The Relationship between Semantic Functions and the Acquisition of English Prepositions

By Barasa, Margaret; Mutiti, James et al. | IUP Journal of English Studies, March 2013 | Go to article overview

The Relationship between Semantic Functions and the Acquisition of English Prepositions


Barasa, Margaret, Mutiti, James, Rose, Ogata B., Shitandi, Anakalo, IUP Journal of English Studies


English is the medium of instruction in Kenyan learning institutions. This study aims to establish the perceived difficulties in the use of the English prepositions and to find out whether the semantic functions of such items determined their acquisition and use. A written test was used for collecting the data from the learners. The context of syntactic unit determined the preposition to be chosen. It was concluded that learners found the uncommon prepositions with multiple meanings difficult to acquire. The study further confirmed that the learners experienced difficulties when using prepositions that have fewer meanings. On the contrary, prepositions which are common are acquired with ease and at an early stage.

Introduction

English is the medium of instruction in most institutions of learning in Kenya. The learners are guided through the use of correct elements of speaking and writing in order to communicate effectively. The use of appropriate prepositions becomes crucial for achieving communicative competence, because the prepositions control all the circumstantial relations in any given utterance. Therefore, this study aims to establish the perceived difficulties in the use of prepositions and to ascertain whether these difficulties are caused by unmarkedness/markedness relations. And the study further seeks to find out whether the semantic functions of such items determined their acquisition and use. The correct use of English prepositions is vital because inability to use them impacts negatively on the learners' ability to communicate.

The background to this study was the growing interest from many language teachers, educationists and linguists in the use of prepositions as a part of speech. To begin with, prepositions are defined as invariable forms that fall under the phrase level category and function within a noun phrase or prepositional phrase. For example: "The ball is on the grass" ('on the grass' is a preposition showing surface). The area of prepositions has been of interest especially to various stakeholders in the field of education in Kenya due to the poor performance of the students in the national examinations. Similarly, language teachers have also been alarmed by the incompetence of the students to use prepositions. The Ministry of Education (MOE) in conjunction with the Kenya National Examination Council (KNEC) (1999) reports the fact that prepositions are very complex parts of speech to be handled by the learners. KNEC (1989, p. 40) observes that: "One of the difficulties of the English language is in the use of prepositions." In addition to this observation, poor performance in the area of prepositions has been observed in the consequent years, as noted in the reports of MOE, KIE and KNEC in 1999.

There are various studies which have found difficult grammatical areas (prepositions, idiomatic expressions, conjuctions, relative constructions, function words, tenses, preposition stranding, etc.) for learners, advanced students, L1 language speakers, L2 learners, educationists, scholars, etc. (Fitikides, 1963; Jowitt and Nnamonu, 1985; Goodluck, 1986; White, 1977; KIE, 1987; Pemagbi, 1991; Schmied, 1996; and Mutiti, 2000). Very few studies have been done to establish the possible causes and this is how the present research came in.

Despite the observations made by various scholars, linguists and local bodies responsible for education in Kenya like MOE, KIE, KNEC, concerning preposition difficulties, a few have carried out research to establish the difficulties. Thus, the researchers found it necessary to go to the field and carry out a research to establish the cause of preposition difficulties and consequently investigate whether the issues of markedness/unmarkedness are the predicators of such difficulties.

Learners' conceptualization of prepositions in English language is problematic given that prepositions encode several semantic functions. This research is aimed at ascertaining whether there is an order of difficulty that may be correlated with markedness issues. …

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