"The" Ukrainian Needs Help with "a" grammar issue.
November 7, 2011 6:32 AM   Subscribe

Can you help me explain how and when to use articles (a/an/the) to a non-native English speaker?

I am working with a Ukrainian lady to modify her accent and grammar. She is extremely intelligent and professional, and has lived in the US for over a decade. Ukrainian is her native language.

She identified to me that using articles and knowing when to use them is really hard for her. She understands the difference between "a" and "the," but is more unsure about when to use articles at all, and frequently omits them from her conversational speech.

Do you have any tips or sources for specifically targeting articles for non-native English speakers? Any websites to share? Any sources for Ukrainian grammar errors or accent issues?

Thanks, guys!
posted by shortyJBot to Education (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a pretty good breakdown.

I think the main distinction is subtle to the point of being almost idiomatic: some nouns are "countable" and others are "uncountable." Some nouns can actually be either depending on how they're used.

For example, following link, one might say "He went on an adventure," or "He had a life of adventure." The article in the former shows that we're talking about something discrete, while the latter shows we're talking about something more abstract.

But which nouns are countable/uncountable does not seem to be written in stone. We say "He ate an apple" and "He ate some bacon," sometimes even "He ate the bacon" but never "He ate a bacon." Generally speaking, it seems that nouns which either signal or are used to signal a type or abstraction tend not to be "countable." So while a particular instance of "cotton" or "wisdom" might occasionally use a definite article, they almost never have an indefinite article.

Really though, the only way to learn this seems to be to just absorb a lot of vocabulary in context. Like prepositions, native speakers of any language will probably be able to tell you that a given use of an article is right or wrong, they probably won't be able to tell you why beyond "That's just not how we say that." At least English doesn't have gendered nouns...
posted by valkyryn at 6:46 AM on November 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

This requires a trip to the bookstore, but I wholeheartedly recommend Azar's advanced English grammar text!
posted by biwa-shu at 6:46 AM on November 7, 2011

I am sort of pulling this out of my ass, but I did help my grandparents study English for a number of years, and did a lot of translation for my mother.

What she needs to understand is that in English, the morphology will not differentiate whether they are referring to a general noun or a specific noun. Basically, Ukranian doesn't have articles, but it does have a way of distinguishing specific objects from non-specific objects.

For instance: "какой-то" (kakoi-to) refers to "some" object. "тот/этот" (tot/etot) refers to "this/that" object. You can kinda correlate that to "a" and "the", where "a" refers to non-certain objects and "the" refers to certain objects. Basically, she needs to indicate the general/non-general state of every noun she is referring to.
posted by griphus at 6:48 AM on November 7, 2011

Um, replace "Ukranian" above with "Russian." While I am like 99% sure she's fluent in Russian, I don't actually know Ukranian very well.
posted by griphus at 6:53 AM on November 7, 2011

Articles are a deceptively complex part of English grammar. To someone who teaches English, trains English teachers etc. your question sounds a little like "I am working with a friend to help redecorate her house. She has also mentioned to me that the central heating is not working properly. Do you have any tips or sources for fixing central heating systems? The best answer is probably 'get help from someone who understands how these things work'.

That being said, here are some approaches to helping someone with articles.
  1. A rules-led approach. Valkyryn linked to one that looks thorough. Here is one aimed at learners talking about a/an and the. Michael Swan's Practical English Usage contains an excellent detailed summary and his How English Works is a good alternative for learners less used to grammar explanations.
  2. A lexical approach. Here the focus is on common article collocations, for example 'Do you want a cup of coffee', 'I'm going to the cafe.' 'He's in prison.'
  3. A semantic approach. This is about overcoming the belief many that articles are pointless grammatical traps which many speakers of languages without article systems have and demonstrating the meaning that they communicate. For example, the difference between 'I disagreed with an accountant at the meeting today' and 'I disagreed with the accountant at a meeting today.'
  4. The ideas on this page.
Any sources for Ukrainian grammar errors or accent issues?
Another book by Swan!

As usual when answering an EFL question I have linked to sites/books which I am connected to or know people who are connected to. I don't want to go into detail in order to protect my privacy, although I can say definitively that, despite what the above may indicate, I am not Michael Swan. He just happens to be good on both articles and L1 interference.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 7:30 AM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's an article that might help. I think one thing to keep in mind with articles is that they are adjectives used to indicate specificity or not and that not all nouns need to be modified.

1) 'A' and 'an' lack specificity, 2) 'the' indicates specificity, and 3) no articles is used when the noun is used in the general sense. See the examples below.

Books are on the counter. 'Books' isn't modified indicating a general sense and the usage is always plural. You can't say 'book is on the counter.'

The books are on the counter. 'The' indicates that some 'particular' books (specific) where the speaker or listener knows which books are being discussed. (I've been looking for where my friend put my books.)

A book is on the counter. 'A' book indicates that a single unspecified book is on the counter. (I've been looking for where my friend put my book and someone says a book is on the counter. It isn't known if it is 'the' particular book that I'm looking for.)

It can be difficult to understand because sometimes it doesn't seem to make much sense. It's 'I'm taking a bath' but never 'I take the bath.'
posted by shoesietart at 7:36 AM on November 7, 2011

Caution - it is by no means universally accepted (indeed, I would guess it is a minority position) that articles are adjectives. I find it much more convincing to describe them as determiners.

Of course, if this approach to teaching articles proves to be helpful for your student, then go for it. Just be aware that many grammarians feel that it is not very descriptive in the long term.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 8:16 AM on November 7, 2011

The way I do it is to explain "a" and "an" come from "one" and that's the article we use the first time. After that, we know which one we're talking about, so the we use "the" (which comes from "this/these/those"). More tricky to explain when we don't use an article. It's actually one of the most difficult aspects of English for my Russian, Chinese and Japanese students.
posted by Rash at 3:58 PM on November 7, 2011

I usually use three examples for my students, and I've taught at pretty much every age group.

The first is that, when it comes to articles, English works best if you imagine a small town. In that small town, how many (noun) are there? For a lot of things, we'd say only one. In those cases, and for those things, we use 'the' because it refers to the only one in town. In cases where (noun) would be plentiful, or more than one, we use "a." (think hospitals vs. restaurants)

The second branches from the first, in that the (noun) that we use most often is "the" as in "the train" is the train we ride every day. "The (noun)" can change based on where we are at the time we use it. At home, "the station" is the station we most commonly use while near home, same as "the store" or "the bank." When we are at work or school, things reset and we use the to refer to the most commonly used (noun) in that setting.

The third go round is that non-proper nouns need some indicator as to which one they are. For simplicity, I tell my students that common nouns require an article, a possessive pronoun, or a word that can substitute for a gesture, like this, that, these or those. The key is that it's a one topping pizza, that you can't combine a possessive with an article (the my bike, a common mistake in Japan). Every common noun must have a topping, but only one topping to a noun.

cringes, waits for comments finding me wanting as an EFL teacher...
posted by Ghidorah at 1:09 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

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