Journal of Child Language


Early vocabulary development in Mandarin (Putonghua) and Cantonese*


a1 University of Michigan

a2 University College Cork

a3 Peking University First Hospital


Parent report instruments adapted from the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories (CDI) examined vocabulary development in children aged 0 ; 8 to 2 ; 6 for two Chinese languages, Mandarin (n=1694) and Cantonese (n=1625). Parental reports suggested higher overall scores for Mandarin- than for Cantonese-speaking children from approximately 1 ; 4 onward. Factors relevant to the difference were only-child status, monolingual households and caregiver education. In addition to the comparison of vocabulary scores overall, the development of noun classifiers, grammatical function words common to the two languages, was assessed both in terms of the age and the vocabulary size at which these terms are acquired. Whereas age-based developmental trajectories again showed an advantage for Beijing children, Hong Kong children used classifiers when they had smaller vocabularies, reflecting the higher frequencies and greater precision of classifier use in adult Cantonese. The data speak to the importance of using not just age, but also vocabulary size, as a metric by which the acquisition of particular linguistic elements can be examined across languages.

(Received September 24 2006)

(Revised December 31 2007)

(Online publication May 13 2009)


c1 Address for correspondence: Twila Tardif, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 530 Church Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1043. e-mail:


[*] This research would not have been possible without the assistance of more than 3,000 families and over 50 research assistants. We acknowledge funding for the project from a Hong Kong government Earmarked grant for research (#HKU 7158/99H) to Dr Paul Fletcher and NSF grant # BCS-0350272 to Dr Twila Tardif. In addition, we thank Tracy Chan, Kawai Leung, Shirley Leung and Sam Leung in Hong Kong and Bo Hao, Qicheng Jing, Zhixiang Zhang and Qihua Zuo in Beijing for their unfailing commitment and support at various stages of this project.