A Word About Articles

A Word About Articles

To non-native speakers, words like “a,” “an,” and “the” may seem largely insignificant.  However, these words are extremely important in the English language.  They serve two main purposes.  1) They help us to express whether a noun is singular or plural and 2) They give indications as to whether or not the specified noun is one that has been previously identified between the speakers.


Native English speakers “feel” articles.  We do not think about them. For us, articles are an inherent part of many nouns.  Consider the following.  If you ask the same question to a native English speaker and a non-native English speaker, there is a very strong chance that the outcome could be something like this:


What is this?
Native speaker: a watch
Non-native speaker: watch


What is this?
Native speaker: That is a watch.
Non-native speaker: This watch.


When the non-native speaker responds by saying only “watch,” the word automatically feels like a verb rather than a noun.  For instance, “Watch the dog play with his ball.  (He is very funny.)” Using the short word “a” automatically lets the listener know that the speaker is referring to a noun.


For native speakers, the notion of measurement is built into each noun.  We absolutely feel whether or not a noun is singular or plural.  A very young child of about 2 or 3 years of age will already have a feel for the differences between a piece of candy, some candy, and candy (which would be considered incorrect in most contexts.)


And so, by the time that child goes to school at age 5 or 6, he will already have a feel for using articles (a, an, and the) and his sentences, though short, will have already started to feel natural. Articles are not officially taught to native English speakers.  Instead, we are indirectly taught to feel articles with each new noun that we learn.


Native English speakers will go on to learn things like spelling and reading in their first years of school. And non-native English speakers mimic the way we learn.  So, the non-native speakers also go on to learn spelling, reading, and vocabulary in their first years of study.  But, the differences between the two types of language learners will have already begun.


Non-native speakers in these situations will go on to learn to speak English without the foundation of articles.  This leads to numerous problems in grammar and with sentence structure that cannot be detailed briefly in this article.  The problems become compounded until the speaker has developed his/her own way of speaking English.


And because native English speakers understand the non-native speakers, we often times will not correct a learner who makes mistakes.  The longer the speaker uses their individualized version of English, the more it feels natural to them; and the more they grow to accept their individualized version of English as natural.


The speaker goes on to build vocabulary and to memorize more grammatical points, building on a fragmented language foundation. The more advanced the individual’s knowledge of English grammar becomes, the more pronounced the unnatural aspects of the speaker’s language skills become.


Learning articles does not solve all problems for English language learners.  But it does give language learners the foundation that they need to build natural and native-like language skills.  Memorizing English grammar does not, alone, make one a good English speaker.  To truly hone one’s skills, one should begin to develop a “feel” for the language as soon as possible. And for English this means mastering articles.


Memorizing articles is not nearly enough.  If your native language does not use articles, you will need to dedicate yourself to absolutely mastering English articles in order to develop a natural feel with your own English language skills.  To give you an idea of what to expect, our students generally spend about 3 months building their skills in this area. They build other grammar skills, simultaneously. But we have seen the best results when students who are unfamiliar with articles dedicate a minimum of 12 weeks to learning them.

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