The Acquisition of English
Temporal Prepositions by Students
of College of Education for Women at Al Iraqia University

By: Asst Prof. Abeer Hadi Salih

College of Education for Women
Department of English

List of Abbreviations

L1: mother tongue or first language.

L2: second language.

EFL: English as a foreign language


This study is about English temporal prepositions, as they are defined as words like (of, in and to) are mostly followed by nouns, pronounces or noun phrases to form prepositional phrases » (Stageberg, 1981, 169).
Also the study contains five sections. The first, second and third include theoretical back ground about types of prepositions that are (time, place, instrument and cause). (Quirk- etal, 1973, 14).
The fourth contains the test that would be applied to a group of students accordingly. After that, an analysis would be made to prepositions of time, especially the three famous prepositions (at, on, in). The last section includes the conclusions of the test.
The study aims to the following:
1. Finding out the areas of difficulty that Iraqi EFL learners face in the acquisition of English temporal prepositions.
2. Shed light on the role that the mother tongue plays in the learning of this lexis.
This study has a great benefit to all students of English language and its teachers because it highlights an important area in teaching prepositions to Iraqi learners of English as a foreign language in Iraq.

Section One

1.1 The problem of the study:

There are several difficulties faced by (L1) learners of English as a foreign language (L2) and the order in which learners acquire certain structures. This search is a trial to find the difficulties concerning acquiring English prepositions specifically time prepositions (in, on, at). It specified to search for these difficulties and highlights them and suggests some solutions to face the obstacles during the period of acquisition.

1.2 Aims of the study:

1- Studying the areas of difficulty faced by college students in acquiring English temporal prepositions.
2- Pinpointing the role that the mother tongue plays in acquiring English temporal prepositions.
3- Identifying the developmental sequence of English temporal prepositions by college students.

1.3 Hypotheses of the study:

The study hypothesizes that:
1- The acquisition of English temporal prepositions by college students will follow developmental routes, from one stage to another.
2- The order of difficulty corresponds to the order of acquisition of English temporal prepositions under investigation of the list.

1.4 Procedures of the study:

The procedures to be followed in this study include:
1. Providing a theoretical background of English temporal prepositions.
2. Discussing, quantifying, and statistically tabulating the results.

1.5 Limits of the study:

The study is limited to a cross – sectional sample of 60 college students at the second and third stages of the undergraduate study at the department of English, college of education for women, AL Iraqia University in the academic year 2015-2016.
More specifically, thirty students are equally selected from each of the two academic stages. Besides, in this study, three English temporal prepositions are investigated, and they are (at, on, in).

1.6 Value of the study:

The present study is expected to be of some value to teachers, syllabus designer since it will identify areas of difficulty that learners faced in learning this aspect of English, and diagnoses the points of strength and weakness in the learning of English temporal prepositions. This will eventually lead to a better learning situation of the language which is, in turn, the aims of all applied linguistics studies.

Section Two

2.1 Definition of the preposition:

The word preposition is originally Latin (praepotio) composed of two parts (prae _ before) and (patio _ position) the meaning of the two parts refers to a word which precedes other elements in the sentence, particularly nouns or pronouns. (curme,1931, 561).
A preposition is a term used in grammatical classification of words referring to the set of uninflected items which express a relation between two entities, nouns or pronouns that they govern with other words (Quirk et al,1985, 657) , (Biber et al ,1999, 74) , (Crystal , 2003, 368) and (Crystal , 2006, 383).
Structuralists, like Bloomfield, Fries, Stageberg, and others define prepositions, as words like of, in and to which are mostly followed by nouns, pronouns, or noun phrases to form prepositional phrases  » (Stagberg , 1981,169).
To the transformationalists, a preposition is a semantically depicted through transformation. They believe that every noun phrase implies the presence of a preposition, and that preposition is defined with terms of the interactional relationship between a verb and a noun in a sentence (Jakobson and Rosenbaum, 1968,136).
English prepositions are formally classified into two main kinds: one word – preposition and more than one word – preposition. Most of common English prepositions such as in, at and on are simple prepositions which consist of one word, others consist of more than one _ word, and they are called complex like in front of, and out of. (Quirk et al, 1985, 665).

2.2 Types of Prepositions:

From a semantic perspective, a major use of prepositions is to relate things or people in different ways. Prepositions can express a relation between two entities, one of which represented by a prepositional phase. According to Quirk et al (1985, 673 -709).
Prepositional meaning can be classified into three major classifications under three headings:
I. Time relations include (time position, during, etc.)
II. Space relations include (space, passage, motion, etc.)
III. Other abstract relation such as (manner, quantity, cause, etc.)
In the most general terms, prepositions express a relation between two entities, one being that represented by prepositional complement. Of the different kinds of relational meanings those of TIME and PLACE are the most famous and easy to identify. Other meanings such as INSTRUMENT and CAUSE may also be recognized.
As to the present study, it is mainly limited to certain types of English temporal prepositions. This selection of prepositions is based on Clark’s complexity Hypothesis.
The following types will be explained in some detail:

1- about 2- after 3- at
4- by 5- before 6- during
7- for 8- from 9- in
10- on 11- since 12- through

2.3 Definitions of Each Type of Temporal Prepositions:

A temporal preposition: is a word which is used to describe the position of an event in time. ( )
1- About
It is one of the related prepositions which has a temporal function as:

Last night I came back home about eleven.
2- AT
We use at with time:

At 5 o’clock _ at 11.45_at midnight _at lunchtime
Tom usually gets up at 7 o’clock.

We use at in these expressions
At night _ at Christmas _ at the moment / at present _ at the same time _ at weekends _ at the age of…
3- IN
We use in for longer periods of time.
In April _ in 1986 _ in winter _ in the 19th century _ in the 1970s _ in the morning (s) / in the afternoon (s) / in the evening (s).
In + period of time = a time in the future:
Jack will be back in a week.
The train will leave in a few minutes.
In + how long it takes to do something
I learned to drive in four weeks.
4- FOR
We use for + a period of time expressing duration.
For six years _ for two hours _ for a week.
I ‘ve lived in this house for six years.
They have been watching TV for two hours.
5- ON
We use on with dates and days.
On 12 March _ on Friday (s) _ on Friday morning (s).
On Sunday afternoon(s) _ on Saturday night(s).
On Christmas Day (but at Christmas).
We use during + noun to say when something happens.
During the film _ during our holiday _ during the right.
We met a lot of interesting people during our holiday.
I fell asleep during the film.
We use since + a starting point, a specific time.
Since April _ since 1992 _ since 8 o’clock.
It has been raining since one o’clock.
They ‘ve known each other since they were at school.
8- FROM – TO
We use from – to + beginning and end of a period.
Last evening we watched TV from 5 to 8 o’clock.
We use until / till to say how long a situation continues.
Let’s wait until it stops raining. I stayed in bed until half past nine.

Section Three: Data Elicitation

3.1 Elicitation procedure:

In order to gain information about the nature of the learners inter language, an elicitation procedure must be designed to put constrains upon the learner so that he/she is forced to make choices in a restricted area of phonological, lexical, or syntactic complete. (Corder, 1973,61).
An elicitation procedure refers to the method of obtaining reliable linguistic data from informants: either actual utterances or judgments about utterances (cf .Spolsky, 1989).
An elicitation procedure refers to the method of obtaining reliable linguistic data from informants: either actual utterances or judgments about utterances (cf .Spolsky, 1989).
The present study has designed one technique of data elicitation is comprehension technique that is in order to understand the linguistic systems of second language learners , and to get valid data conclusions about the language acquisition process, such systems must be inferred by means of analyzing comprehension and production data ( Brown,1980 ,167). The present chapter reports on the research methodology of the work to fulfill the aims of the study.

3.2 Subjects:

The data examined in this study have been collected directly from a cross-sectional random sample drawn from 2nd and 3rd year Iraqi college students, in the department of English of the college of education for women at Al Iraqia University during the academic year 2015-2016.
The total number of subjects is 60 subjects, (30) students are recruited from each academic stage. They are aged between 18-20 years old. The reason behind choosing subjects from these two stages is to determine the nature of any developmental differences in L2 acquisition of English temporal prepositions.
All the subjects are native speakers of Arabic language, and have received about 8-10 years of formal English.

3.3 Instruments:

Data elicitation in the present study aims at obtaining representative sample of the lexis under investigation from Iraqi EFL learners. The instrument devised to elicit the acquisition of English temporal prepositions by Iraqi EFL learners is comprehension. More specifically, it consists of the multiple – choice test.
The items of the test have been selected from text book (English language in use: by Murphy: 2004). The idea behind such selection is to offer authentic examples rather than invented ones.
3.3.1 Multiple _Choice Test:
A multiple – choice test is a form of assessment in which respondents are asked to select the best possible answer out of the choices from a list. Multiple choice items consist of a stem and a set of potions.
The stem is the beginning part of the item that presents the item as a problem to be solved, or an incomplete statement to be complete.
The options are the possible answers that the examinee can select from, with the correct answer called the key and the incorrect answers called distracters, only one answer can be keyed as correct (Larsen, 2011, 164).

3.4 Reliability and Validity:

The reliability of the test refers to the consistency of a measurement, i.e., how consistent test scores are from one measurement to another. The more consistent test scores are on different occasions, the more reliable the test is and vice versa. (Brown, 1987: 220).
Validity of the test, on the other hand, is the extent to which the test measures what it is intended to measure and nothing else. (ibid, 221).

Section Four: Data Analysis.

4.1 Preliminary:

Second language acquisition or sequential language acquisition, is to learn a second language after the first language is already acquired (Brown, 2007, 7).
Inter language is a language created by learners of a second language; it is a mixture of a target language and the learner’s first language. It has emerged and developed by learner of second language who has not become fully proficient yet, but is only approximating the target language (Loewen and reindeers, 2011, 98).
The present study investigates the acquisition of English temporal prepositions by Iraqi EFL learners and also it attempts to find out the difficulties which learners might face during the acquisition process. To do so, 60 Iraqi EFL learners at two academic stages are asked to do one comprehensive test. The results obtained are statistically analyzed.

4.2 Errors Taxonomy:

Error analysis (EA) is a type of linguistic analysis that focuses on the errors learners make (Crystal, 2003: 165). Errors are governed by rules, and appear because of the learner’s knowledge of the rules of the target language are incomplete, they occur repeatedly and not recognized by the learner. (Keshavarz, 2012, 61).
Errors are significant in three different ways. First to the teacher, that they tell him, if he undertakes a systematic analysis, how far towards the goal the leaner has progressed and, consequently, what remains for the learner to learn.
Second, they provide the researcher with the evidence of how language is learnt or acquired, what strategies or procedures the learner is employing in his discovery of the language. Thirdly ( and in a sense this is their most important aspect) they are indispensable to the learner himself, because we can regard the committing mistakes is a device the learner uses in order to learn. (Corder, 1981, 10 f).

4.3 Interlingua Transfer:

Transfer is the influence of a learner’s first language on the acquisition of the language being acquired (Crystal, 2003, 471). It is the use of past learning habits to similar or different situations. Most studies on language transfer focus mainly on the influence of first language on second language or inter language (De Angles and Selinker, 2001, 42).
For most researchers, language transfer is the use of native language in the acquisition of a second language (Gass and Selinker, 1983, 372). As to the error of inter language transfer, the following are some illustrative examples of errors made by Iraqi EFL learners.
1- Temporal preposition by using (on).

* There are usually a lot of parties in a new year Eve.

In this erroneous sentence, the subject translates this sentence into his mother tongue (Arabic), and thinks that his sentence needs in to be used instead of on.
The substitution of temporal prepositions by using (on) is an error that lower proficiency learners in the two stages make. The subject uses in as a substitution for on which gives the meaning of {Action with « interior » time dimension}. The reason behind such a negative transfer error is the fact that before a learner becomes familiar with the system of the second language, the native language is the only linguistic system upon which he can draw (Brown, 2007, 263).
2- Temporal preposition by using in.

* They arrived on October.

Here, the subject uses on instead in, such errors reflect the lack of knowledge of English prepositions because on is a preposition used with days as (on 16 October) but with names of months we should use in.
3- Temporal preposition by using at.

AT weekends, we often go for long walks in the country.

Here, at is used as a substitution for in because the Arabic preposition (in), which is an equivalent to the English preposition at, is used in such a context. Students of lower proficiency level commit frequently such kind of mistakes mentioned above. It is evident from the study data that lower learners do.
This conclusion is similar to Brown’s (1994) claim that the early stages of learning a second language are best characterized by a predominance of inter lingual errors from the native language, but once learners begin to acquire parts of the new L2 system, more and more intra lingual errors are manifested.

4.4 Students test:

Dear students,
You are kindly requested to fill in this test.
1- Jack has gone away. He will be back ….. a week. (at, on, in)
2- I’ve got an interview ….. Tuesday. (at, on, in)
3- Lisa’s Birthday is ….. the end of March. (at, on, in)
4- They arrived ….. October. (at, on , in)
5- There are usually a lot of parties ….. new year’s eve. (at, on , in)
6- Jenny’s brother is an engineer, but he doesn’t have a job ….. the moment. (at, on , in)
7- Iam busy just now, but I’ll be with you…..a moment. (at, on , in)
8- Mary and David always go out for dinner ….. Their wedding anniversary. (at, on , in)
9- ….. weekends, we often go for long walks in the country. (at, on , in)
10- The course begins ….. 7 January. (at, on , in)

Section Five: Conclusion

This section is specified to show the results of the test that has been applied on Iraqi college students. The following are tables of the right answers.

5.1 Results of the test:

Table one
Right answer AT ON IN
1- IN 6 – 20% 4 – 13.33% 20 – 66.67%
2- ON 1 – 3.33% 22 – 73.33% 7 – 23.34%
3- AT 16 – 53.33% 4 – 13.34% 10 – 33.33%
4- IN 4 – 13.34% 12 – 20% 19 – 46.66%
5- ON 7 – 23.34% 3 – 10% 20 – 66.66%
6- AT 26 – 86.66% ZERO – 0% 4 – 13.34%
7- IN 7 – 23.34% 3 – 10% 20 – 66.66%
8- ON 5 – 16.66% 10 – 33.34% 15 – 50%
9- AT 15 – 50% 4 – 13.34% 11 – 36.66%
10- ON 12 – 40% 3 – 10% 15 – 50%
Table two
Right answer AT ON IN
1- IN 7 – 23.33% 3 – 10% 20 – 66.67%
2- ON 6 – 20% 23 – 76.67% 1 – 3.33%
3- AT 17 – 56.67% 1 – 3.33% 12 – 40%
4- IN 2 – 6.67% 9 – 30% 19 – 63.33%
5- ON 5 – 16.67% 3 – 10% 22 – 73.33%
6- AT 26 – 86.66% ZERO – 0% 4 – 13.34%
7- IN 7 – 23.34% 3 – 10% 20 – 66.66%
8- ON 6 – 20% 5 – 16.67% 19 – 66.67%
9- AT 9 – 30% 3 – 10% 17 – 60%
10- ON 19 – 63.33% 6 – 20% 5 – 16.67%


The test analysis has come up with the following conclusions according to the students’ answers:
1. Iraqi students can easily acquire and use the time preposition (in) in the right position more than (at and on).
2. As a result from the test, it appears that the preposition (at) is much easier than (on) in acquisition and usage in written tests.
3. The most mistakable preposition to Iraqi students is (on).


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