Vietnamese Students Learning the Semantics of English Prepositions

Prepositions are significant in sentences because they are used as markers to join words and

phrases into a sentence. Teachers usually teach prepositions by providing students with

explanations about the usage of prepositions and then gives examples as illustrations. These

examples are often accompanied by vivid pictures. This method, however, does not provide

students information on how to analyze the different senses of prepositions. This current

study, thus, aims to explore the effectiveness and students’ opinions of new pedagogical

instructions on ten English prepositions, namely above, among, at, behind, beside, between,

in, in front of, on and under. The research design involved a quasi-experimental design

adopting pretest-posttest between-group research. Out of 95 students who volunteered to

participate in the study, 38 participants were selected. They were divided into two groups for

the new cognitive linguistic approach and traditional instructions. Pretest and posttest were

used to discover the participants’ improvements. The participants’ opinions of the cognitive

treatment were also investigated. The findings illustrate that the group that was treated with

CL-based instructions outperformed the traditional group in the posttest although they gained

a comparable mean score in the pretest. Most participants also provided positive responses to

the new treatment. The findings suggests that cognitive treatment could be employed to assist

students in improving their understanding and retaining the metaphorical meanings of the

prepositions.

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GEMA Online® Journal of Language Studies 
Volume 17(4), November 2017  
eISSN: 2550-2131 
ISSN: 1675-8021 
146	
  
Vietnamese Students Learning the Semantics 
of English Prepositions 
Bui Phu Hung 
buiphuhung@yahoo.com 
PhD candidate of TESOL at Hue College of Foreign Languages 
Hue University, Vietnam 
(Vice-Dean at Faculty of Foreign Languguages, Van Hien University, Vietnam) 
ABSTRACT 
Prepositions are significant in sentences because they are used as markers to join words and 
phrases into a sentence. Teachers usually teach prepositions by providing students with 
explanations about the usage of prepositions and then gives examples as illustrations. These 
examples are often accompanied by vivid pictures. This method, however, does not provide 
students information on how to analyze the different senses of prepositions. This current 
study, thus, aims to explore the effectiveness and students’ opinions of new pedagogical 
instructions on ten English prepositions, namely above, among, at, behind, beside, between, 
in, in front of, on and under. The research design involved a quasi-experimental design 
adopting pretest-posttest between-group research. Out of 95 students who volunteered to 
participate in the study, 38 participants were selected. They were divided into two groups for 
the new cognitive linguistic approach and traditional instructions. Pretest and posttest were 
used to discover the participants’ improvements. The participants’ opinions of the cognitive 
treatment were also investigated. The findings illustrate that the group that was treated with 
CL-based instructions outperformed the traditional group in the posttest although they gained 
a comparable mean score in the pretest. Most participants also provided positive responses to 
the new treatment. The findings suggests that cognitive treatment could be employed to assist 
students in improving their understanding and retaining the metaphorical meanings of the 
prepositions. 
Keywords: teaching prepositions; metaphors; English language teaching; image schemas 
INTRODUCTION 
Prepositions play a significant role in language as they join words and phrases into a 
sentence. However, how to teach prepositions effectively is a big concern due to their 
inherent difficulties (Fang, 2000). Firstly, prepositions are clear-cut examples of polysemy; 
one preposition used in different contexts may have several different meanings. Oxford 
Advanced Learner’s Dictionary states even more than 18 meanings of the preposition in 
(Hornby & Wehmeier, 2005). In addition, there is an overlap between prepositions in use; 
that is, one preposition can replace another with a slight difference in meaning. For example, 
the expressions in the school and at the school are both considered correct in some contexts. 
Another common characteristic of prepositions is they are multi-functional. For instance, the 
preposition in can be classified as one of both spatial and temporal relations, as in in the 
world and in the 20th century respectively. 
 The existing instruction of prepositions in many countries in the world is that the 
teacher provides students with explanations of the usage of prepositions and then gives 
examples as illustrations accompanied by vivid pictures. Students are finally required to do 
exercises as drills. However, not only does this method facilitate unstable marginal 
improvements among students since they do not have opportunities to analyze different 
GEMA Online® Journal of Language Studies 
Volume 17(4), November 2017  
eISSN: 2550-2131 
ISSN: 1675-8021 
147	
  
senses of prepositions to profoundly comprehend them, but they also fail to gain knowledge 
by simple memorization and have no circumstances to synthesize their existing understanding 
with the target input (Cho, 2010, pp. 267-269 & Ausubel, 2000). Students, as a result, show 
low gains of prepositions since the isolated items in memory do not carve a long-term 
memory. 
 Although English prepositions are considered complicated to learners, cognitive 
linguists assert that the meanings of prepositions can be represented in a form of symbols, 
which can be applied in teaching prepositions as they show the relations of things and/or 
people. A teaching method based on Cognitive Linguistic (CL) approach has been brought 
into consideration. CL considers language as symbolic as meaningful in virtues of both 
lexicon and grammar. The so-called symbolic theory derives from the symbolic nature of 
language, which can be employed to teach prepositions (Langacker, 1987, p. 12; Talmy, 
1988). 
 This study hopes to extend the previous relevant studies on applying the cognitive 
linguistic (CL) approach to teaching English prepositions. Song, Schnotz and Juchem-
Grundmann (2015) did a quasi-experimental study on teaching the three prepositions in, on 
and at in Germany. Tyler, Mueller and Ho (2011) conducted a study on teaching the three 
prepositions to, for and at to 14 English learners who were Italian. Although, these studies 
were conducted in different countries, they were considered relevant references for this 
current study because they were all done on students who learned English as a foreign 
language and their findings proved positive. This current study intended to measure the 
impacts of CL-based teaching on learners’ understanding of the ten prepositions, namely 
above, among, at, behind, beside, between, in, in front of, on and under. 
 The findings of the present research can provide an insight into the effective 
instruction of prepositions the teacher should present. In addition, curriculum designing and 
textbook writing will be benefited in terms of providing appropriate lessons and tasks to 
assist students in mastering English preposition. The accomplishment of the study will shed 
light on effective teaching of the aforementioned word class, and in turn help students with 
learning English prepositions successfully. The study may contribute to the feasibility of CL-
inspired approach to teaching other language phenomena in Asia and the world. 
LITERATURE 
BASIC CONCEPTS IN COGNITIVE LINGUISTICS 
The theory of CL has entered the field of second language acquisition and foreign language 
teaching, with a vast number of theoretical and practical concerns with discovering the 
relationship between human language, the mind and socio-physical experience. Although 
findings have suggested that the usefulness of applying cognitive linguistics to ELT has a 
facilitative effect on language learning in the classroom (Pawlak, 2006, pp. 9-10), doubts 
concerning these applications still exist. The remaining undiscovered areas of pedagogical 
applications of CL extensively remain a long objective (Langacker, 2008, p. 66). 
 CL is a unification of various linguistic theories and models based on the related 
beliefs in numerous language phenomena, among which the basic theories, for the practical 
purposes of this paper, are symbolization, image schemas, domains and conceptual metaphor 
(Langacker, 1999, pp. 13-18). 
 In CL, language is regarded as a continuum of symbolic complexity (Langacker, 
1999, p. 18). Accordingly, one of the hypotheses of CL is that lexicon, morphology and 
syntax are not treated as distinct subsystems of language, but are multifaceted. For examples, 
prepositions, which are considered functional markers or linkers without distinct meanings by 
GEMA Online® Journal of Language Studies 
Volume 17(4), November 2017  
eISSN: 2550-2131 
ISSN: 1675-8021 
148	
  
some other schools of linguistics, are believed to have clearly-defined meanings in CL 
(Chomsky, 1981, p. 50; Langacker, 1999, p. 18). The following distinct examples can 
illustrate the meanings of the preposition in (Lee, 2001, p. 19): 
(1) the cat in the house 
(2) the bird in the garden 
(3) the flowers in the vase 
(4) the bird in the tree 
In (1) and (2), the preposition in designates a prototypical relationship between the cat 
and the house in which the cat is entirely inside the container the house. Example (2), (3) and 
(4) describe a less prototypical relationship slightly differently. In particular, example (2) 
shows that as the container (the garden) is not wholly bounded. In (4), some part of the 
flowers is not inside the container the vase. In the final example, it is significant to construe 
the tree as a three-dimensional containment with the ends of its branches as the boundaries to 
make sense of relationship between the bird and the tree as a container. In brief, CL views 
prepositions as semantic units in which some use of a particular preposition is prototypical. 
 Also, cognitive linguistic approach places an emphasis on the image schema, which is 
a recurring structure in humans’ cognitive process in which patterns of understanding is 
formed from linguistic experience in interactive contexts (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). As to 
make a distinction in the meanings of the ten prepositions taught in this current study, the 
landmark schemas (Fig. 1) used in the handouts and presentation files to facilitate students’ 
visualization should be three-dimensional (Herskovits, 1986). 
 Tr Tr 
 Lm 
 Two-dimensional landmark Three-dimensional landmark 
FIGURE 1. Image schema for in (Adapted from Herskovits, 1986) 
As a usage-based approach, cognitive linguistics implies that language teachers can 
use symbols to express the meanings of the target items during teacher-fronted explicit 
instruction (VanPatten, 2002). Pedagogically, when the lesson aims at accuracy, it may be 
necessary to take advantage of this kind of instruction. It is also significant to note that CL 
believes that the use of a linguistic symbol related to an intended meaning forms a percept 
and then in turn a concept during mental processing. Human cognitive abilities synthesize 
information received into a mental image which is first established in a short-term memory 
and then a long-term memory in a particular condition. It is significant to facilitate the 
integration of the new input with learners’ existing knowledge from their prior experience 
(Evans & Green, 2006, p. 7; Langacker, 1999, pp. 91-99). In a sense, CL places a high 
emphasis on visual perception in everyday experience, from which images find some way to 
enter the mental process because a picture can help tell us more information than a word. 
Then, images of a relevant area are matched to establish an organized schema. 
 Regarding the pedagogical applications, CL implies that the picture that the teacher 
uses in instruction should not be vivid, but symbolic for a number of reasons. In the first 
GEMA Online® Journal of Language Studies 
Volume 17(4), November 2017  
eISSN: 2550-2131 
ISSN: 1675-8021 
149	
  
place, symbolic units can even describe abstract concepts like “love” and “hate”. In the 
second place, symbols can represent quite general things; that is, when viewing a symbol, 
learners can generalize things in common. Finally, these symbols matching with learners’ 
available experience can form a long-term memory (Johnson, 1993; Schnotz & Banner, 
2003). 
 Another theory that is directly related to this research is the Theory of Domains. A 
domain, or a frame, in Langacker’s (1987, p. 147) definition is an inventory of conventional 
linguistic units equated with conceptualization. In particular, in order to correctly express 
spatial concepts, learners need to have certain understanding of the surrounding, particularly 
spatial relationships of objects to use appropriate one in a certain context. Spatial 
relationships are so basic that humans use spatial domain to structure other domains (Lee, 
2001, p. 18). Radden and Dirven (2007) proposes networks of meanings of prepositions from 
physical space to mental space. For example, the prepositions in, on and at can be used with 
both spatial meanings and abstract meanings or metaphorical meanings (Table 1). 
TABLE 1. Cross-domain transfer of prepositions (Adapted from Geeraerts & Cuyckens, 2007) 
Spatial domain Abstract Domain 
 in the box in my opinion 
 on the desk on the telephone 
 at school at rest 
In Table 1, abstract meanings are also referred to as metaphorical meanings. A 
metaphor is defined as a figure of speech that describes a subject by comparing it with 
another. Different from the notion of figurative metaphor, conceptual metaphor theory in CL 
places an emphasis on an assumption that human ideas themselves are primarily metaphorical 
in nature. In everyday communication, people are exposed to and use metaphor as a tool to 
understand and express their own opinions. Conceptual Metaphor Theory hypothesizes that 
human understanding and use of metaphor derives from non-metaphorical understanding in 
that the non-metaphorical part is responsible for expressing concrete concepts in the spatial 
and/or temporal domains and the abstract concepts can be expressed through the abstract 
domain by metaphor (Evans, 2007, pp. 75-138). Sohrabi and Pirnajmuddin (2017) discovered 
that metaphors were also commonly used in the world outside poetry. 
 As a whole, image schemas, domains and metaphor together are responsible for 
learners’ understanding and use of language. The spatial domain in this research is the source 
domain which projects structure onto the target domain (abstract domain). Spatial 
prepositions, from a closer look, can be acquired in the spatial domain first and then are 
transferred onto the abstract domain (Evans, 2007, p. 53). Accordingly, learners acquire non-
metaphorical use of prepositions first in the spatial domain or temporal domain and then they 
transfer onto the abstract domain where students can use prepositions metaphorically in a 
certain circumstance. For example, the expressions in love and in my opinion are examples of 
spatial prepositions transferring from the spatial domain to the abstract domain. 
PREVIOUS STUDIES 
There are many studies on applying cognitive linguistic approach to teaching English items. 
Most of them, which are considered to be relevant references for this current study, have been 
conducted on EFL adult students. 
 Song, Schnotz and Juchem-Grundmann (2015) conducted an experimental study 
entitled “A cognitive linguistic approach to teaching English prepositions in, on, at”. In this 
GEMA Online® Journal of Language Studies 
Volume 17(4), November 2017  
eISSN: 2550-2131 
ISSN: 1675-8021 
150	
  
study, Song delivered a sentence-completion pretest and delayed posttest. The treatment 
lasted for three weeks. In the first week, the lesson focused on the spatial domain, 
incorporating all three prepositions. A week later, a lesson on the three prepositions in the 
temporal domain (traditionally called prepositions of time) was delivered and during the third 
week, the linguistic examples for the abstract domain were taught to the two groups: 
Experimental Group (under cognitive treatment) and Control Group (under rote learning 
treatment). The conclusions showed the trial group performed better than the control group in 
the posttest. 
 Hoomanfard and Meshkat (2015) conducted a study employing the cognitive process 
in writing in a second language. A cognitive process questionnaire was administered to the 
participants. The findings were in line with the previous research that cognitive processes 
could help improve second language writing and benefit second language teachers, 
curriculum designers and test makers. 
 Jafarigoha and Khanjani (2014) attempted to explore the effects of cognitive 
treatment on sixty Iranian EFL learners’ reading competence. The paticipants were given 
texts for reading. They were also interviewed at the end of the study. The study had 
implications for language teaching and curriculum development that cognitive treatment 
really helped the participants improve their performance. Also, EFL teachers should employ 
cognitive reading strategies in the classroom. 
 Bielak and Pawlak (2013) applied cognitive grammar to teaching English tense and 
aspect. 50 participants were randomly divided into three groups: the cognitive, traditional and 
control. They used pretest, posttest 1 (immediate test) and posttest 2 (delayed test) to measure 
the effectiveness of the treatment. The study took place for 4 weeks and the findings showed 
the cognitive group improved its knowledge of the target items. 
 Similarly, Tyler, Mueller and Ho (2011) did an experimental study entitled “Applying 
cognitive linguistics to learning the semantics of English prepositions to, for and at” to 14 
participants. The study was conducted with a text-completion pretest and posttest. On the first 
day, the preposition to was taught to the participants. Then, on the second day, the 
prepositions for and at were instructed. In each of the class sessions, the teacher-fronted 50-
minute instruction was followed by productive tasks: pair work and sentence writing with the 
preposition under a headline. In general, the results of the statistical tests indicate the 
participants experienced significant gains in their understanding of the three prepositions. 
 Regarding the local context, Huong (2005) applied cognitive grammar to teaching 
English articles to Vietnamese senior English-majors at Can Tho University. Although these 
participants were considered to be at the advanced level, they made a large number of errors 
in the pretest. They were randomly divided into two groups of about 30 participants each. 
After the treatment period of 4 weeks, the experimental group demonstrated more 
considerable retention of articles than the traditional group. 
 Inspired by the Theory of Conceptual Metaphor in cognitive linguistic approach, 
Condon and Kelly (2002) tested the efficacy of teaching phrasal verbs to EFL learners in 
their quasi-experimental study with a hypothesis that words and phrases are just gained in the 
spatial domain (the source domain) and then they transfer to the abstract domain (the target 
domain) where words and phrases are used with figurative meanings. Over a period of 8 
weeks, the experimental (cognitive) and traditional groups were instructed on 28 phrasal 
verbs involving up, down, in and out. For the cognitive group, instruction was accompanied 
by simple diagrams indicating movement from inside a container to outside. Participants took 
a fill-in-blank pretest, immediate posttest and delayed posttest. The cognitive group 
outperformed the traditional group on both the immediate test (p<0.01) and the delayed test 
(p<0.05). Condon and Kelly (2002) concluded that abstract visuals provided adult learners an 
important aid in understanding the contribution of the spatially based verb particles and their 
GEMA Online® Journal of Language Studies 
Volume 17(4), November 2017  
eISSN: 2550-2131 
ISSN: 1675-8021 
151	
  
extended meanings. Also, adult learners particularly benefit from explicit instruction with 
phrasal verbs. 
 There is no doubt that Song, Schnotz and Juchem-Grundmann (2015), and Tyler, 
Mueller and Ho (2011) conducted experimental studies on applying cognitive linguistic 
approach to teaching English prepositions in EFL contexts. However, their studies were 
limited to only the 5 prepositions in, on, at, for and to. Furthermore, in these quasi-
experimental studies, the prepositions were first taught with spatial meanings, temporal 
meanings and then metaphoric meanings. However, Evans (2007, p. 53) believes that 
vocabulary can transfer from the spatial domain directly to the abstract domain. This current 
study is an attempt to expand these previous studies and teach the ten prepositions above, 
among, at, behind, beside, between, in, in front of

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