Which came first, Ll or L2?

Page No.: 
Hatayama Hiroaki, Obirin University


  • Key Words: Bilingual, Concordance, Corpus analysis
  • Learner English Level: Low intermediate and higher Learner
  • Learner Maturity Level: High school and older
  • Preparation Time: One hour
  • Activity Time: One ninety-minute class

It seems quite difficult for Japanese students to master the use of articles in English writing. Teaching whether a noun requires a definite or indefinite article is a little like the chicken and egg riddle. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In this case, definite articles precede both nouns and we assume that the egg and the chicken are both defined by each other, making it almost impossible to solve the riddle. But if the indefinite article is replaced with a definite one-for example, "Which came first, the chicken or an egg?"--the egg then becomes any egg, an evolutionary order appears, and the riddle is lost. The same can be said about plural countable nouns: Which came first, the chicken or eggs?

Prior to having students count chickens and eggs, frequency lists may offer one means of creating interest in using definite or indefinite articles. In written English, the is the most frequent word and a is fourth (McCarthy, 1999, p. 122). If students are given these odds to work with, they are more aware of the importance of articles in L2 as well as more aware that the is used much more frequently than a. Teaching grammar, not exactly known as the pachinko of language teaching, then becomes a kind of gambling guessing game, and, as is well known, gambling is quite popular in Japan.

When teaching English articles to my Japanese students, I use Japanese texts which are supplied with English translations. The guiding assumption is that equivalence between the grammars of two languages facilitates bilingual usage, be it second language learning, lexical borrowing, or code-switching (Milroy & Muysken, 1995, p. 193). Even so, no exact match exists between categories in different languages. In Japanese, there isn't a plural inflection with nouns, indefinite articles are often not expressed, and the definite article is functionally replaced with other determiners such as sono or ano. Irrespective of this, however, by comparing L1 and L2 texts students do recognize an equivalence to their L1 and this is the first step in the process of syntactic convergence.


Find a text both in Japanese and English. Newspaper columns are convenient since they are often published in both Japanese and English. The Yomiuri Shinbun publishes on the Internent in both languages, and downloading and printing their texts does not require much time. I recommend using the introductory paragraphs of a story because they usually contain 2. the pertinent information.

After you find your text, create a gap-fill of the English text, deleting the lexical or grammatical form you want to highlight.


1. Briefly explain to students the frequency of a and the. Then put them into pairs and give each pair a copy of the Japanese and English gap-fill texts.

2. Have students read both texts and compare or wager how many of the blanks in the English text are either definite or indefinite articles. You may want to put each pair's wager on the board. (For the sake of conciseness, this example shows only the first paragraph of the newspaper article, and the indefinite articles outnumber the definite ones nine to five. This goes against the odds in the frequency list, but in following paragraphs of the article more definite articles appear; therefore, if a longer extract had been used, the example would reflect the odds more accurately. Choose the length of your text with this in mind.) Go over the text, filling in the blanks, as a class. The student in the pair that comes closest to the actual number of definite and indefinite articles wins the wager.

3. Students should also be encouraged to make their own lists or concordances between L1 and L2. By listing all occurrences of articles, learners quickly notice that only singular countable nouns take articles and that it is a good idea to consider using an article whenever writing a singular noun. This technique can also be adapted to almost any other grammatical or lexical form.

Occurrences one through eight are all indefinite articles while occurrences nine through thirteen are all definite. This illustrates another approach to teaching articles, namely, that initial occurrences of singular nouns require indefinite articles and following occurrences of the same noun require definite articles (e.g., initial A group of researchers, replaced by the researchers) or are replaced with pronouns, determiners or synonyms (e.g., initial a cell, replaced by one).


Grammar translation remains a dominant methodology in many English classrooms in Japan. Comparing L1 and L2 texts increases student recognition of the L2, and many Japanese words are almost directly translatable into English. Presenting introductory corpus analysis techniques and frequency lists of words in an interesting way helps students to internalize and control new grammatical and lexical forms while also providing lesson content for native speaker English teachers who may not be comfortable enough with their Japanese ability to compare L1 and L2 texts in the classroom.


Daily Yomiuri. (English text) yomiuri.co.jp/main/main-e.htm (Japanese text) yomiuri.co.jp/index-j.htm

McCarthy, Michael. (1999). Spoken Language & Applied Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Milroy, L. and P. Muysken. (1995). One Speaker, Two Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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