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The Misuse and Overuse of English Articles by ESL and EFL Students
Many languages differ from English in terms of semantics, syntax, and grammar. Although there are various differences, this paper examines the use, abuse and acquisition of the article. I hypothesize that speakers of languages other than English that do not have an article system (Korean, Russian, Polish, and Japanese) will exhibit language transfer errors in the English article system, a/an, the, or zero, when learning English. Research suggests that non-native English speakers will make mistakes when speaking English if their native language lacks articles.
Ionin, Ko, and Wechsler (2003) tested a linguistic theory of L2-acquisition as it relates to the use of articles. They predicted that Korean and Russian EFL learners would overuse the article in specific and nonspecific definite and indefinite contexts. In a 2004 study, Ekiert examined the acquisition and misuse of the English article system by Polish speakers learning English in ESL and EFL settings. Neil Snape, in 2004, studied article use by Japanese and Spanish learners of English and proposed that, due to L2 acquisition processes, all learners of English make systematic errors with English articles.
In a 2003 analysis by Ionin, Ko, and Wexler, Russian and Korean learners of English were examined regarding their use of English articles. Participants in this study were 50 Russian students aged 17–57, with a mean age of 38, who had lived in the United States for an average of approximately 3 years (3 years, 2 months). There were also 38 Korean learners of English aged 17–38, with a mean age of 28, who had lived in the US for an average of less than 2 years (1 year, 10 months). All of these participants had early or adolescent exposure to English in their home country but were not fully exposed to it until they immigrated to the United States in late adolescence or adulthood. There was also a control group that participated in this study. It consisted of seven adult native speakers of English. They performed all tasks as expected.
Ionin, Ko, and Wexler (2003) note that the data in this study were collected in the form of forced tasks, and participants were asked to complete the written portion of the Michigan Test of L2 Proficiency, a 30-item multiple-choice test that grouped learners. to ability levels (beginner, intermediate and advanced). The researchers also note in the results section that there was another task that was not reported in this study. For the elicitation task, there were 56 short dialogues testing 14 context types where participants had to choose a, the, and null articles (–) for singulars and some, and -, and plurals. A study by Ionin, Ko, and Wexler shows examples of dialogue solving tasks on pages 250-252. The three context types were intended to reveal singular-specific uncertainties. the former
In “Lost and Found”:
Clerk: May I help you? Looking for what you lost?
Client: Yes, I understand you have a lot here, but maybe you have what I need. You see, I’m looking for a (a, –) green scarf. I think I lost it here last week.
Three types of context were used to derive singular non-specific indefinites: ex
In a clothing store:
Clerk: May I help you?
Customer: Yes, please! I tried all the stalls to no avail. I am looking for (a, –) a warm hat. It’s quite cold outside.
The plural indefinite (specific and non-specific) tested in two contexts. the former
Telephone conversation: (specific)
Jeweler: Hi, this is Robertson’s Jewelry. what can i do for you lady Looking for jewelry? Or are you interested in selling?
Customer: Yes, the sale is correct. I want to buy you (some, –) beautiful necklaces. They are very valuable.
Phone conversation: (non-specific)
Salesperson: Hello, Erik’s Grocery Deliveries. How can I help you?
Customer: Well, I have a rather exotic order.
Salesman: We can help you.
Customer: I want to buy (some, –) green tomatoes. I make a special Mexican sauce.
Two context types were created in order to display definite defining phrases (DP) in plural and singular contexts. Examples:
Richard: I visited my friend Kelly yesterday. Kelly loves animals – she has two cats and one dog. Kelly was busy last night – studying for an exam. So I helped him with the animals.
Mariana: What did you do?
Richard: I took (a, –) the dog for a walk.
Rosaline: My cousin started school yesterday. He took one notebook and two
New books with him at school and he was very excited. He was very proud of his school stuff! But he came home really sad.
Jane: What made him so upset? Lost any of your belongings?
Rosaline: Yes! He lost (some, –) books.
After the results of this study were divided by ability level, the results of the Michigan test were given first. The L1-Korean group had 1 beginner, 12 intermediate, and 25 advanced English learners. The L1-Russian group included 13 beginner, 15 intermediate, and 22 advanced English learners. The results show that intermediate and advanced learners mostly overused specific indeterminate contexts. The results also showed that it was higher for definite than for specific indefinites and also higher for specific than for nonspecific indefinites. The researchers also noted that article omission was higher with multiple DPs.
Overall, it was noted that L1-Korean students outperformed L1-Russian speakers in most categories. This difference was due to the fact that “L1-Korean students were mostly foreign students who were intensively taught English, and the speakers were from different backgrounds” (Ionin, Ko and Wexler, 2003).
In a similar study conducted by Monika Eckiert in 2004, the acquisition of the English article system by speakers of Polish was studied in ESL and EFL settings. Participants in this study included 10 adult Polish English Language Learners (ESL), 10 Polish English Language Learners (EFL), and 5 native English speakers who served as a control group. All Polish students were between 20 and 30 years old, were given a grammar test and were divided into beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. ESL students enrolled in an intensive English language course at Columbia University in America with an average length of stay of one year. The EFL students were enrolled at the University of Warsaw while English was not their major, and they had not been outside of Poland for more than a month, nor had they used English outside of the classroom.
Students were tasked with 42 sentences containing 75 deleted imperatives a/an, the, zero. Participants were asked to read the sentences and put a/an, the, zero in the appropriate place. Blanks were not inserted in the sentences because the researcher felt that if blanks were inserted, the participants would fill in all the blanks or with unreliable data. Each student was given 20 minutes to complete the task and they were asked not to use dictionaries. An overuse analysis of a/an, the, zero was conducted. Unfortunately, examples of sentences used for this task were not reported in the report.
The results of this study showed that learners of all ability levels overused the null article. showed a direct relationship between skill level and zero article overuse, with beginners showing the most overuse, intermediates less, and advanced learners making zero overuse errors. The results for misuse of the article were the same for proficiency versus misuse. In contrast, the article was not used by beginners. Levels of overuse were highest among intermediate students.
Eckiert (2004) noted that a surprising finding of this study was that EFL learners outperformed their ESL counterparts. This provides evidence that the acquisition of the English article system does not depend on exposure alone. One reason for this performance difference is that all EFL students were enrolled in a college program, while the ESL students varied in educational level and simply enrolled in a college-level ESL class for one semester.
Another study was conducted by Neil Snape in 2004, which examined the use of the article by Japanese and Spanish learners of English. This study suggests that although Spanish speakers use the article system, due to L2 acquisition processes, English-speaking Spaniards make systematic errors with Japanese-like English-language articles. It also predicted that L2 learners would overuse the definite article.
The participants in this study were three Japanese-speaking English speakers, three Spanish-speaking English speakers, and two native English speakers acting as a control group. All participants ranged in age from 23 to 40, with a mean age of 28. All English language learners had studied in the UK for 6 months and had a TOEFL score of 575 or above. The two groups of students were divided into skill levels based on placement test scores.
The first task in this experiment was an oral production task and involved participants listening to 13 stories. The stories were presented using PowerPoint slides and on each slide students were given prompts to help them recall the story. They heard the story twice and remembered it using the cues. Each response was digitally recorded, transcribed and checked for accuracy. Former story:
“I thought the train was coming,” said the young man. “They can’t find the driver.” answered the old man’s daughter.
The results showed that participants had difficulty using the correct article. Former results: “They can’t find the driver.”
The results of this study also showed that accuracy related to article use was directly related to a student’s performance on the placement test, with beginners scoring the lowest on correct article use and advanced students scoring the highest.
The second task in this study was a gap-filling test where participants had to read a dialogue and fill in the gap with the correct article, a/an, the, or zero. the former
_ come here! We have been in this store for hours.
B: I don’t understand. Which shirt do you like the most?
C: I prefer ____ shirt with stripes.
The results of this task showed that Japanese speakers of English and Spanish speakers of English did not overuse the definite article. This study found that all English language learners performed better on the written section than on the spoken section, making fewer article errors. In the oral part of the task, advanced learners were more accurate in their use of the article, but errors of omission were still persistent (Snape, 2004).
All studies have shown that speakers of languages other than English who lack an article system, use a/an, or show zero language transfer errors when learning to speak English. It also showed that most errors were omissions because their native languages do not have an article system. While this is true for Korean, Russian, Polish, and Japanese English speakers, it is not true for Spanish speakers. This leads to an interpretation of Snape’s 2004 data and findings regarding language acquisition. Perhaps this is not a matter of the lack of a system of articles in another language, it is directly related to the acquisition of a second language, while English articles are not acquired at a later stage.
Research suggests that learning and teaching ESL articles is very difficult for ESL and EFL students because of the extensive and complex rules and exceptions to the use of articles (Norris, 1992). Some teaching techniques that can be useful for ESL and EFL teachers include extended descriptions, meaningful learning experiences, and the use of visual aids and images.
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