For many non-native English students, mastering the use of prepositions is by no means easy. Dr. WONG Man Ho Ivy, Assistant Professor of the Department of English Language and Literature, received a grant of HK$1.1 million from the Language Fund of the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (SCOLAR) to conduct a research project on preposition learning. The project is entitled “Promoting Conceptual Development of English Prepositions among University Graduates through Human- and Computer-Assisted Instruction”.

Cognitive linguistics and preposition learning

Inspired by cognitive linguistics theories, Dr. WONG has devoted over 8 years in creating a set of novel and engaging teaching materials for Chinese learners to acquire English prepositions. She made use of animated schematic diagrams to illustrate how spatial configurations can also be used to explain more abstract meanings encoded by prepositions. For instance, the same schematic diagram can be used to explain the sentences “The athlete jumped over the fence” and “James got over his divorce” (see below). All picture illustrations shown in the teaching materials are created by Dr. WONG and her research team. Hence, unlike many other picture illustrations in textbooks, they show high systematicity to help consolidate learners’ conceptual understanding of preposition usages.

In an interview with Shue Yan Newsletter, she commented that the teaching of English grammar in Hong Kong still relies heavily on “memorization”, which can hardly bring long-term learning results or promote conceptual understanding among students. Such a monotonous learning style also fails to advance students’ interest in language learning and students.

Promoting Concept-Based Learning

She cited one common challenge that English teachers often encounter, i.e., how to explain the differences between “in”, “on” and “at”. In Cantonese and Mandarin, people simply use a single expression “ 在/喺” (roughly equivalent to “in”) to indicate location or time, for example “我喺(在)辦公室/巴士/地鐵 站;喺(在)開始之前 ”. Other characters could be added if the speaker wish to be more precise about location , for instance, “我喺(在)辦公室裏面/我喺(在)巴士 上/喺(在)地鐵站出面(外)”. However, such precision in meaning is mandatory in English and should be conveyed using the suitable preposition, for example, I am at the office; on the bus; in the car; at the beginning vs. in the beginning. Therefore, these subtle differences in meanings expressed by different prepositions must be explained clearly to learners in order to reach full acquisition. Yet, most of the textbooks and dictionaries only provide rule-of-thumb definitions that are not too helpful, e.g., “at” refers to small places like bus stop. This definition begs for the question: how can we decide whether the location/place is small? Hence, memorizing these rule-ofthumb definitions only leaves students, including advanced learners, with uncertainties about their choice of preposition, thereby lacking the confidence in using the English language.

Concept-based learning can therefore provide a good solution for both language teachers and students. It encourages teachers to equip students with good concepts to judge which preposition to pick in different scenarios. For example, the preposition at can be used when the location is treated like a point on a map whereas the preposition in can be used when the location is understood as a containment (i.e., She is at the train station vs. She is in the train station). The “at” concept must be introduced to learners explicitly as it’s not available in Chinese and some other languages like French and Spanish. More importantly, learners must grasp the concept to make the correct preposition choice. Dr. WONG said, “learners who have received traditional training are too reliant on grammar rules, causing them to lose flexibility and creativity in language use.” Therefore, she thanked SCOLAR for its funding, which enabled her to develop a comprehensive set of readily available teaching materials for both classroom as well as online learning.

Looking into the future

Dr. WONG believes that this set of teaching materials and research data will contribute to the development of artificial intelligence in education and robot-assisted language learning. Dr. WONG plans to expand her research to other linguistic features in the future, including phrasal verbs, tense and aspect, modal verbs among others.

This research project commenced in October 2021. So far, Dr. WONG and her research team have completed the design of the computerised tutorial system and are working on the classroom materials. She anticipates that the whole set of teaching materials will be completed in February this year and be tested for learning effectiveness. Current students and graduates of the University are invited to participate in the project. Participants must speak Cantonese or Putonghua as their mother tongue. Once selected, they will be randomly assigned to test groups using different teaching modes to learn prepositions.

Source: Jan and Feb 2022 Combined Issue