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Tywais

'a' And 'the'

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Figured this would be the best forum what with the teachers on board.

One of my roles at the university is proof reading scientific manuscripts. Just did two today from different people and with the same type of mistakes. These are PhDs with excellent English abilities and usually trained overseas. Nearly across the board of papers (not just these two) I correct, they misuse 'a' and 'the' sometimes transposing their usage or sometimes just missing. Do others see this and what is the root cause, L1 interference? Just curious and also would like to be able to explain the hows and whys of the use to them.

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I correct hundreds of papers each month, written by English Majors in a university in Isaan, and notice exactly the same tendencies. For one, I don't believe the Thai language uses articles, and hence there is always the ambiguity in the L1 that Thais are comfortable with. Trying to specify "a" or "the" in English seems like splitting hairs. If they're missing or misused in the English text, it doesn't send up red flags as quickly as it would with a native speaker.

Secondly, I also work with Ph.D's, like you, and I notice that the longer the time away from their education abroad, the more they fall into "Thaiglish" patterns of speech and writing. Some of my colleagues (with Ph. D's in English) who earned degrees abroad more than 10 years ago, are sorely wanting in their written and spoken English. They use 90% Thai in their English classes and hardly ever speak English among themselves. So, as human learning patterns go, "If you don't use it, you lose it."

With that said, I would venture to say there are even more linguistic reasons for this tendency you and I have noticed. Thus, I wait for more posts by those more knowledgeable than we...

Edited by toptuan

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The first time I tackled the problem, as a tutor to individual students, I really had to think hard as to how to explain the difference. It's literally foreign to some Asian language groups! Definite, indefinite. Well, you say, uhm, errm, just es-plain that 'the' is definitely definite, and 'a' is definitely indefinite, like, you know, nga?

Who has the foolproof method to explain the difference to an EFL student?

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How about this:

Preteach 'a/an' as 1(one) of many and 'the' as a specific one.

Example:

Put ten identical blue pens on a desk and say, "Pick up THE blue pen". Which one?

Pick up A blue pen - no problem - one blue pen of many.

Put a red pen in the group and say "Pick up The red pen" -- only one specific one.

Pick up A red pen in the group of blue is not correct because it is not one of many. THE red pen is specific.

BR

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According to the "order of acquisition" theory, L2 learners acquire features of syntax in a predictable order, regardless of L1 (though I am sure L1 plays a part in ease of acquisition or lack thereof ). Articles are one of the very last features to be acquired. Thus, a L2 speaker at *almost* native-speaker level will still omit articles.

Basic article use is not difficult, but often redundant. There are also many rather subtle and idiosyncratic uses.

I will try to find a good link.

Edited by spectrum

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Good responses everyone thanks for the info. Will keep checking back here for updates.

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Pick up A red pen in the group of blue is not correct because it is not one of many. THE red pen is specific.

Why is it wrong? If you ask anyone to pick up a red pen in a group of blue ones, which pen will they pick up? Either may be used. It may be the only red pen in the group but it is only one.

A lot of confusion happens when 'a' becomes 'the'. 'I bought a car yesterday' - how many cars did I buy? One, unspecified. Any further mention to what I bought yesterday will become 'the' which will be referring to the specific car. If we don't change the 'a' into 'the' then the statement is meaningless - 'I bought a car yesterday, a car was the Bugatti Veyron.' In the first part we are referring to any car but the second part refers to a specific car so we will have to use 'the' - 'I bought a car yesterday, the car was the Bugatti Veyron.'

Try 'A student was late today, a student was limping'. Am I talking about one student or two? That sounds as if one student was late and a different student was limping but 'A student was late today, the student was limping'.

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A full discussion could fill a book, but here's a nutshell version: "the" being the "definite" article means that it indicates a noun whose identity is particular or already presumed known by the listener. For example, if I refer to "the" car, it most likely means my car (or the one owned by my family) when I'm talking to my family. As a previous poster noted, if there are a group of objects like pens or candies or something and I've made no reference to them, they are all individually "a" until I have referred to one- I could say "take a red candy (doesn't matter which one)" then "put the red candy in your pocket." Or, I could refer to a particular one from the beginning: "take the red candy that is in the middle of 5 blue candies and put it in your pocket." We talk about royalty as "the" (e.g. The Queen) because it is usually not a point of confusion which one we are discussing. Proper nouns and possessives are already particularised so they don't require additional articles.

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Two methods I use:

1. Draw 3 closed windows on the board then ask a student to open a window. Then, ask the next student to close the window. After repeating this a few times it becomes obvious. The pen example above would work if there was one blue pen but two red pens.

2. Using a very simple short story introduce characters using 'a', then refer to them using 'the' from then on. In the field there was a rabbit and a cat. The cat saw the rabbit and ran after him.

There are other times when we do or don't use articles that can't really be explained other than by listing them e.g names of rivers, hotels and newspapers.

I admit it is a hard topic to grasp. I think that the problem is that it's quite an easy problem for learners to ignore whilst they progress in other areas. I think that sometimes they know when to use articles, sometimes they don't. Sometimes when they're not sure they guess and get them right/wrong, sometimes they just leave them out.

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A full discussion could fill a book, but here's a nutshell version: "the" being the "definite" article means that it indicates a noun whose identity is particular or already presumed known by the listener. For example, if I refer to "the" car, it most likely means my car (or the one owned by my family) when I'm talking to my family. As a previous poster noted, if there are a group of objects like pens or candies or something and I've made no reference to them, they are all individually "a" until I have referred to one- I could say "take a red candy (doesn't matter which one)" then "put the red candy in your pocket." Or, I could refer to a particular one from the beginning: "take the red candy that is in the middle of 5 blue candies and put it in your pocket." We talk about royalty as "the" (e.g. The Queen) because it is usually not a point of confusion which one we are discussing. Proper nouns and possessives are already particularised so they don't require additional articles.

I agree with every comment you make. Unfortunately, making an explanation like that to a Thai student will result in a blank stare. Can you simplify it more?

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