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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 a number of differences, this paper explores the use, abuse and acquisition of the article. I predict that non-English speakers who lack the article system (Korean, Russian, Polish, and Japanese) will show language transfer errors within 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 Wexler (2003) tested a linguistic theory of L2-acquisition in relation to article use. They predicted that Korean and Russian learners of English 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. Neal Snape, 2004, examined the use of articles by Japanese and Spanish learners of English and proposed that due to the L2 acquisition process, all learners of English would make systematic errors in the transfer of articles in English.
In a 2003 analysis by Ionin, Ko, and Wexler, Russian and Korean learners of English were surveyed regarding their use of English articles. The participants in this study were 50 Russian English learners ranging in age from 17 to 57, with an average age of 38, who had resided in the United States for an average of about 3 years (3 years, 2 months). There were also 38 Korean English learners ranging in age from 17 to 38, with an average age of 28, who had lived in the US for an average of just under 2 years (1 year, 10 months). All of these participants were exposed to English in their home country at an early age or during adolescence, but were not fully exposed to it until they came to the US during late adolescence or adulthood. There was also a control group that participated in this study. It consisted of seven adult English speakers. They completed all tasks as expected.
Ionin, Ko, and Wexler (2003) note that the data for this study were collected in the form of forced elicitation 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. into ability level (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 in which participants had to choose between a, the, and the null article (–) for the singular and some, the, and — for the plural. Ionin, Ko, and Wexler’s study shows examples of dialogue elicitation tasks on pages 250-252. The three types of contexts were intended to elicit singular specific indefinites. ex-
In “Lost and Found”:
Clerk: May I help you? Are you looking for something you lost?
Customer: Yes, I realize you have a lot of stuff here, but maybe you have what I need. Look, I’m looking for (a, the, –) green scarf. I think I lost it here last week.
Three types of contexts were used to elicit singular non-specific vaguenesses: ex.
In a clothing store:
Clerk: May I help you?
Customer: Yes, please! I rummaged through every stall, to no avail. I’m looking for (a, the, –) a warm hat. It’s getting pretty cold outside.
Two contexts tested plural indefinites (specific and non-specific). ex-
Phone conversation: (certain)
Jeweler: Hi, this is Robertson’s Jewelry. What can I do for you ma’am? Are you looking for a piece of jewelry? Or are you interested in selling?
Client: Yes, the sale is correct. I would like to sell you (some,…) beautiful necklaces. They are very valuable.
Phone conversation: (non-specific)
Salesman: Hi, Eric’s Grocery Delivery. What can I do for you?
Customer: Well, I have a rather exotic order.
Salesperson: We may be able to help you.
Customer: I would like to buy (some,…) green tomatoes. I make a special Mexican sauce.
Two types of contexts were designed to elicit definite phrases (DPs) in plural and singular contexts. examples:
Richard: I visited my friend Kelly yesterday. Kelly is very fond of animals – she has two cats and one dog. Kelly was busy last night – studying for an exam. So I helped her with her animals.
Maryanne: What did you do?
Richard: I took (a,, –) the dog for a walk.
Rosalyn: My cousin started school yesterday. He took one and two notebooks
new books with him to school, and he was very excited. He was so proud to have his school stuff! But he came home really sad.
Jane: What made him so sad? Did he lose any of his things?
Rosalyn: Yes! He lost (some,…) books.
As the results of this study are separated by ability level, the results of the Michigan test are given first. The L1-Korean group consisted of 1 beginner, 12 intermediate, and 25 advanced English learners. The L1-Russian group contained 13 beginner, 15 intermediate, and 22 advanced English learners. The results show that intermediate and advanced students mostly overused in certain unspecified contexts. The results also showed that word usage was higher in definites than in specific indefinites, and also higher in specifics than in nonspecific indefinites. The researchers also noted that the omission of the article was higher in plural DPs.
Overall, it was observed that L1-Korean students outperformed L1-Russian speakers in most categories. This difference in performance was attributed to the fact that “the L1-Korean students were predominantly foreign students receiving intensive English language instruction, while the speakers came from diverse backgrounds” (Ionin, Ko, & Wexler, 2003).
A similar study conducted by Monika Ekiert in 2004 examined the acquisition of the English article system by Polish speakers 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 ranged in age from early 20s to late 30s, were given a grammar test and divided into beginner, intermediate and advanced ability levels. ESL students were enrolled in an intensive English language course at Columbia University with an average length of stay in America of one year. The EFL students were enrolled at the University of Warsaw, while English was not their major subject and had not been out of Poland for more than a month or used English outside the classroom.
The task the students were given was 42 sentences containing 75 deleted obligatory uses of a/an, the, zero. Participants were asked to read the sentences, insert a/an, the, zero in the appropriate place. Blanks were not placed in the sentences because the researcher believed that if blanks were inserted, participants would fill in each blank with a or creating unreliable data. Each student was given 20 minutes to complete the task and was asked not to use dictionaries. An overuse analysis of a/an, the, zero was conducted. Unfortunately, the example sentences used for this task are not listed in the report.
The results of this study showed that students at all ability levels overused the null article. A direct relationship between ability level and zero item overuse was shown, with beginners showing the most overuse, intermediate students less, and advanced students making the least amount of zero overuse errors. Article abuse results were the same for proficiency level v. abuse. In contrast, novices did not overuse the article. The level of overuse was highest among intermediate students.
Ekiert (2004) noted that the remarkable finding of this study was that EFL students outperformed their ESL counterparts. This provides evidence that the acquisition of the English article system does not rely solely on exposure. One reason for this difference in performance is that the EFL students were all enrolled in a college program, while the ESL students were of diverse backgrounds and were simply enrolled in a college-level ESL class for one semester.
Another study was conducted by Neal Snape in 2004 which examined the use of articles by Japanese and Spanish learners of English. This study proposes that although Spanish speakers use the article system, due to the L2 acquisition process, Spanish English speakers would make systematic errors in rendering English articles, similar to Japanese language learners. He also predicted that L2 learners would overuse the definite article the.
The participants in this study were three Japanese-speaking English learners, three Spanish-speaking English learners, and two native English speakers as a control group. All participants were aged 23-40, with an average age of 28. All English language learners had studied in the UK for six months and had taken and scored 575 or above on the TOEFL. The two groups of students are divided into ability levels based on placement test scores.
The first task in this experiment was an oral production task and consisted of participants listening to 13 short stories. The stories were presented using PowerPoint slides, and students were given prompts on each slide to help them recall the story. They listened to the story twice and recalled it using the prompts. Each recall was digitally recorded, transcribed and checked for accuracy. Former story:
‘I thought the train was leaving,’ said the young man. ‘I can’t find the driver.’ answered the older woman’s daughter.
The results showed that participants had difficulty using the correct article. Past results: ‘Can’t find driver.’
The results of this study also show that the accuracy of using articles is directly correlated with students’ performance on the placement test, with beginners scoring the lowest with correct article usage, while advanced students scored the highest.
The second task in this study was a fill-in-the-blank test in which participants had to read a dialogue and fill in the blank with the correct article, a/an, the or zero. ex-
A: Come on! We’ve been in this store for hours.
B: I can’t decide. Which shirt do you like best?
C: I prefer ____ striped shirt.
The results of this task revealed that Japanese learners of English and Spanish learners of English did not overuse the definite article the. This research showed that all English language learners performed better in the written part than in the oral part and produced fewer errors in the article. In the oral part of the task, advanced learners were more accurate in their use of articles, but errors of omission were still persistent (Snape, 2004).
All studies have shown that non-English speakers who lack the article system, the use of a/an, the or zero show language transfer errors when learning English. It also showed that the most errors were omissions, as 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 results regarding language acquisition. Perhaps it is not the lack of a system of articles in the second language, it is directly related to the acquisition of the second language, while the English articles are adopted only later.
Research suggests that ESL articles are so difficult to learn and teach to ESL and EFL students because of the scope and complexity of the rules and exceptions regarding the use of articles (Norris, 1992). Some teaching techniques that may be useful for ESL and EFL teachers include providing extended descriptions, meaningful learning experiences, and using visual aids and pictures.
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