Prepositions are hard for ELLs

At least harder than I’d thought. In language acquisition (which is based on English language acquisition) we learn that prepositions are acquired pretty early. There are charts that show that young children learn “in” and “on” early (about 2 years old) and they go on to learn others like, “under” and “off” as well as “up” and “down” pretty systematically as they develop.

In Spanish, development of prepositions hasn’t been studied in such detail. We know that “en” (in or on) is learned around age 3. Other early forms are “a” (to) and “entre” (between). Later, kids learn to use “por” (because of/for) and “desde” (since).

One things we do know is that there are prepositions that work the same between two languages and others that work differently. In addition, conceptual space may be carved up differently. An important difference between Spanish and English is that Spanish is a verb-framed language.  So, information about the path of movement and directionality is expressed in the verb. English is a satellite framed language. So, some of these meanings are expressed in a preposition or prepositional phrase.

In a recent study, we examined how accurately children between the ages of 7 and 9;11 repeated prepositions in sentences. We found that bilingual Spanish-English speakers were more accurate in Spanish (81%) compared to English (69%). But note, they are not that close to 100% even in Spanish.

In English, children were most accurate on “outside” (89%) followed by “for” (76%). They were least accurate on “at” (42%) and “on” (48%). In Spanish, they were most accurate on “cuando” (when), sin (without), and con (with), at 97%, 91%, and 89% levels of accuracy. They were least accurate on “en” (in/on) and “de” (of/from) and produced these with 56% and 58% levels of accuracy.

We were also interested in what predicted their accuracy levels and if knowledge of preposition use in one language was related to the other language. Use of English was most strongly associated with English preposition accuracy. Other factors (including Spanish preposition accuracy, mother education and age of first English exposure) also were predictive, but these were not as strongly associated as was current use of English.

One thing that is important to know is that the children remembered most (close to 90%) of the sentences they repeated. But, they had particular difficulty with prepositions. It may be that the differences in how prepositions are expressed in the two languages is especially challenging for bilinguals at this stage in development. Educationally, we might note that some errors may persist longer in English (e.g., at and on). While others “outside” and “for” may not be as challenging.




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  1. #1 by Na'ama Yehuda on June 24, 2017 - 9:58 am

    As a SLP who is trained in both Hebrew and English and who often works with children who are learning English (because of adoption from other countries, because they’d heard another language at school) or Hebrew (because they are in a dual curriculum school)–I can tell you that the preposition issues extend to other languages, as well. I believe this is in part because prepositions are ‘relative’ by definition (if something is ‘on’ then something else is ‘under’…in the same setting) but also because WHAT a preposition word depicts isn’t the same in every language and WHEN and HOW you use prepositions (sentence structure, impact on morphology, etc) also changes.
    Increased proficiency helps, of course: the more proficient a child is, the better their use of prepositions becomes, along with the improvement in general sentence structure and grammar and morphology. Other things that help are when language exposure is done with less mixing, and exposure to literacy in BOTH languages. Often times there is more exposure to literacy in the language of school instruction, with parents reading books ‘from school’ in the language of school, which results in proportionally less books read in one language or the other.
    Prepositions ‘paint a picture’ of language in space and time, as were, and literature does a good job of it, many time, when children are allowed to listen to it (not the same as reading on their own, where their decoding level may lag behind their language level).
    Does that match your experience?

  2. #2 by Elizabeth D. Peña on June 24, 2017 - 10:52 am

    Yep– languages do differ and kids in bilingual contexts need to learn how they work in each language. We do draw on work by Armon-Lotem who has studied this in English-Hebrew and Russian-Hebrew bilinguals and many of our observations are consistent. I think you’re right about literacy and exposure to reading aloud helping, though that’s not something we’ve studied. It makes perfect sense. one needs to learn the phonological representations of the language. Thank you very much for your observations!

  3. #3 by Doug Valverde SLP on June 26, 2017 - 10:04 am

    Thanks as always for this awesome blog! I have a question. I often target “at/in/on” in bilingual Eng/Span students with language disorder at this age because 1)these prepositions are difficult and 2) I think that they will be difficult to master in a child with a language disorder. However, given that “at” and “on” are difficult for typical (language different) students, would you target them clinically for a bilingual student with language disorder?

  4. #4 by Elizabeth D. Peña on June 26, 2017 - 12:13 pm

    Hi Doug– these are hard, and in/on in Spanish are the same word which makes it even harder. Given that these are so difficult for typical kids, I probably would not address these except more indirectly in the context of other grammatical targets. So modeling these would help, but they are going to need a lot of exposure I think, and there are probably many other forms that they need first. I don’t mean to say that you would never target these, but that maybe there are other prepositions to be targeted and other grammatical forms that would take priority.

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