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In this chapter, we give a brief account of L2 acquisition and language learning strategies, in general, and the acquisition of prepositions, in particular. We highlight different factors that enhance or impede mastery of prepositions by French learners of English like spatial perception, language specificity, fossilization, and English as a linguafranca. We also attempt a classification of the most problematic type(s) of English prepositions.

Language acquisition

Learners’ language systems are in continuous development and their performance is a means of testing their knowledge of the TL structure, so learners are seen as investigators who test out hypotheses. Corder (1981) suggests three key factors that form together the learner’s hypotheses and comprise what he refers to as the learner’s “interlanguage background” where the learner’s errors are evidence of this interlanguage system and are themselves systematic, unlike mistakes which are unsystematic deviations. These three factors are:
 the experience that the learner brings to L2 language learning;
 the current data to which the learner is exposed; and
 the learner’s language acquisition strategies.
Distinguishing between acquisition and learning is important notably in the context of L2. For instance, Krashen (1988) underestimates the “learned system” compared to the “acquired system” which he claims is the product of a subconscious process similar to that undergone by children as they acquire L1: Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.
Learning is a conscious process, usually linked to in-class instruction, so it requires effort and attention whereas acquisition is incidental demanding no or little conscious effort as is the case with children who progress and increase their mastery of their mother language without the conscious intention of discovering the structural rules of the language.
Despite this distinction, whether learned or acquired, language – like sciences – requires dexterity and knowledge regardless of its source. Undoubtedly, mastering its various components naturally and/or subconsciously would be quite demanding. For instance, consider the polysemy of prepositions and the countless phrasal verbs, not to mention the idiomatic expressions containing phrasal verbs! For a definition of polysemy, we refer to Lakoff (1987: 416-419): when a linguistic form, not only words, has a range of distinct meanings and senses.
According to Richards and Sampson (1974), the learner’s language may vary according to the following seven factors, which are all the result of social, psychological and linguistic interactions that accompany the natural process of language learning:
 language transfer and the prominence of L1 interference in L2 utterances;
 intralingual interference and generalisations or rules derived by the learner based on partial exposure to L1;
 sociolinguistic situation and setting in which L2 is learnt and the tendency for simplification based on communication needs;
 modality of exposure to the target language and the modality of production;
 the possible impact of age on the sequential acquisition of language(s);
 lack of stability of the learners’ approximative systems due to the continuous development of L2 knowledge; and
 the inherent difficulty of learning, understanding and producing certain forms which are inexistent in L1 (phonological, syntactic or semantic) irrespective of the learner’s background.
“[G]iven motivation, it is inevitable that a human being will learn a second language if he is exposed to the language data” (Corder, 1981: 8). This is to say, motivation is an essential element in the acquisition of language irrespective of one’s ends (passion for the language(s), work, studies, tourism, etc.). Krashen (1988: 23) links personality with language acquisition and production: “Personality factors are interrelated with motivational factors. […] Traits relating to self-confidence (lack of anxiety, outgoing personality, self-esteem) are thus predicted to relate to second language acquisition”. Learners’ needs, which are usually difficult to quantify, are also to be taken into account in SLA. “Psychologists have related the types of language learning achieved to the role of the language in relation to the learner’s needs and perceptions” (Richards and Sampson, 1974: 7).
Selinker (1972) lists five processes, which he hypothesizes are “central” to L2 learning and are all responsible for the reappearance of fossilized items in learners’ utterances, and they are as follows:
 language transfer: carrying over L1 rules and items into L2 and maintaining fossilization in interlanguage productive performance irrespective of one’s age or the amount of instruction received in the target language. For example, in French, the pronoun il is used with animate and inanimate objects, so learners tend to use he in English to mean man, animals and things. The difference between L1 and L2 is thus a main reason for learners’ errors, leading to fossilization. Transfer of L1 rules can be positive or negative: While positive transfer (i.e. similarities between L1 and L2) enhances SLA, negative transfer (i.e. differences between L1 and L2) slows it down and engenders learning difficulties.
 transfer of training: carrying over identifiable items in training procedure (teaching method or textbooks) into L2 despite later awareness of their faultiness Selinker refers to a subconscious strategy of L2 learning called “cue copying”. He takes as an example Serbo-Croation speakers who, at all levels of English proficiency, have difficulty distinguishing between the pronouns he and she because their instruction materials almost always present drills with he and never with she. This is to say, learners use the “copy the cue” strategy.
 strategies of second language learning: these are particular strategies, which are “probably culturally-bound”. They are created to facilitate the comprehension, retention, use or production of language items and rules, remembering that “little is known in psychology about what constitutes a strategy, and a viable definition of it does not seem possible at present. Even less is known about strategies which learners of a second language use in their attempt to master a TL and express meanings in it” (Selinker, 1972: 41).
According to Sims (1989), inappropriate or misapplied learning strategies could lead to the fossilization of certain phonological, morphological, syntactic, lexical, psycholinguistic, or socio-cultural features. Besides, the repeated use of unsuccessful strategies could inhibit a learner’s progress. On the other hand, the appropriate application of learning strategies helps process the TL input and therefore improves L2 learning quality.
 strategies of second language communication: fossilization resulting from particular strategies employed by L2 learners while communicating with native speakers. When a learner encounters difficulties in expression, he/she skillfully employs particular communication strategies or strategic planning, like reducing the message or paraphrasing, to maintain the communication. Yet, this could sometimes be at the expense of language progress because such successful use of communication strategies will prevent acquisition (Ellis, R. 2002).
 overgeneralisation of TL linguistic material: If the fossilized items, rules, and subsystems are a result of a clear overgeneralisation of TL rules and semantic features, then we are dealing with the overgeneralisation of TL linguistic material i.e. learners apply ‘learned’ rules to new situations and forms where there are exceptions, for instance, *in the noon (in reference to in the morning/ evening/ afternoon).
On the other hand, it is hard to be sure when a language learner is resorting to overgeneralisation, strategy of second language learning or strategy of second language communication, so these three processes cannot be easily distinguished in practical terms. In the absence of timely instruction and correction, learners unconsciously continue to make the same errors and to extend them to new TL forms, hence errors are stabilised, and may later become fossilized. Selinker (1972: 41) attributes the reappearance of interlanguage errors to psychological factors connected with “anxiety, shifting attention, and second language performance on subject matter which is new to the learner”.

Language learning and communication strategies

In his definition of language learning strategies, Rubin (1987: 22) states that they “are strategies which contribute to the development of the language system which the learner constructs and affect learning directly”.
According to Oxford (1992/1993: 18), they are
“specific actions, behaviours, steps, or techniques that students (often intentionally) use to improve their progress in developing L2 skills. These strategies can facilitate the internalization, storage, retrieval, or use of the new language. Strategies are tools for the self-directed involvement necessary for developing communicative ability.”
In his paper “Interlanguage”, Selinker (1972) was the first scholar to evoke the notion of communication strategy in his classification of certain errors produced by L2 learners. For him, the interlanguage in L2 learners’ speech productions is and should be considered acceptable, being an attempt to express oneself orally without necessarily a good command of the target language system.
Language learning strategies fall into subdivisions like cognitive, metacognitive, memory, compensational, affective, social and communication strategies. What interests us the most here is the latter in which learners’ use of language is “self-directed” and intentional, aiming at communicating in L2 regardless of any/all difficulties (Bialystok, 1990). According to Cohen (1990), only conscious strategies are language learning strategies. Faerch and Kasper (1983: 36) describe communication strategies as being “potentially conscious plans for solving what to an individual presents itself as a problem in reaching a particular communicative goal”. Ellis, R. (1994: 396) distinguishes between two types of communication strategies: (i) strategies used in communication as a discourse process (a two-way interaction so as to achieve the communicative goals through conversation maintenance and a clear exchange of the intended meaning), and (ii) strategies used as a cognitive process (expressing what is going on in the speaker’s mind so as to carry on and “retain the communicative intent”).
Nonetheless, the cognitive process involves different communication strategies and tactics that L2 users come up with or rely on to make themselves understood and to maintain clear speech. That is why they usually prioritise the content (message), but not the form (sentence structure). Achieving continuity and spontaneity of speech is then the learners’ main concern to the detriment of many other elements, mainly grammar and pronunciation. They may shorten their speech so as to avoid mistakes, lexical obstacles or any possible ambiguities.
In this respect, Corder (1983), for example, talks about message abandonment strategies, i.e. saying little or nothing about a topic that one does not know much about. Communicative strategies also depend on the speaker’s and the interlocutor’s language knowledge about the discourse topic, remembering that both L1 and L2 speakers use strategies. Yet, they are less apparent in native speakers while some others are simply unaware of the strategies they use (ibid. 15).
Faerch and Kasper (1983) talk about achievement strategies, i.e. deploying linguistic and non-linguistic forms in order to be understood. The learner may appeal for assistance in face-to-face conversation, yet in unpaired conversation like public speaking, he relies more on body language and interlingual transfer. L2 learners “consciously” and/or “unconsciously” set plans in their minds – with varying degrees from one learner to another – when they anticipate or confront linguistic problems. And the degree of strategy use is influenced by a number of factors like motivation, gender, age and cultural background. Consequently, if problems appear in “the planning stage”, they may change their communicative goal and avoid developing the topic (formal reduction strategy) and if they arise in “the execution stage”, they may simply stop in mid-utterance and give up talking (functional reduction strategy).
Irrespective of the strategy(ies) used, the learner’s primary goal is better communication in L1 or L2. Gestures, miming, rephrasing oneself, interlanguage interference or conscious use of L1 terms, asking for clarification, reassurance or assistance, repetition, chunking, pausing for reflection, resuming and then halting a conversation are cognitive and/or interactive strategies that can together diminish one’s verbal-linguistic problems at the moment of speaking.
Undoubtedly, similar or supplementary strategies are used in written contexts, but the task is far less demanding, mainly because the alloted time leaves room for reflection, correction, and substitution. Hesitation and confusion here are not noticeable as there is no instantaneous evaluation by the hearer, and the element of “challenge” or “stress” is less evident. Despite linguistic difficulties or insufficiency in linguistic competence, ideas flow with fewer constraints, but not necessarily with more correctness. Most important here is that blockage is less humiliating and the stress overload of pronunciation is absent.
In oral production, however, when learners are exposed to new situations or contexts and they fail to transmit certain ideas or to explain what is going on in their minds, body language automatically substitutes for words. Acting out and miming are then forms of human communication for clarifying one’s thoughts. Though cognitive learning is rather concerned with emotions than with motor movement, learners create or make deliberate or unconscious use of past actions in other similar contexts.
Generally, L2 learners tend to gesture more than monolinguals (Pika et al. 2006) to assure speech delivery, mainly in improvised discourse. Others (like Alibali et al. 2000) associate the use of gestures with the difficulty of the task. On the other hand, monolinguals use more gestures/body language while conversing with a non-native speaker, especially if the latter does not have a good command of L2. The objective of a successful communication in any language is, thus, making use of all “modalities” – speech, voice, gestures, smell, touch, etc. This is what semiotics is all about; the “totality” of these actions and composite emotions allow for the transmission of the reported message.
Learners tend to deploy non-linguistic forms in instances of hesitation or failure to use the correct preposition and/or particle for indicating direction, movement, position, etc. For this, language communication strategies can be responsible for the reappearance of fossilized items in L2 learners’ utterances. In the following sections (sections III.2. to III.8.), we will shed light on the acquisition of prepositions and certain interrelated factors that are likely to give rise to learning difficulties.


Acquiring prepositions

“Prepositions are generally troublesome to the learners for whom English is a foreign/second language” (Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman, 1999: 401). Even advanced language learners experience difficulty with prepositions, especially their non-spatial uses (Lindstromberg, 1998; Celce-Murcia and Larsen Freeman, 1999).

Table of contents :

I.1. What is a preposition?
I.1.1. Semantic aspects of English prepositions
I.1.2. Formation and position of English prepositions
I.1.3. Syntactic characteristics of English prepositions
I.2. Prepositions: lexical or functional in nature
II.1. The usefulness of a contrastive approach to languages: preposition use
II.1.1. Basic similarities between English and French prepositions
II.1.2. Basic differences between English and French prepositions
II.2. Are motion events conceptualised similarly in both English and French?
III.1. Language acquisition
III.1.1. Language learning and communication strategies
III.2. Acquiring prepositions
III.3. Spatial perception
III.4. Language specificity
III.5. Fossilization
III.6. English as a linguafranca: What about prepositions?
III.7. Basic difficulties impeding mastery of English prepositions
III.8. What type of preposition is most problematic to French learners of English?
IV.1. English manuals and textbooks
IV.2. Pedagogical approaches to teaching prepositions/particles
IV.2.1. Use of collocational and concordance data
IV.2.2. Cognitive linguistics
IV.2.3. Task-based language teaching
IV.2.4. Motion pictures and iconic gestures
V.1. Errors: their occurrence and significance
V.1.1. Error-annotated learner corpora
V.1.2. Error analysis: uses and applications
V.2. An overview of our learner corpus: Task description and data collection
V.3. Oral corpus
V.3.1. Basic features characterising the oral corpus
V.3.2. Error Typology: L2 productions and L1 productions
V.3.3. Error analysis
V.3.4. Motion verbs in the fridge task
V.3.5. Comparison: L1 and L2 productions (fridge task)
V.4. Written corpus
V.4.1. Basic features characterising the written corpus
V.4.2. Error Typology: Error codes: categories and subcategories
V.4.2.1. Adapting error coding to research needs
V.4.3. Human raters
V.4.4. The usefulness of error correction
V.4.5. Error analysis
V.4.6. Further explanation and deductions
V.5. Comparison: oral vs. written corpora
V.6. Questionnaire
V.6.1. Questionnaire results


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