989). Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Duff, P. and Li. D. (2002). The acquisition and use of perfective aspect in Mandarin. In R. Salaberry and Y. Shirai (Eds), The L2 Acquisition of Tense-aspect Morphology, 417–453. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.

Erbaugh, M. S. (1978). Acquisition of temporal and aspectual distinctions in Mandarin. Papers and Reports on Child Language Development 15: 30–37.

Erbaugh, M. S. (1982). Coming to Order: Natural Selection and the Origin of Syntax in the Mandarin-speaking Child. PhD dissertation, University of California.

Erbaugh, M. S. (1992). The acquisition of Mandarin. In D. Slobin (Ed.) The Crosslinguistic Study of Language Acquisition. Vol. 3, 373–456. Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Harley, B. (1989). Functional grammar in French immersion: A classroom experiment. Applied Linguistics 10 (3), 331–359.

Hendriks, H., Hickmann, M., and Liang, J. (1998). The use of temporal-aspectual devices by Chinese children: Semantic and discourse determinants. Studia Linguistics Serica, 225–242. Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong.

Iljic, R. (1990). The Verbal Suffix –guo in Mandarin Chinese. Lingua 81, 301–326.

Jin, L. and Hendriks, H. (2005). The development of aspect marking in L1 and L2 Chinese. Working Papers in English and Applied Linguistics 9, 69–99.

Kang, J. (1999). The Composition of the Perfective Aspect in Mandarin Chinese. Boston, MA: Boston University dissertation.

Keith, J. and Johnson, H. (1999). Encycopedia Dictionary of Applied Linguistics. access on 27/05/09.

Labeau, E. (2005). Beyond the Aspect Hypothesis: Tense-aspect Development in Advanced L2 French. Bern: Peter Lang AG.

Leeman, J., Artegoitia, I., Fridman, B., and Doughty, C. (1995). Integrating attention to form with meaning: Focus on form in content-based Spanish instruction. In R. Schmidt (Ed.), Attention and Awareness in Foreign Language Learning. Honolulu, HI: Second Language Teaching and Curriculum Center, University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

Li, C. and Thompson, A. S. (1981). Mandarin Chinese. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Li, P. (1990). Aspect and aktionsart in child Mandarin. PhD dissertation, University of Leiden.

Li, P. and Bowerman, M. (1998). The acquisition of lexical and grammatical aspect in Chinese. First Language 18, 311–350.

Li, P. and Shirai, Y. (2000). The Acquisition of Lexical and Grammatical Aspect. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Li, D. and Duff, R. (1998). The development of aspectual distinctions in Mandarin as a second language. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Applied Linguistics, Seattle, WA.

Lin, J. (2003). Temporal Reference in Mandarin Chinese. Journal of East Asian Linguistics, 12, 259–311.

Lin, J. (2007). Predicate restriction, discontinuity property and the meaning of the perfective marker Guo in Mandarin Chinese, Journal of East Asian Linguistics, 16, 237–257.

Liu, X. (1988). Xiandai Hanyu Ciwei ‘le’ de Yufa Yiyi (The grammar of suffix ‘-le’ in Modern Chinese). Zhongguo Yuwen, 5, 321–330.

Long, M. H. and Robison, P. (1998). Focus on form: Theory, research, and practice. In C. Doughty and J. William (Eds) Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition, 15–41. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lü, S. X. (1980). 800 Grammatical Words in Modern Chinese. Beijing: Shangwu Press.

Ma, L. (2006). Acquisition of the perfective aspect marker Le of Mandarin Chinese in discourse by American college learners. PhD dissertation, University of Iowa.

Pan H. and Lee, P. (2004). The role of pragmatics in interpreting the Chinese perfective markers –guo and –le. Journal of Pragmatics, 36, 441–466.

Qiao, Z. (2008). The acquisition of resultative verb compounds in Mandarin by English speakers. Proceedings of the 9th Generative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition Conference.

Salaberry, R. (1998). The development of aspectual distinctions in classroom L2 French. Canadian Modern Language Review 54 (4), 504–542.

Salaberry, R. (2000). The Development of Past Tense Morphology in L2 Spanish. Amsterdam: John Benjamins B.V.

Smith, C. (1991). The Parameter of Aspect. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Smith, C. (1997). The Parameter of Aspect (2nd ed). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Soh, H. L. and Gao. M. (2004). Change of state, presupposition and the meaning of Mandarin sentential –le. Manuscript, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

Soh, H. L. and Gao. M. (2006). Perfective aspect and transition in Mandarin Chinese: An analysis of double –le sentences. In Pascal Denis et al. (Eds) Proceedings of the 2004 Texas Linguistics Society Conference. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project.

Stoddart, J. (2000). Teaching Through Translation. The Journal 11. Available at (accessed 06/05/2008).

Sun, D. (1993). Waiguo liuxuesheng xiandai hanyu le de xide guocheng chubu fenxi (Initial analysis of the acquisition of le by foreign students). Yuyan Jiaoxue yu Yanjiu (Language Teaching and Research) 2, 166–177.

Sweller, J., Van Merrienboer, J. J., and Paas, F. G. (1998) Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational Psychology Review, 10 (3), 251–296.

Tai, J. (1984). Verbs and Times in Chinese: Vendler’s Four Categories. Chicago Linguistic Society 20: 289–296.

Teng, S-H. (1999). The acquisition of le in L2 Chinese. Shijie Hanyu Jiaoxue (World Chinese Language Teaching) 1, 56–63.

Wen, X. (1995). Second language acquisition of the Chinese particle le. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 5 (1), 45–62.

Wen, X. (1997). Acquisition of Chinese aspect: An analysis of the interlanguage of learners of Chinese as a second language. ITL: Review of Applied Linguistics, 5, 45–62.

Wu, Z. X. (2000). Grammaticalization and the Development of Functional Categories in Chinese. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Southern California.

Xiao, R. and McEnery, T. (2004). Aspect in Mandarin Chinese. Amsterdam: John Benjamins B.V.

Yang, S. Huang, Y. and Cao, X. (1999). Hanyu zuowei di er yuyan de tibiao ji xide (The acquisition of aspect markers in L2 Chinese). Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association 34 (1), 31–54.

Yang, S. Huang, Y. and Cao, X. (2000). Hanyu tibiao ji xide guocheng zhong de biaozhu buzu xianxiang (The phenomenon of underuse in the acquisition of L2 Chinese). Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association 35 (3), 87–116.

Yip, P. C. and Don, R. (1998). Intermediate Chinese: A Grammar and Workbook. London: Routledge.

Zhao, L. (1996). Waiguo liuxuesheng shiyong ‘le’ de qingkuang diaocha he fenxi (Investigation into and the analysis of the usage of le by foreign students). In The Collection of Papers from Beijing Language and Culture University at the Fifth International Seminar on Chinese Language Teaching. Beijing: Beijing Language and Culture University Press.

Zhu, D. (1982). Yufa Jiangyi (Lecture Notes on Chinese Grammar). Beijing: Commercial Press.



How to Cite

Zhang, Q. (2017). Investigating the teaching of Chinese aspect markers ’zai’, ’zhe’, ’le’ and ’guo’: Grammar-Translation approach and a communicative approach. Researching and Teaching Chinese As a Foreign Language, 2(1), 1–41.