Inter-lingual Interference in the Usage of Prepositions


06 Mar 2018

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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 (ȣȴ)

§ 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 which has the larger influence: standard or colloquial Arabic??

3. Which category of interference errors is the most frequent: substitution, addition or omission?

3.2. Subject students and setting

The subjects are first-year students at the University of Aleppo, Syria. They are studying law, and the medium of teaching is completely Arabic. They have been studying English since they were at grade 3, so they have already received at least ten years of English language teaching, but the medium of teaching was Arabic most of the time. Now they have two sessions a week, and each session lasts for up to 2 hours. However, during their school learning, some had two and others had three classes a week. The class was approximately 45 minutes.

The ages of the students are different and range from 18 to 30. The class contains about 75 students and they are a mixed group of males and females. Some of the students are learning English in order to pass their exams. Others have different purposes, the most dominant of which is working abroad. Anyway, English is a compulsory module. Now the students face another hard challenge; they cannot pursue their higher studies unless they get a decent mark in the public qualifying test.

The subject students have 13 modules in their first year of university education. The educational system in Syria is based on two semesters, whether at school or university. Therefore, they have 6 modules in each semester. The period of each semester lasts for about 4 months including the exam at the end of each semester. 20 days is allotted to the exam itself. As a matter of fact, they have a lot of work within this short period of time. They do not have enough time to work on each module thoroughly.

It is obvious that the students have different levels of English proficiency, due to the fact that some of them are enrolled or have already taken English learning courses at the British Council or the American Language Centre. Since these courses cost too much for the majority of Syrians, only those who are rich enough can afford such courses.

The teachers who the University recruit to teach such students are mostly graduates of the English Language Department at the Syrian universities. Their English level of proficiency is very good and can easily deal with the different levels of the students. The textbook the students have to deal with is called Life Lines by Oxford University Press. In fact, it is an intermediate level book - some students can cope with it, but others cannot. This textbook cannot be covered within one academic year, the thing which pushes the teachers to select from it some areas of grammar that they find important for the students. Unfortunately, the area of English prepositions is often excluded. This, along with its rigorous rules, makes it harder for Syrian university students to have a full command of preposition usage. As everyone knows, English is governed by strict rules. For this reason, using an inappropriate preposition may cause ambiguity to the listener. This has stimulated me to conduct this research on the usage of English prepositions.

3.3. Data collection

The data used in my research study 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. Each item consisted of a sentence with a blank space and a number of optional responses from which the students had to select their answers. The number of these options or prepositions were 10. No other type of test but a multiple choice test could serve me in this respect since it did not require much time to complete. The prepositions on which the test was constructed and which were considered options for the test items were in, on, at, of, to, with, for, by, from as well as the option No preposition. They were the most used prepositions of those the students had already learnt. They included the following types:

1. Prepositions of time.

2. Prepositions of place.

3. Prepositions of movement.

They also included miscellaneous prepositions, which are used with certain verbs or adjectives, such as proud of. The diagnostic test used words that were familiar to the students so that the cause of an error made by the subject student would not be attributable to misunderstanding the meaning of a word in a sentence. This ensured that the errors made by the subjects were only attributable to their weakness in understanding and using prepositions. In addition to that, all of the preposition options had their uses in the test.

The test was taken online; the link to the test had been sent to the 75 students. However, only 38 students took the test, which contained 50 items. All of the test items had one possible answer. They were asked to answer the 50 test items without consulting a dictionary. These 38 students completed the test after I waited for a whole week. The test items focused on the most common prepositions in the English language in, on, at, of and to. However, other prepositions, along with the option No preposition, were also used in sentences where the students were apt to make first language interference errors.

I redesigned the diagnostic test 5 times till I reached the final version I based my research study on. Each time I designed a version I experimented it on three or four students at the same level. The final version of the test, which I collected my data from, had been designed in a specific way that could out the inter-language interference errors of the students. Each test item was put in such a way that did not allow the student to predict the correct response. The student had to already know the correct response. Otherwise, the student had to resort either to the first language, Arabic, or to some other way in order to give a response. In either case, the student would give an incorrect answer. By this we would be able to find out if the first language had a negative effect on the English performance of Syrian students. Besides, if the students had to resort to the first language, he/she had two options. He/she had to transfer from either formal Arabic or colloquial Arabic. Actually, there is a relatively huge difference between formal and colloquial Arabic.

Where Arabic differs from English and most European languages is in its wider gap between the high-prestige formal language, which is uniform throughout the Arab world, and the vernacular or colloquial dialects which vary by region” (Centre of Information on Language Teaching and Research, 1985: 1).

For this reason, it is really not enough to say that the influence on the English language of Syrian students comes from the first language when we are talking about Arabic. It is, therefore, worthwhile to find out where this influence comes from or, let's say, which has the bigger influence: formal or colloquial Arabic. My data was collected to serve this purpose.The test was taken when the students were taking their exams at the end of the academic year. First, they refused to take this test, but when I promised that I would provide them with my feedback on their preposition errors and the ways to overcome this obstacle, they agreed to help me with my data collection. One point was given for each item and the students got their scores electronically once they had completed the test.

3.4. Tools of research

Error analysis is considered as very important to investigate first language interference in second language acquisition. Learning a second language is a long process, during which learners make errors. Error analysis was established by Corder (1973) and his colleagues in the 1970s. It emphasises “the significance of errors in learners' inter-languages system” (Brown, 1994: 204). He finds that errors provide a good feedback about the teacher's method of teaching. So, it is convenient to look at errors for the sake of investigating inter-lingual interference.

The main source of data used to find out the answers to the research questions is the answers of the diagnostic test taken by 38 Syrian university students. The test was sent to the students online and the answers were received roughly in 6 days. The process of error identification will be made in order; first the preposition in, second on, third at, fourth of and last to.

The methods I am going to use to analyse this kind of data are the quantitative and qualitative approaches. The data of this study will be analysed in detail; I will be giving:

1. The percentage of the overall errors.

2. The percentage of the types of error.

3. The percentage of each category within the types of error.

4. The percentage of the errors attributed to standard or colloquial Arabic in general and in the answers of each student.

They will be presented in tables for the sake of facilitating their reference to the reader. “The purpose of quantitative research is to evaluate objective data consisting of numbers” (Welman, Kruger and Mitchel, 2005: 8). Then a detailed description account of the most common preposition errors will be given, explaining how the students possibly made these errors. The purpose of this account is to identify all the sources of preposition errors in the answers of the Syrian students. James states that one of the prime purposes of describing errors is that “this procedure reveals which errors are the same and which are different” (1998: 97). “Corder (1973) considered description to be the first-order application of linguistics, whether the language described was TL, the L1 of the learner, or, in our case, the learner's errors” (ibid: 95). In this account, the errors are also going to be corrected.

Since this study is about the first language interference errors of prepositions in the English of Syrian students, I will pay attention to inter-language interference errors rather than to other types of errors. Selinker argues that “interlingual identifications are a basic, if not the basic, SLA learning strategy” (1992: 260).

4. Analysis of data and results

The purpose of this chapter is to analyse and examine the data provided by the test answers of 38 Syrian university students. Therefore, this chapter is going to be divided into two parts. The first part is designed to the identification of errors according to two types: first language interference errors and other language learning errors. Within each type of error, the errors will be broken down into three categories: substitution, omission and addition. In addition to that, this part will provide statistical numbers of errors in tables. The second main part is to give a detailed description of the errors of first language interference since this dissertation looks into which variety of Arabic interference in second language acquisition comes from, formal or colloquial Arabic. Description of errors will not be in categories owing to the fact that most of the first language interference errors fall under the category of substitution. Rather, each preposition will be taken as such, and its errors with regard to first language interference will be discussed. Other language learning errors will not be described, for they do not serve the purpose of this dissertation.

4.1. Identification of errors

Total no. of correct answers

Category of error

Errors due to inter-lingual interference

Other types of error


No. in this category

% in this category

No. in this category

% in this category

No. of overall errors

% of overall errors























Total no.







4.2. Table 1

The above table presents in full the results of the error analysis. It shows the number of all the prepositions within the diagnostic test. It also shows the number of all the preposition errors made according to their types and categories and gives the number of errors in each type and category and their totals.

One important fact this table shows is that 71.8% of the total number of errors analysed were attributable to the interference from the first language, Arabic, while 45.5% were made because of other learning problems. For this reason, the errors made by the students due to the interference of Arabic occur more frequently than those made due to other problems in second language acquisition.

The numbers of cases where substitution, addition or omission errors could happen were not identical, owing to the fact that I had had to pay attention to the proportion of the test items for each preposition. For this reason, it is not fair to say that substitution errors were the most frequent. Thus, the following table presents the proportion of each category of error against the number of its possible cases within the types of error and the errors in general:

4.3. Table 2

Category of error

Inter-lingual interference error

Other types of error



28.8 %

12.1 %

40.8 %


16.4 %

2 %

18.4 %


5.4 %

1.7 %

7.1 %

Taking all the types of error in general, the table above shows that substitution errors score the highest with 40.8%. Addition and omission errors were less frequent with 18.4% for addition and 7.1% for omission, leaving a relatively little difference between each other.

Taking each category as such, we begin first with the category of first language interference. The table above shows that substitution errors were the most frequent with 28.8%. Addition and omission errors were less frequent; addition errors come slightly higher than those of omission, scoring 16.4%, while omission errors only scored 5.4%. Therefore, most of the errors made by the subject students that were attributable to the interference of Arabic were due to the selection of the wrong preposition in English.

Arabic interference errors

Standard Arabic

Colloquial Arabic

Both standard and colloquial Arabic













When discussing the interference of Arabic, it should not be forgotten that this kind of error is caused by the interference of either standard or colloquial Arabic or both of them together. The influence of these two varieties on such errors is illustrated in the following table:

4.2. Table 3

Table 3 indicates that 49.2% of the errors that were attributed to first language interference were due to the interference of standard Arabic, while only 28.8% were due to the interference of colloquial Arabic. The other 22% were unknown due to the fact that some of the sentences in the diagnostic test had their Arabic equivalents that use the same preposition in standard and colloquial Arabic.

As for the category of ‘other types of error', substitution errors stay the most frequent with 12.1 %, while addition errors come second with 2%. Omission errors are the least frequent, scoring 1.7 %. These results indicate that the largest proportion of the errors that can be attributed to other language learning problems were made in the selection of an alternative incorrect preposition, which means that the learners find the greatest difficulty not with knowing when to use a preposition but with which one to use. Consequently, they need more practice and exercises on prepositions in order to distinguish between their meanings and uses. Addition errors, which were caused by inserting unnecessary prepositions in English patterns, ranked next to substitution errors but only constituted about one seventh of the overall number of errors of other language learning problems. Omission errors ranked third and last but had equal weight with addition errors. This result indicates that the students find approximately the same degree of difficulty with both types of error and, consequently, both need equal effort and remediation. Hence, teachers need to be well aware of these results in order to prepare appropriate exercises and to explain in their remedial teaching when English patterns do or do not need prepositions to indicate relationships.

4.3. Description of errors

To discuss further the causes behind the occurrence of first language interference errors, the following samples of incorrect responses that were made by more than 25% of the students are presented below, along with the proportion of the students who made each of these errors.

Because the focus is on first language interference errors and on the most common prepositions in English in, on, at, of and to, I will only discuss this kind of error with regard to these prepositions.

4.4. First language interference errors

All of the errors in the following sentences come from the interference of the students' first language, and they constitute 68.5% out of the overall number of the preposition errors in the diagnostic test. In fact, most of these errors are substitution errors.

4.4.1. Preposition in

1. *The man dressed with blue is my father.

2. *The man dressed (-) blue is my father.

In English, in blue is a location in metaphor. One reason we might say that English speakers say in blue is because they treat blue as being more like a container, which has three dimensions, than a surface (Yule, 1998: 166). As the above sentences show, the misuse of with and the omission of in is caused by the interference of Arabic. The error in the first sentence comes from colloquial Arabic, while the second comes from standard Arabic. About 27.3% of the students made the error in the first sentence and 72.7% made the error in the second sentence. This influence caused the errors of substitution and omission in the above sentences.

4.4.2. Preposition on

3. *The doctor operated in his heart.

4. *The doctor operated to his heart.

On, as a preposition of space, is used with objects treated as having one or two dimensions (ibid: 160). Thus, the heart is regarded as having one or two dimensions.

In Arabic, however, the case is different. In Syrian colloquial Arabic, the heart is treated as a three dimensional object, as the error shows in sentence 3. Unlike colloquial Arabic, standard Arabic treats the heart as an aim for the operation, and that is the reason why to was used in sentence 4. 78.6% of the students made the error shown in sentence 4. This big proportion is a clear evidence that standard Arabic has the bigger influence on the English of Arabic learners.

In sentence 5, the lack of a preposition in colloquial Arabic before the noun phrases picnic, journey and trip caused the omission of the preposition in English, while in formal Arabic, it is regarded as a three dimensional metaphor. Therefore, the majority of the students, with 88.5%, misused the preposition in in sentence 6.

5. *It is really nice to go (-) a trip.

6. *It is really nice to go in a trip.

In the English language, however, a trip is seen as a particular occasion, as in on that day and on that evening (Alexander, 1988: 150).

4.4.3. Preposition at

At is a preposition that has no equivalent in Arabic. It is used “to imply that a location has a special purpose: it may be a stopping place, a meeting place, an eating place, a work place, etc. seen externally” (ibid: 146). As sentence 7 shows, on was used instead of at due to the interference of colloquial Arabic, although we never sit on a table to have our dinner. In formal Arabic, by is used, denoting our literal position.

7. *We sat on the table to have our dinner.

8. *We sat by the table to have our dinner.

Here the influence of colloquial Arabic is slightly more significant than that of formal Arabic, with 52% of the students making the error in sentence 7.
4.4.4. Preposition of

9. *My mother bought 2 kilos (-) potatoes.

10. *My mother bought 2 kilos from potatoes.

In this test item, the influence of standard Arabic is fairly obvious. 90% of the students chose the preposition from instead of the preposition of, as in sentence 10. The rest of the students chose the No preposition option, due to the literal translation from colloquial Arabic, the thing which caused the omission of of. Post-modifying of-phrases have a wide range of uses in English, one of which is quantity, such as 2 kilos of potatoes (Quirk et al, 1985: 703).

Another case of Arabic interference with regard to the preposition of occurred. The following sentences also show the influence of standard Arabic on the students' English.

11. *It was stupid in him to think this way.

12. *It was stupid from him to think this way.

Sentence 11 shows the influence of colloquial Arabic, while sentence 12 shows the influence of standard Arabic. 11.1% of the students made the error in the first sentence and 88.9% made the error in the second. English speakers use the preposition of in this sentence because the “most common preposition, of, occurs chiefly as a postmodifier in noun phrases in a function similar to that of the genitive” (Quirk et al, 1985: 703).

Of has no equivalent in Arabic; therefore, there were many errors in the usage of this preposition, as in the following sentences:

13. *Can you think with a country which has no borders?

14. *Can you think in a country which has no borders?

This is the only test item the influence on which only comes from colloquial Arabic. 100% of the students chose the preposition with, as in sentence 13. However, the percentage of the first language interference errors in this sentence only constitutes 7.9% out of the overall number of errors.

4.4.5. Preposition to

Although to is an easy preposition and has its equivalent in Arabic, the students still made errors in it. This is because the test items for this preposition were hard to predict. Thus, the students had to resort to the mother tongue to choose a response.

15. *He got in trouble because he lied with his parents.

16. *He got in trouble because he lied on his parents.

The error in the latter sentence, which is attributed to the influence of standard Arabic, was made by 93.3% of the students.

In the following two sentences, to should be used instead of on or with. To is “used to show the person or thing that receives something” (Hornby, 2000: 1365).

17. *Sam was impolite on his mother.

18. *Sam was impolite with his mother.

Sentence 18, the error in which comes from standard Arabic, was made by 82.4% of the students.

As for the next couple of sentences, to was omitted or substituted by for despite the fact that to is “used to show a relationship between one person or thing and another” (ibid).

19. *The manager is the only one who has the key (-) the problem.

20. *The manager is the only one who has the key for the problem.

66.7% of the students made the error in sentence 20, which comes from standard Arabic, while 33.3% made the error in sentence 19.

In the case of a few test items, there was more influence from colloquial Arabic, but the proportion of those errors is slightly higher than that of the errors influenced by formal Arabic. In general, we can say that the bigger number of the test items were more influenced by standard Arabic. At the level of the item, the proportion of standard Arabic interference was much bigger than that of colloquial Arabic interference. This interference leads to the students' making errors.

Before being able to apply remedial work which can adequately treat the errors of Syrian university students, a scientific study of the first language interference errors in English prepositions that are made by most university students at the intermediate level was necessary because the researcher believes that it is essential for the teachers to be familiar with the types of error made by their students in this area. Thus, appropriate methods and materials for applying both preventive and remedial teaching at an early level can be advised. In this way, they can treat the difficulties their students are bound to encounter before preposition errors are too often repeated and strongly reinforced.

5. Findings and recommendation

The aim of the study has been three-fold. The first part is actually to see which variety of Arabic has the influence on the usage of English prepositions of Syrian university students and which has the larger influence: standard or colloquial Arabic. The second part is to investigate which category of interference errors is the most frequent: substitution, addition or omission.

Encouraged by previous studies that emphasise the difficulties that second language learners find in the use of English prepositions, I focused my research study on the use of prepositions taking as my example Scott's study, in which she recommends investigating which has the influence on the usage of English prepositions of Arabic students.

Because of this, it was felt necessary to identify the preposition errors made by Syrian university students and, consequently, know where these errors come from, whether from standard or colloquial Arabic. In this way, teachers of the English language may be familiar with the types of error that their students make and, therefore, be better equipped to tackle them.

At the beginning of this dissertation, I, the researcher, posed three questions and by way of conclusion proposes to answer them here.

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

It was found that the errors made by the subject students were caused by two main factors: interference of Arabic and other second language learning problems. Significantly more errors were made due to the interference from Arabic than due to other second language learning problems. Error analysis showed that 71.8% of the students' errors were attributable to interference from Arabic, and 28.2% were due to other language learning problems (See Table 1). This means that first language interference is a serious problem facing Arabic learners of English, due to the fact that the students find more difficulty in learning English patterns that are similar to, but in some way different from, patterns of their own language than they do with learning patterns that are completely different.

The cause of this problem is the fact that students always resort to literal translation before they form English patterns. In other words, they translate English into Arabic and then Arabic back into English; word for word, not phrase by phrase. Thus, the errors made by them due to Arabic interference occur more frequently than those made due to other second language learning problems, and, consequently, we are able to accept the hypothesis that says the interference of the first language is the major problem facing second language learners of English.

2. Which variety of Arabic has the influence on the usage of English prepositions of Syrian university students and which has the larger influence: standard or colloquial Arabic?

It was also found that more first language interference errors were affected by standard Arabic than by colloquial Arabic. The students use standard Arabic in their written expression and colloquial Arabic in their oral expression, and the diagnostic test was more or less like a written test. The results showed that standard Arabic had the bigger influence on the students' usage of English prepositions. 49.3% of the errors that were attributed to first language interference were due to interference of standard Arabic and, and only 28.2% were due to interference of colloquial Arabic. 22.5% were due to both standard and colloquial Arabic (See Table 3). This result answers the question raised by Scott (1974) as to whether the English of students is affected by standard Arabic rather than by colloquial Arabic.

3. Which category of first language interference errors is the most frequent: substitution, addition or omission?

Among the errors that were made due to the interference of Arabic, substitution errors were the most frequent. Also, the largest proportion of errors that were attributed to other second language learning problems was made in the category of substitution, due to the selection of a wrong preposition (See Table 2). Obviously, the students find more difficulty in choosing the appropriate preposition than omitting or inserting a preposition. On the other hand, omission and addition errors came after substitution errors. This frequent occurrence is due to the students' habitual literal translation of English patterns from Arabic. In other words, when an Arabic pattern needed a preposition, the students incorrectly inserted a preposition in the English pattern; and when an Arabic pattern needed no preposition, the students omitted the necessary preposition from the English pattern.

Since we are talking about categories, it is worth mentioning the categories of second language learning errors. The largest proportion of errors attributed to second language learning problems was made in the selection of an alternative incorrect preposition; substitution errors. This means that learners find the greater difficulty not with when to use or when to omit a preposition but with which one to use. The major second language learning problem was obviously the false application of English patterns and ignorance of second language rules. This problem occurred because the students were uncertain or did not know how to apply second language rules correctly. The main factor that leads to second language learning problems, instead of first language interference, is the students' ignorance of how to induce or to deduce English prepositional rules.

Having discussed what the errors were and why they were made, it is time to consider how to avoid their further repetition by students. Teachers of English as a foreign language are recommended to teach English prepositions from the very beginning as a system and not just as a haphazard collection of unconnected words as is the case at the present time. In other words, they should group together spatial prepositions logically and teach their meanings and uses by presenting objects in the classroom and then conducting intensive drilling with these different objects so as to stress the use of each preposition. Temporal prepositions must also be identified and explained systematically, stressing, for instance, that on is used for days but in for months and years and so on. What is most difficult to illustrate and explain, however, is the use of miscellaneous prepositions because they fit no system. They can only be mastered if their usage is carefully introduced and consistently reinforced. Therefore, teachers are strongly recommended to teach verbs, nouns or adjectives that govern prepositions with an example of a prepositional phrase attached to them. A good definition of the prepositions corresponding to Arabic and an accompanying method of how to go about finding it solves many problems. The course of action for the categorisation must at least be systematised, so that potential subjectivity and arbitrariness can be eliminated. It might be of interest to create a new


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