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Translation and L2 Acquisition


Contemporary approaches to language education strongly rely on the theory of universal grammar that was put forward by Noam Chomsky and other representatives of generative semantics (Chomsky, 2006). This scholar argues that there are certain grammatical or syntactical properties that are inherent to every human language and a person can master them without being taught by someone else (Chomsky, 2006, p 55). This approach is based on the so-called innateness hypothesis which postulates that the knowledge of semantic parameters is innate to every human being (Wasaw, 1973) and that the use of the mother tongue during lessons will lead to language transfer.

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There are several studies that confirm the idea that the theory of universal grammar can be applicable to the acquisition of articles. For instance, the research, carried out by Tatiana Ionin, Heejeong Ko, and Kenneth Wexler indicates that the speakers of foreign languages have access to the Article Choice Parameter (2004, p 69). These scholars point out that the mistakes, made by learners, namely the overuse of them can be explained by “learners’ access to the universal semantic distinctions of definiteness and specificity” (Ionin, Ko, & Wexler, 2004, p 59). In his study, Thomas (1989) claimed that the article choice made by ESL students can be explained by the language transfer. The key point of these studies is that non-English speaking students can see the semantic distinctions between definiteness and indefiniteness.

One may also mention the research conducted by Jeannette Schaeffer and Lisa Matthewson (2005), who maintain that learners, especially children, can master the semantics of the definite or indefinite articles, and those deviations from the norm can be accounted for by lack their immature pragmatic system (Schaeffer & Matthewson, 2005, p 53). In other words, the mistakes in the use of articles can result from different communication strategies rather than the dissimilarity of two languages. To some, extent, this study also confirms the theory of universal grammar.

The study that we are going to carry out will resemble that of Lydia White (1991). She argues that by providing negative evidence to the learners it will be possible to help them better understand the principles of adverb placement in the English language. Instead of providing form-focused instructions, we are going to use translation tasks that can highlight the differences between Arabic and English languages.

At this point, we can refer to the study, carried out by Hameed Mattar (1999). This research is particularly relevant to this discussion as it focused on the needs of Arabic speakers who studied English and performed the exercises related to the acquisition of articles. The scholar argues that reliance on the mother tongue does not result in language transfer or interference. For instance, he points out that Arabic speakers tend to insert definite articles before abstract nouns (Mattar, 1999, p 311). According to this research, translation exercises can actually help students to see the contrast between two languages and better analyze one’s own use of articles (Mattar, 1999, p 311). The point of the author is that translation makes learners more aware of linguistic differences and helps to prevent mother-tongue interference. In his opinion, interlingual interference is an inherent part of second-language acquisition, while translation can attract students’ attention to this kind of linguistic error. Hence, based on this literature review, we may argue that new research on the use of translation as a teaching tool will be quite necessary.

Problem Statement

Therefore, it is quite possible to assume that translation may prove to be a very useful tool for educators. It can be applied in some areas of second language acquisition, and the use of articles is not an exception. Therefore, the key question that we need to answer is whether translation exercises can assist students in the acquisition of definite and indefinite articles. There are two hypotheses that should be tested:

  1. The use of translation exercises can help Arabic speakers acquire the semantics of English articles and avoid language transfer. Translation as a method of comparing and contrasting languages will enable them to avoid the mistakes typical of ESL students.
  2. The inability of students to rely on their mother tongue inevitably results in unintentional language transfer, and this group of learners will make more mistakes related to the use of articles.

These are the key assumptions that have to be tested in the course of this study.

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Sampling and Design

Theoretically, at least 80 students should participate in this study. The subjects of this study should be university students whose native language is Arabic and who are learning English as a foreign language. These people must be equally proficient in the English language and most importantly, they must be taken in translation courses. The sample will be divided into two groups: 1) those students, who were exposed to translation exercises and 2) those learners who will not be engaged in this type of activity during their lessons. Such segmentation will enable us to see whether translation exercises really contribute to students’ better understanding and use of articles in the English language. At this point, it is rather difficult to set the exact timelines for this study; much will depend upon how quickly we will manage to find the participants and gain their permission. According to the most approximate estimations, this research will last for approximately 90 days.

Data Collection and Analysis

In the course of this experiment, the students will need to take discrete-point tests that would measure one specific aspect of their linguistic competence, namely the use of articles. They will be given assignments that would require them to insert the article when it is necessary, or choose among different options. Their test results will be the major sources of data. While analyzing this information, I will rely primarily on parametric statistics. In this case, this approach is most suitable, since we intend to measure only two variables: 1) the exposure to translation exercises (independent) and the proficiency in the use of articles (dependent).

Potential contributions of the research

Ideally, this research can throw a new light on such issue as the use of mother tongue for the purpose of second language acquisition. Its results can be utilized by educators who tailor exercises for students. Furthermore, the information gathered in the course of the research can be helpful to researchers who study different aspects of SLA such as grammar and semantics. Moreover, it will increase our understanding about the translation as a teaching tool. This activity is valuable in itself since it is indispensible for international and cross-cultural communication, but its educational value has been significantly diminished, and this question remains relatively unexplored at the moment.


Chomsky, Noam. 2006. Language and mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ionin. Tania. Ko Heejeong & Wexler Kenneth. 2004. Article Semantics in L2 Acquisition: The Role of Specificity. Language Acquisition, 72(1), 3-69.

Macaro Ernesto. (2005). Codeswitching in the L2 classroom: A communication and learning strategy. In Non-Native Language Teachers: Perceptions, Challenges, and Contributions to the Profession edited by Llurda E. Boston: Springer.

Mattar Hameed. 1999. Translation elicitation techniques and mother-tongue interference: Any significant connection? International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching. (37), 4, pp 307-320.

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Thomas, M. (1989) “The Acquisition of English Articles by First- and Second- Language Learners,” Applied Psycholinguistics 10, 335-355.

Schaeffer Jeanette & Lisa Mattewson. (2005). Grammar and Pragmatics in the Acquisition of Article Systems. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory. (23), p 53-101.

Slabakova, Roumyana 2008. Meaning in the Second Language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Witte Arndt, Harden Theo, & Harden Allessandra. 2009. Translation in Second Language Learning and Teaching. London Peter Lang.

White, L.1990/1991 “The Verb-Movement Parameter in Second Language Acquisition,” Language Acquisition 1, 337-360.

Wasaw. T. (1973). The innateness hypothesis and grammatical relations. Synthese (26) 38-56.

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