English is an international language, and learning it as a second or foreign language has become a necessity for many people around the world. Most scholarly texts are written in it or translated into it. English is the language of internet and business communication, it is used for the majority of literary and cinematographic works. People realise the significance of speaking English as not knowing it restricts them from access to a large amount of useful data.
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Teaching ESL, as well as studying it, presents many challenges for educators and students. Each nation has language peculiarities which make it difficult to cope with some aspects of a foreign language acquisition. Teaching English for Arab students is not an easy matter. Most frequently, these learners have problems with various aspects of English grammar, such as the use of articles, tenses, prepositions, and other issues. Another difficulty is that not all students realise the importance of learning a foreign language and feel that they are forced to study it.
To manage these and other complications, teachers and scholars in the sphere of linguistics are constantly working to find novel methods of encouraging learners to master English. One of the most productive ways is corpus linguistics that provides ESL learners with access to authentic texts which can be used for educational purposes. Corpora are considered a valuable method for improving students’ grammar skills.
Arab Students’ Difficulties in Learning English Grammar
Knowing English gives people a lot of opportunities, but learning it as a second language presents many challenges that students may find rather difficult to overcome. In the Arab World countries, many improvements to the EFL program have been made with the aim of simplifying the learning process for the students. However, even with all these efforts, EFL programs still do not produce the expected outcomes, and the learners’ mastery of English is insufficient and does not correspond to the necessary level. Fareh (2010) identifies the following obstacles to proper mastery of English:
- poorly trained teachers or weak teaching methodology;
- activities that are centred on a teacher rather than on the students;
- lack of motivation and inclination to learning english;
- teaching language in compartments rather than using an integrated approach;
- focus on rote learning rather than on developing skills;
- inappropriate textbooks and other teaching materials;
- inadequate evaluation methods;
- insufficient exposure to English.
The problem with teachers’ preparedness is that most of those who teach English for Arabic students have certificates or degrees in English but do not possess any teaching experience and are not qualified for performing the educational process. Since it is up to them to create the atmosphere in the classroom and encourage students to be dedicated and diligent, it is crucial to pay thorough attention when hiring teachers of ESL (Fareh 2010).
The second difficulty is concerned with teachers’ concentration on average-level students and neglect of slower and faster ones. Thus, these groups of learners quickly become disinterested in the subject as they either already know the material or cannot catch up with the rest of the class (Fareh 2010). The next challenge is associated with the lack of motivation. Teachers frequently complain about students’ indifference, but they do not realise that it is up to them to arouse students’ interest. To make learners more involved, teachers should employ a variety of methods which may include linking the study material to real life or cooperation between teachers and parents (Fareh 2010).
Teaching English as integrity is another problem faced by many educators and learners. Because of insufficient preparation, educators tend to teach the language in separate blocks of material, while it is essential to present English as one single unity (Fareh 2010).
Focus on rote learning is a negative feature making learning more difficult. Instead of making students memorise large amounts of material, teachers should help them to develop logical thinking and make associations between various aspects of the language (Fareh 2010). The problem with textbooks is connected with their cultural inappropriateness which estranges students from learning and creates adverse attitudes.
Wrong assessment methods disable from the appropriate understanding of the learners’ achievements (Fareh 2010). Finally, an obstacle to proper mastery of ESL is connected with minimal exposure to English. Teachers frequently communicate with their students in Arabic, which does not provide a proper learning environment (Fareh 2010). Students’ critical thinking and creativity are neglected quite often.
One of the most critical issues in learning ESL by Arab students is the mastery of English grammar (Khan 2011). The main reason why learners find grammar so complicated is that there is too little opportunity for communicating in English since at home and other environments except for the classroom everyone speaks only Arabic. The lack of interaction in English, as well as many differences between the native and the second language, create a lot of obstacles in students’ understanding of English grammar (Khan 2011). The most common difficulties encountered by Arabic students who learn English are associated with tenses, articles, and prepositions.
Typical Article Errors Made by Arab Students
Arabic, as well as English, has definite and indefinite articles, which makes it easier for Arab students to acquire English grammar compared to the students whose native languages do not have articles. However, along with advantages, the presence of articles in Arabic grammar also causes difficulties for the ESL learners. The most common problem identified in the course of research by Alhaysony (2012) associated with the use of English articles among female Arab students is the omission errors. Among these, the most frequent case is the omission of indefinite article ‘a’ (Alhaysony 2012).
On the contrary, the omission of indefinite article ‘an’ is the most infrequent case. Such tendency is explained by the fact that article ‘an’ is not used very often and, therefore, the errors connected with its use occur less frequently.
What concerns the definite article, the most usual mistake is adding the article where it is unnecessary. Such pattern is associated with the fact that the definite article is used more frequently in the Arabic language than in English (Alhaysony 2012). Therefore, learners tend to add this article where it is not appropriate. Alhaysony (2012) notes that uncertainty about the use of definite article is not an interlingual problem but an intralingual one.
According to Alhaysony (2012), the biggest barrier to successful acquisition of English articles by Arab students is that there are too many exceptions, and learners cannot remember them all. Difficulties in learning English articles are also associated with the native language. Thus, teachers are advised to pay more attention to explaining the differences between the Arabic and English articles and cases of their use.
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Difficulties in the Use of Present Simple Tense
The use of English tenses is another problem associated with the impact of native language (Muftah & Rafik-Galea 2013). Arab learners experience difficulties in mastery of the present simple tense. Namely, they frequently fail to understand the agreement morpheme -s of the third person singular (Muftah & Rafik-Galea 2013). The most typical errors in the acquisition of present simple tense are omission, substitution, incorrect suffixation, and phonological similarity (Muftah & Rafik-Galea 2013).
Such mistakes are most typically connected with insufficient understanding or application of grammatical rules. For instance, phonological similarity errors occur when a student has assimilated the way of tense formation but uses wrong orthographical forms while writing (Muftah & Rafik-Galea 2013). Suffixation with -ing or substitution of present simple verb forms with present continuous forms happens when learners are directly translating from Arabic.
Thus, such mistakes may be considered intralingual. Substitution of present simple verb forms with past continuous and suffixation with past simple morpheme -ed occurs when a student has mastered the English present tense form insufficiently (Muftah & Rafik-Galea 2013). Research shows that such errors are most typical in written tasks. Therefore, teachers are recommended to focus on training the students’ writing skills with a special emphasis on tense formation. An interesting and productive technique for minimising learners’ errors in the use of tenses is giving them a task to find mistakes in the proposed text (Muftah & Rafik-Galea 2013). In such way, students will concentrate on discerning the most appropriate tense-forming morphemes.
Mistakes in the Use of Prepositions
Errors in the use of English prepositions are frequent among Arab students. As well as any other aspect of learning ESL, this type of mistakes is more noticed in written speech. Mastery of English writing is of particular importance since research work of Arab students is closely dependent on it (Tahaineh 2010). Therefore, it is necessary to identify the causes of such errors and find ways of eliminating them.
Research shows that the majority of EFL students’ mistakes in the use of prepositions – 58% – are caused by the mother tongue interference (MTI) (Tahaineh 2010). Still, a significant number of difficulties – 42% – is also associated with the transfer strategies of the target language (Tahaineh 2010). Arab EFL learners use the prepositions correctly if there are correspondents to them in their native language.
The students tend to choose wrong prepositions when there are no suitable counterparts in their mother tongue. Finally, there is a problem with omission and addition of prepositions. In case if equivalents are not necessary in their native language, students tend to omit them in English. On the contrary, if their mother tongue requires the use of prepositions in some cases, learners add them in English (Tahaineh 2010).
Substitution of prepositions is considered an error caused by the impact of two factors: target language and MTI. This kind of mistakes has proven to be the most frequent among ESL students (Tahaineh 2010). The most typical mistakes of substitution are the use of at instead of in, by instead of for, from instead of of, on instead of in, between instead of among, and others (Tahaineh 2010). Prepositions most frequently added by mistake are of (“considering of the difficult circumstances”), from (“when you finish from learning”), and on (“assist the population on to find”) (Tahaineh 2010, pp. 94-95).
Errors of omission are the least frequent, but it is necessary to pay attention to their elimination, as well. Typically omitted prepositions are of (“requires knowledge ^ his Mother tongue”) and to (“I got ^ Amman airport”) (Tahaineh 2010, p. 96).
The analysis of errors made by Arab students reveals that most typically, the ESL learners have difficulties with the correct use of English articles, prepositions, and tenses. Problems may occur due to the insufficient preparation of teachers or the interference of the mother tongue. However, in spite of the difficulties in the academic process, students enjoy learning English and find it rather essential (Alkaff 2013). According to research performed by Alkaff (2013), only 10% of students admit that they study English because it is a compulsory course. The majority of the students consider mastering of this language important for their career prospects.
Arab learners resort to various ways of improving their English, such as watching TV programmes, looking up new words in the vocabulary, reading adapted literature, or talking in English with their friends or family (Alkaff 2013). Therefore, a conclusion can be made that while studying ESL brings a lot of challenge, students do their best to work on their mistakes and improve their knowledge.
Corpus Linguistics as a Means of Improving Teaching of Grammar: Testing the Learning Outcomes
Corpus (plural corpora) is considered by specialists a rather productive way of improving EFL. The progress in teaching English with the help of corpus linguistics is established in various domains, such as the development of materials, design of syllabus, and organisation of classroom activities (Alqadoumi 2013). With the help of corpus-based solutions, educators can enhance approaches to teaching reading, writing, vocabulary, and, most importantly, grammar. Corpus linguistics is a “collection of written or spoken naturally occurring language” that varies from several sentences to a large number of words (Alqadoumi 2013, p. 247).
Corpora are kept electronically so that educators and scholars could use them with the aim of finding out how linguistic concepts are employed. The advancement of technologies and a better access to them allows teachers to use authentic linguistic materials for the enhancement of their students’ knowledge. Teaching of grammar has always presented difficulties to Arab students concerning not only a second language but also their native one (Alqadoumi 2013).
The traditional method is to give learners grammatical rules and instruct them to memorise these rules. However, such methodology is hardly ever connected with consistent vocabulary, which makes it impossible to get learners acquainted with all aspects of grammatical rules. Therefore, the use of corpus linguistics is suggested by professionals as a means of enhancing the existing approach to teaching grammar. Researchers remark that the use of authentic language material will give students a notion about the use of grammar in specific situations (Alqadoumi 2013). Corpora can fill in the existing gap concerned with illustrating grammatical rules. Teachers can discern which features of the target language occur most frequently and concentrate their efforts on these features. As a result of such approach, students will obtain a more thorough understanding of when the specific regulations should be applied.
While corpus linguistics is considered an effective way of teaching English grammar, it does present some difficulties for teachers to implement and for students to understand. In their research, Vannestål and Lindquist (2008) analyse the ways in which corpus linguistics enhances learners’ motivation and autonomy while studying English grammar. Scholars remark that the use of corpora is a highly-appreciated method of understanding grammatical issues. During research, students were engaged in problem-solving tasks which required the development of their own rules established on the examples obtained from the corpus (Vannestål & Lindquist 2008).
Additionally, learners were required to explain grammar rules to their peers. While the study was intended to prove the exceptional benefits of corpora, the authors admit that a number of complications were noted in the course of their research. To begin with, students had problems with the use of technology which was necessary to get access to the corpora. Also, the majority of learners required a much higher level of explanation than researchers had expected. As a result, even though students realised the benefits of corpora, they also mentioned that learning grammar with its help was very time-consuming (Vannestål & Lindquist 2008).
The most crucial conclusion from the study is that work with corpora necessitates a lot of preparative and introductory work on the part of teachers. Also, instructors should provide permanent encouragement and support that will eventually make it possible to achieve students’ independence in using corpora for educational and personal purposes.
In spite of complications in the use of corpora, benefits do outnumber the disadvantages. With a continuous progress of computer technology, teachers engage new methodologies to instruct their students. Corpus linguistics for studying grammar is considered a perfect opportunity to enhance the learners’ knowledge and practice their skills. One of the crucial aspects of work with corpora is concordance (Conrad 2000).
Researchers note the significance of teaching grammar in close connection with teaching vocabulary. One of the complications of understanding grammar by ESL students is that there are many varieties of English, each of them having some peculiarities impossible to comprehend without proper preparation. Corpus linguistics can eliminate such difficulty as it allows to present a big range of grammar materials and tasks that help students to understand the differences between language diversities. Conrad (2000) performed a corpus-based study of linking adverbials. According to the researcher, the use of this grammatical category is rather diverse across registers (Conrad 2000).
For instance, linking adverbials are most frequently observed in academic literature. Also, they often occur in colloquial language. The rarest presence of linking adverbials is noted in newspaper writing (Conrad 2000). Therefore, as Conrad (2000) remarks, the use of these words varies considerably by register, giving preference to spoken over written language. The use of corpus linguistics, according to the author, helps to identify the differences between language use and enables the learners to comprehend the peculiarities of grammatical concepts and rules (Conrad 2000).
Syntax has always presented the biggest difficulty to ESL learners. Thus, using corpora to evaluate syntactic complexity measures may help to eliminate such problems. According to Lu (2011), the association between students’ proficiency and syntactic complexity is influenced by genre, institution, and timing of syntactic assignments. With the help of corpus linguistics, the researcher concludes that the outcomes of various factors (task-, learner-, and context-related) need to be controlled to provide proper syntactic complexity (Lu 2011). Therefore, the difficulties in mastering the most complicated part of English grammar – syntax – can be identified and eliminated with the help of corpus linguistics. While students may meet some difficulties using the technology, it is definitely beneficial for ESL teachers and learners.
Suggested Activities to Improve Grammar Skills
Before implementing corpus linguistics into the curriculum, it is necessary to make some preparations. First of all, the teacher needs to make sure that students have appropriate access to technological tools and know how to use them. Also, if the learners’ level is insufficient, is might be a good idea to try some traditional methods first. For instance, researchers note that ample practice gives the best results.
Thus, to improve the acquisition of articles, a lot of writing practice is recommended (Alhaysony 2012). When teaching tenses, the following methods might be used. A teacher should instruct the learners that only third person singular verbs add -s in present simple. Another advice is to give students a task of making a list of verbs which take suffix -s/es and a list of verbs whose present simple form requires some spelling modifications (Muftah & Rafik-Galea 2013). Above all, constant drill exercises are necessary to provide a better understanding of various grammatical rules.
When students are ready for the use of upgraded technology, corpus linguistics may be introduced to them. One of the best software tools that can enhance students’ grammar learning is StringNet Navigator introduced by Wible and Tsao (2010). This tool incorporates a large archive of the so-called “hybrid n-grams” that consist of a combination of lexemes, tags, and specific word forms (Wible & Tsao 2010, p. 25). With the help of StringNet technology, students can explore the multi-word units. The tool consists of two parts: the hybrid n-grams and the inter-relations among the hybrid n-grams symbolised by indexes (Wible & Tsao 2010).
Hybrid n-grams may be represented by the following four categories of grams: word form, lexeme, detailed parts of speech (POS), and rough POS (Wible & Tsao 2010). With the help of StringNet, students can easily identify the common words or lexical combinations used in academic vocabulary.
Another productive tool for implementing corpora is the Key Academic Word List (Coxhead 2011). This list consists of 570 word families. The academic corpus used for creating this list is divided into four areas based on various disciplines: science, arts, law, and commerce (Coxhead 2011). By using this tool, teachers encourage learners to identify the words used in their writing. KAWL is an extremely useful method of identifying students’ language background. While it is necessary for educators to support their students’ comprehension of the behaviour and character of words in various academic disciplines, the use of corpus linguistics and, particularly, such tool as KAWL, helps to reach this aim.
Technology tools gain more and more recognition among educators and scholars nowadays. The advantages of implementing technologies at the lesson are twofold: they develop students’ skills of working with equipment and enhance their language acquisition. The use of various software programs allows learners to search for information, communicate with people from around the world, improve language skills, check and correct their work, and gives many other opportunities (Kasapoğlu-Akyol 2010). It may be difficult to learn the basic rules of operating the corpora, but once the students are instructed how to do it and receive enough practice, there will be a number of advantageous outcomes.
To ensure the best results of using the tools of corpus linguistics and other methods for ESL learning and teaching, several common recommendations are suggested:
- teachers should be highly-qualified;
- modern technologies should be utilised in the learning process;
- teachers should create the most suitable environment for their students;
- the use of native language at the lessons should be minimised;
- students’ creative skills should be developed and encouraged;
- objectives should be realistic and achievable;
- regular assessment should be performed, and teachers should make conclusions about further steps and methodology (Fareh 2010).
Learning English as a second language might come as a challenge for students as well as teachers. Many factors prevent learners from easy acquisition of the peculiarities of English. For Arab students, the most common complications are concerned with English grammar. To eliminate the problems in learning ESL and make the study process more accessible and stimulating, various methods are suggested.
One of the most productive tools is the use of corpus linguistics (corpora) – a collection of authentic texts which are available for public use and can be employed for educational purposes. Corpora are stored in electronic form, which means that students need to possess necessary technology skills to be able to use them. However, in spite of probable complications at the initial stages of using corpora, scholars and teachers note the exceptional advantages presented by such methodology. By using authentic language material, students receive a better comprehension of difficult issues in the process of ESL acquisition.
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