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Inter-lingual Interference in the Usage of Prepositions


Inter-lingual Interference in the Usage of Prepositions in the English of Syrian Students


In recent years, studies of foreign language acquisition have tended to focus on learners’ errors since they allow for prediction of the difficulties involved in acquiring a foreign language. In this way, teachers can be made aware of the difficult areas to be encountered by their students and devote special care and emphasis to them. Prepositions, on which this dissertation focuses, are one of these difficult areas. Thus, the main objective is to investigate whether the English preposition errors of the Syrian university students come more from inter-lingual interference or from other sources and whether classical or colloquial Arabic has the dominant influence on this interference. It also investigates which category of error in inter-lingual interference is the most frequent in the students’ using the prepositions in, on, at, of and to. The data is samples consisting of the answers of a diagnostic test by 38 Syrian first-year students of law. The diagnostic test was designed as a multiple choice test and took by the students online. This investigation showed that preposition errors come mainly from inter-lingual interference, which is attributed more to standard Arabic here. It also showed that the students seem to have a serious problem in first language interference errors, especially substitution errors. This has implications for curriculum change and teacher’s method of teaching.

1. Introduction
1.1. Background of the study

Language difficulty is often determined by how far or close the target and mother languages are. “Contrastive analysis is one of the areas of linguistics which elude a clear, unequivocal, and simple definition” (Vizmuller-Zocco, 1990:466). Errors in a certain area of grammar in the second language are often compared with an area of grammar in the first language.

One of the most challenging things in learning English as a second language is using prepositions, “Among those who teach or learn the English language, prepositions have earned a reputation for difficulty if not downright unpredictability.” (Pittman, 1966) “As any English teacher well knows, our prepositions are a particularly troublesome lot to the non-native speaker of English” (McCarthy, 1972).

When we, non-native speakers of English, speak English, we usually hesitate over choosing the correct preposition or whether a certain verb needs a preposition or not. This matter has always interested me, as many Arabic-speaking learners of English complain about it. Thahir (1987) indicates that prepositions can cause a problem for Arabic learners of English. For instance, an Arabic speaker would say this sentence *Fast trains can travel at a speed of 300m in hour. This is because per hour is expressed as in hour in Arabic. This transfer from Arabic into English is what makes Arabic learners’ English seem broken. Moreover, some linguists say that the mastery of prepositions in English is a late stage in native-language learning as well (Scott and Tucker, 1974).

Therefore, this dissertation intends to look into the differences of preposition aspects between Arabic and English: are their distributions the same? Do all the Arabic words that need prepositions also need prepositions in English? If the words that need prepositions in Arabic also need prepositions in English, are these prepositions the same or different? From these general questions more specific questions will be formulated in the ‘Methodology’ chapter.

1.2. Grammar of English and Arabic prepositions

“Arabic has a wealth of prepositions…with both verbs and adjectives. Many of these do not coincide with their direct English translations” (Swan and Smith, 1987:152). Nevertheless, Arabic prepositions are more limited in number than those of English. Abbas says that there are only twenty prepositions in Arabic (1961:320), while in English, there are fifty seven (Hayden, 1965:171-176). This, as a matter of fact, makes it harder for Arabic learners of English to have a command of English preposition usage. Grubic says:

Non-native speakers of English tend to have three types of problems with prepositions:

1. Using the wrong preposition, e.g.:

*My grandfather picked the name on me. (for)

2. Omitting a required preposition, e.g.:

*I served the Army until 1964. (in)

3. Using a superfluous prepositions, e.g.:

*I studied in Biology for three years. (2004:22)

Despite all the efforts made by grammar book writers and teachers, learners of English still make mistakes in the usage of prepositions. So, what makes EFL learners make these errors? There is no doubt that Arabic learners of English translate grammar from Arabic into English, ignoring the rigorous grammatical structures of the English language. However, are all preposition-usage errors related to L1?

Prepositions are words or groups of words that typically come before a noun phrase and indicate syntactic relations (Matthews, 1997).

v My father’s plane arrives after midnight.

v We have got a tree in front of the house.

v There are no snakes in Ireland.

One important feature of prepositions is that they cannot stand alone, regardless of how many words they are combined with (Downing and Locke, 1992). Since prepositions are not independent, they form meaning when combined with nouns or noun phrases, for example: after midnight, in front of the house, in Ireland. “Prepositions can be divided into three categories, i.e. basic prepositions, systematic prepositions and idiomatic prepositions:

v standing on the table.

v come on Friday.

v comment on speech.” (Karlsson, 2002)

In expressing time, on is used with days, such as on Friday, on Saturday and on January 30th. At, on the other hand, indicates a specific part or time of the day, such as at 12 o’clock, at noon and at midnight. While in is used with years, months and seasons or main parts of the day, for example in 2001, in summer, in April. For explains a period of time, and by and within indicate limitation of a period of time, such as for six years, by next year and within two hours (Hewings, 2005).

The Arabic preposition fee (»“»²), which is equivalent to the English in, is used in almost all of the above cases, but for within Arabic uses khilal (º»¼»). By and for have no equivalents in Arabic and they are expressed in phrases.

As for prepositions of movement and place, in is used when indicating a certain position and on when talking about the surface, as in:

v The keys are in the drawer.

v The keys are on the table.

At is used when pointing at a certain place which is close to the object, for example:

v I’m waiting for you at the bus stop.

Inside is used to indicate the inner place of a certain object, while outside is the opposite.

v There is a scorpion inside my room.

v Outside the Palace, there were crowds of people waiting for the Queen to show up.

Also, from and to are opposite prepositions. From indicates the origin of the movement, but to indicates the target of the movement (ibid), as in:

v My plane ticket is from London Heathrow to Damascus International Airport.

All of the prepositions of movement and place have their equivalents in Arabic:

§ in → fee (»“»²)

§ on → ala (»‹» »°)

§ at → inda (»‹»ºª)

§ inside → dakhel (ºªºº»ž)

§ outside → kharej (ººº®º)

§ from → min (»£»¥)

§ to → ila (º‡» »°)

1.3. Study aims

The prepositions in, on, at and to are the most commonly used prepositions in English. Therefore, my research study is going to focus closely on these four prepositions in the English of Syrian university students. I will see whether the first language interference kind of error is more effective than the other kinds. I will identify the errors that have to do with L1 interference and see if the interference comes from classical or colloquial Arabic. I will also look at the categories of L1 interference errors and see which one is the most frequent: substitution, addition or omission. This will, hopefully, help Syrian university students improve their written and spoken English.

2. Literature review
2.1. Error analysis

One way for identifying errors in preposition usage is error analysis. First of all, it is important to define the word ‘error’. An error is “an instance of language that is unintentionally deviant and is not self-corrigible by its author” (James, 1998:78). Brown considers the errors as either ‘overt’ or ‘covert’ (1994:208).

According to Ellis (1987) Error analysis was considered as an alternative to contrastive analysis, and it is considered of value in the classroom research (Brown, 1994: 214). It also predicts the difficulties of acquiring a second language (Richards, 1974: 172). Error analysis shows “the significance of errors in learners’ inter-language system” (Brown, 1994:204). Ellis and Richards et al say that error analysis can be conducted for pedagogical purposes (1994:51; 1993:127).

At the level of pragmatic classroom experience, error analysis will continue to provide one means by which the teacher can assess learning and teaching and determine priorities for future effort (Richards, 1974:15).

When we analyse errors, we should give a detailed explanation for each type of error that corresponds to the different processes that Selinker (1992) reported as central to second language learning:

language transfer, transfer of training, strategies of second language learning, strategies of second language communication, and overgeneralization of TL [Target Language] linguistic material.

Error analysis helps teachers overcome the difficulties learners of English face in learning the language through figuring out the sources of errors and, consequently, taking some precautions towards them. It can be said that error analysis can be used to determine the learner’s need in learning.

2.2. Language transfer

The “study of transfer depends greatly on the systematic comparisons of languages provided by contrastive analyses” (Odlin, 1989: 28). Odlin goes on to say that although many contrastive analyses provide useful and sometimes highly perceptive information about languages they compare, none comes close to meeting in full the criteria of descriptive and theoretical adequacy.

There is no doubt that interference constitutes a major problem and obstacle in language usage amongst learners of a second language. They cannot help letting their mother tongue interfere in the target language. Therefore, some errors are tolerable to native speakers of English. Even native speakers of English have problems with certain preposition structures.

Over-generalisation or intra-lingual transfer is said to have a considerably negative effect on learner English. Learners of a second language sometimes transfer some features of grammar to apply it on other inappropriate features. This certainly results in errors in the target language. Almost all the research that has been done so far indicates that preposition misuse is mainly caused by linguistic interference, inappropriate learning and wrong application of rules. Some views contradict this saying that errors of prepositions are due to the complexity of the English language itself. Others go so far as to say that the misuse or errors of a language could be related to bad teaching and resources, ignorance, lack of practice and carelessness.

In fact, attitudes vary considerably. The first attitude represents the feeling that errors are undesirable and, therefore, should be avoided, but the second says that errors are inevitable in an imperfect world (Corder, 1981). In behaviourism, errors are depicted as sins that should be avoided and bad habits that should not be tolerated, while in cognitivism, errors are perceived as part of the learning process. The main focus of behaviourism followers’ methods is on preventing errors, whereas the focus of the methods of cognitivists is on intellectual analyses of the causes of errors and ways of dealing with them. This supports French’s argument (1989) that “errors are oddities that are not evidence of carelessness or of unwillingness but of growing pains and a desire to learn, not punishable offences because they are accidents” (French, 1989). Actually they are part of the language learning process. Humans cannot learn without making errors – to err is human.

Krashen and Terrell (1983) argue that the errors made by learners are a natural process in learning, and learners will get over this stage of inter-language interference and develop naturally. L1 interference is one of several types of errors learners of a second language make (ibid, 1988: 64-69). When learners of a second language use this language, they have no way but to submit to the grammar of their first language.

In the case of English prepositions, when Arabic learners of English are not sure which preposition to use, they literally translate from Arabic into English. As Arabic and English prepositions seldom have one-to-one correspondence, this results in inter-language interference errors. An Arabic preposition may be translated by several English prepositions, while an English usage may have several Arabic translations (Scott and Tucker, 1974: 85).

2.3. Studies on language transfer

The processes of language transfer and over-generalisation receive considerable attention. Jain (in Richards, 1974) and Taylor (1975) reported that over-generalisation errors are an application of the generalisation strategies of the learner’s second language to produce this same second language. Brown states that inter-lingual transfer is the negative influence of the mother tongue, and that intra-lingual transfer is the negative transfer within the target language (1980:173-181).

Swan and Smith give a detailed account of errors made by speakers of nineteen different first language backgrounds (1995:ix). Also, Diab (1996) conducted a research on error analysis showing the interference of the mother language, Arabic, in the English writings of EFL students at the American University of Beirut (1996). The transfer of Arabic structures in the Lebanese students’ writings resulted in a number of errors. However, they made more errors where they felt English and Arabic were similar (articles, prepositions and choice of diction). James indicates that “the clearest proof of L1 interference is where L1 nonstandard dialect gets transferred to L2” (1998:179). Dulay et al (1982) defines language interference as the automatic transfer from the surface structure of the first language to the surface structure to the second language, while Lott (1983) defines it as errors in learners’ foreign language that can be attributed to the mother tongue. Ellis also comments on interference saying that it is “the influence that the learner’s L1 exerts over the acquisition of an L2” (1997:51).

‘An Analysis of Interference Errors in the Written English of Sudanese Students’ is a study made by Tadros (1966) in order to analyse the errors of language interference in the writings of Sudanese students. He looked into 472 scripts written by 236 students in their seventh year of English learning. The students were first given different exercises about relative clauses and had to follow explicit instructions. Then they were asked to write a paragraph about their school, using relative clauses. This research made the writer come up with the conclusion that this is an effective way to apply what they have already learnt. I think the conditions were helpful for the students, so their writings were not an indication of their true proficiency level in English. The students were asked to write paragraphs immediately after they had been taught.

Scott et al (1974) also made a study in Beirut called “Error Analysis and English Language Strategies of Arab Students”. This study examined samples of Arab students’ speech and writing both at the beginning and the end of the semester in an intensive English course; compared the types of error in speech and writing, the frequency of these errors and the relative frequency of the errors made at the beginning and the end of the semester; identified the sources of errors; considered both inter-language interference and intra-language interference in the English learning strategies of Arab students and identified some rules that represent early and late acquisition of a second language. This researcher made this study on 22 Arab students in the first semester of a lower intermediate intensive English course at the University of Beirut. Those students had already completed their school education, where the medium of instruction was Arabic. They had also studied some English as a foreign language.

This study revealed that verbs, prepositions and articles are the areas where the students often made errors. It also showed that the error frequency in the usage of prepositions was similar in writing and speech and that the preposition errors at the beginning and the end of the semester ranked after the number of verb errors.

Verb errors

Preposition errors

Beginning of the semester



End of the semester



Half of the errors in writing and speech at the beginning of the semester were due to inter-language interference and the other half due to intra-language interference. About two thirds of the errors at the end of the semester were due to inter-language interference and one third due to intra-language interference. Since the larger number of errors was made due to inter-language interference at the end rather than at the beginning of the semester, this means that the students were making more progress in overcoming intra-language interference confusion than in solving the problem of the first language transfer.

The interference of Arabic was most obvious in the frequent omission of auxiliaries and copulas, in preposition and article errors and in the repetition of subjects and objects. However, at the end of the semester, the students made a great progress in almost all areas except in prepositions and articles; the interference of the mother language continued to be a dominant feature in the usage of prepositions and articles. The preposition errors fell into three groups:

1. Interference from Arabic.

2. Interference from English.

3. Errors without identifiable source.

The preposition errors were reduced by one third during the semester. Although the larger proportion of these errors was attributed to the interference of the first language, it was thought that the students would make progress in the usage of prepositions since it is a late acquisition in native language learning (Scott et al, 1974:95).

The researcher suggested that other studies should investigate the errors made by Arab students at both lower and higher levels of English proficiency and if inter-language interference comes from formal or colloquial Arabic. She suggests that “interference in writing comes from classical Arabic but interference in speech from colloquial Arabic.” (ibid: 96).

Mukattash made a pilot project in common grammatical errors in Jordanian English (1981: 250-291). The broad objective of his research “Common Grammatical Errors in Jordanian English” is to get a general idea of the areas in English syntax which are problematic to Jordanian students at university. The specific objective of his research was to calculate and analyse the different types of errors in the written English of Jordanian university students. The subject students were 200 first-year students at the University of Jordan. They were graduates of public secondary schools, where they had received eight years of English language teaching. They were also from different parts of Jordan and some of them were from the West Bank in Palestine.

The students were given a comprehensive test in comprehension, structure and vocabulary. All the 200 essays contained errors, but the detailed analysis was made on only fifty essays, which were chosen randomly. The errors in the usage of prepositions ranked fourth in the order of the total occurrence of errors. This study disagrees with Scott’s study, which ranks preposition usage errors second after verb errors. Here the ranking order is as follows: verbals, articles, nominals and prepositions. The percentage of the preposition errors was 15% of the overall number of errors in the fifty essays.

Although we cannot compare the results of the two studies due to the fact that Scott did not state precisely what percentage the preposition usage errors constituted in the writings of her subject students, we can say that preposition errors are still a serious problem for Arabic learners of English. In Scott’s study, the percentage of interference from Arabic was 67%, while in this Study, it is 78%. However, the interference of Arabic in the usage of prepositions is still significant in the results of both studies.

Also, Kerr (1970) made a study on the common errors in the English writings of a group of Greek learners of English as a foreign language. The research study purpose was to show the teachers of English in Greece the serious problems their students have in writing.

Teachers find certain types of errors which they have previously ignored, and so find indications of the kinds of preventive and remedial teaching that would prevent the growth of bad language habits by using clearer explanations and more effective practice at the more elementary stages of learning. The errors also indicate the areas of language on which tests and examinations would be based. (Kerr, 1970: ix).

Kerr based his study on over a thousand compositions written by adult students at an advanced level of English proficiency. The causes of the errors found were ignorance of words and constructions to express an idea, carelessness of the students, the interference of the mother language and making false analogies within the target language. Between 20% and 30% of the grammatical errors made by the Greek students involved errors in the usage of prepositions of all types (ibid, 1970: 22).

Handrickson (1979) made another research study on error analysis and error correction at Ohio State University called ‘Error Analysis and Error Correction on ESL Learners at Ohio State University’. The subject learners were adults of intermediate level studying English as a second language. His study aimed at identifying the most frequent communicative and linguistic errors in the compositions of intermediate ESL learners. It also aimed at determining the effect of the teacher’s direct correction on the English writing proficiency of students.

He found that most of the communicative errors were as a result of inadequate lexical knowledge, incorrect use of prepositions and pronouns or misspelling of lexical items. On the other hand, the linguistic errors were caused by inappropriate lexical choice, lack of subject-verb agreement, the omission and misuse of prepositions, incorrect word order or misspelling of words. The effect of the teacher’s direct error correction on the students’ English proficiency in writing came out to be statistically insignificant.

Another study was made in the United States on EFL learners, but this time on Iranian students. The research was conducted by Henning (1978) at the University of California and is called ‘A Developmental Analysis of English Errors Made by Iranian Students’. He analysed the developmental error patterns of the Iranian learners of English as a second language. The subjects of this study were 22 Iranian women in the second semester of their first year at Damayand College in Tehran, Iran. The students had already had an average of six years of English learning and were, at the time of the research, enrolled in an intensive course where 20 hours of English language teaching was being given to them. The medium of instruction was also English.

“The conclusion reached was that…mastery in the usage of English prepositions according to their meanings is one of the most sensitive indicators of the degree of English proficiency” (Henning, 1978:396-397). Zarei (2002) also found that, for Iranian EFL learners, the collocations of prepositions are among the most problematic collocations in English.

Khampang (1974) also made a research study at the University of California. This Research study is called ‘The Difficulties in Using English Prepositions’, and it focused on the difficulties facing Thai learners of English in using English prepositions. The research was conducted to investigate what the prepositions that Thai learners of English found difficult to learn were and whether there was a big difference between the prepositions that Thai learners of English chose and those chosen by learners of English from other L1 backgrounds. It also investigated whether the problem of using English prepositions was universal, shared with non-Thai learners of English, or Thai learners had specific problems. He wanted to know if this problem was due to first language interference and, consequently, predictable from contrastive analysis.

The study was only on 8 simple prepositions of time and place: in, on, at, for, to, from, by and the empty form ∅. ‘The subject students in this research were 169 students from different L1 backgrounds: 40 from Thailand, 48 from Japan, 38 from Spain and 43 from countries of different language backgrounds (Persian, Italian, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese and Arabic). The levels of the students were both intermediate and advanced, and they were in adult schools in the area of Los Angeles. The students were tested on the 8 prepositions of time and place by a diagnostic test. This test was in three parts: multiple choice, error correction and close test. Each part consisted of 15 items. The 45 questions included the repetition of each preposition 4 times in random order. The results came up with the fact that:

there was no evidence of significant difference between the language groups based on total test scores. Neither was there any evidence found for interaction effects between the language groups and the factors selected. There was only one factor, previous educational level, which showed significant difference between high school and college subjects. (Khampang, 1974: 218).

Different language groups did not affect the subject students’ performance in the usage of English prepositions. Again, age, sex or the number of years or hours per week allotted for learning English were not important factors in mastering the usage of English prepositions. As for the question about whether certain prepositions were more difficult or easier for certain language groups, the writer had to use the criterion of difficulty in order to answer it. If a group had less than 50% of the responses correct, then the test item was considered difficult. 16 out of the 45 items were considered difficult, and the data showed that not all the four groups had the same responses for the test items.

Khampang gave some statements that, as he said, are applicable to ESL teaching. He said that of the three test parts, the close test seemed to be more effective than the other parts in testing the usage of English prepositions. He also argues that to teach them English, there is no need to separate students of English by age, sex, or number of years or hours allotted for learning English. Diagnostic and placement tests came out to be more effective than considering the students’ L1 backgrounds. Moreover, for a heterogeneous language group, the way of teaching English prepositions of time and place should be the same for all students, along with emphasising the areas of difficulty in English language learning for a particular language group. This last statement is the real objective behind error analysis. I’m researching Syrian university students’ preposition errors in order to see if the errors are as a result of the interference of their first language, Arabic. This will help us develop strategies to teach those students.

An investigation on the grammatical errors made by Swedish 16-year-old learners of English was made by Kohlmyr (2003). She analysed errors in around 400 compositions from two national assessment programmes, and she found that preposition errors accounted for 12% of all the grammatical errors. The preposition errors that were mainly found with to, in, at, of and for included substitution, omission and addition. The most frequent type of error was actually substitution. According to this research, the preposition errors were caused by first language transfer, over-generalisation and simplification. About 50% of the errors were caused by over-generalisation, 40% by first language transfer and 10% by simplification. Gabrys-Biskup argues that interference is the prime cause of the learner’s second language (in Arnauld & Benjoint, 1992).

All of the above research articles focused on learner English. Some of them also focused on the usage of English prepositions by EFL learners; for instance, the research done by Scott and Khampang. Scott, in her research, found that the usage of English prepositions was a serious problem for Arabic learners of English (1973). While Khampang said that different language groups did not have effect on the students’ performance in using English prepositions (1974). That suggests that the usage of English prepositions are a serious problem for learners of English as a foreign language. In Scott’s research, preposition errors ranked second after verb errors, and in Mukattash’s, they ranked fourth. In both cases, preposition errors are problematic for Arabic learners of English. Also, in Kerr’s research study, the preposition errors constituted between 20% and 30% of the overall grammatical errors.

Some of the above researchers gave some recommendations and suggestions for dealing with errors. Kerr (1970) said that preventive and remedial teaching had a good and positive effect. This can be done by using clearer explanations and more effective practice at the elementary stage. However, Tadros (1979) suggested intensive drilling.

On the other hand, Scott suggested that further investigations should be made on the errors that are committed by Arabic learners of English at their lower levels of English proficiency (1973). She also suggested that researches should look into the influence of classical and colloquial Arabic on Arabic students’ written English.

These suggestions, in addition to my interest, have urged me to conduct a research study into this problematic area for Syrian learners of English, especially since there have not been many studies on this topic, as far as I know. Even at more advanced levels of English proficiency, Syrian learners of English still make errors in the usage of prepositions. The kind of error they make is due to the mother tongue, and since Arabic has two varieties (formal and colloquial), it is worth investigating which one the learners take their English grammar structures from. Scott (1974) says that the English production of Arabic learners is affected by both formal and colloquial Arabic. Nevertheless, we do not know which variety is dominant and to what extent.

3. Methodology and research procedures
3.1. Research questions

In this research study, I will look into the preposition usage errors made by Syrian university students and try to answer the following questions:

1. Which kind of error is more effective in using the English prepositions in, on, at, of and to: inter-language interference or other kinds of error?

2. Which variety of Arabic has the influence on the usage of English prepositions of Syrian university students and w

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