Before learning English, I had acquired fluency in Persian and I'm a native speaker of Azeri Turkish. Neither language has articles, but I didn't find myself in trouble deciphering their usage in English; my intuition in using or not using them has been adequately accurate.

However, on ELL, I've seen quite some people complaining that learning to use articles in English is one of the most cumbersome tasks they have to deal with in learning English.

Does the fact that a learner's native language doesn't have articles affect their ability to use them in an L2 with articles? In other words, have there been studies on whether or not having an "article-less" native language hinders proficient use of them in English, or any other language with articles?

Please provide answers with references.

  • @駑馬十駕 This page tells me there are articles in Swedish. There isn't anything that specifies indefiniteness in Turkish, but we do have a suffix that functions like "the" in the accusative sense. Something similar marks indefiniteness in Persian, but I take it's a semantic argument, not a grammatical one. The indefinite "marker" is literally one.
    – M.A.R.
    Apr 6, 2016 at 13:18
  • I never said there is no articles in Swedish just that it does not always need one. I asked if you have such a grammatical device because in a language where there is absolutely no marker for definiteness it seems a lot harder for the speakers of that language to fully grasp the difference between a(n)/the. Apr 6, 2016 at 13:25
  • 1
    And I'm wondering if that's proven with a study @駑馬十駕. :)
    – M.A.R.
    Apr 6, 2016 at 13:29
  • 1
    @駑馬十駕: Articles can be affixes or clitics, as can pronouns, adpositions, etc. Apr 7, 2016 at 13:15

2 Answers 2


Put simply, yes, there have been many studies analysing (and proving) that a non-article L1 affects students learning an L2 that does have articles.

For instance, Finnish and Swedish learners of English were asked to narrate the events of a film. The Finnish speakers ended up using no articles or prepositions (as Finnish has no articles and few prepositions), while Swedish speakers (who have both articles and prepositions in their L1) did not have such problems (Jarvis and Pavlenko, 2008).

Another study had Turkish, Yugoslav, Portuguese, Italian, Greek and Spanish speakers learning German - while none of them used articles from the get go, learners accustomed to articles in their L1 picked up the German articles quicker (Gilbert and Orlovic, 1975).

Yet another study, which involved Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Spanish learners of English, found that "although Spanish L1 learners’ acquisition order generally conforms to the “so-called” natural order (Krashen, 1977), native speakers of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese mostly acquire plural –s and articles later than, and possessive’s earlier than, is predicted by the natural order. This indicates that learners can acquire a grammatical morpheme later or earlier than predicted by the natural order, depending on the presence or absence of the equivalent category in their L1. This suggests that L1 transfer is much stronger than is portrayed in many SLA textbooks and that the role of L1 in morpheme acquisition must be reconsidered." (Luk and Shirai, 2009)

Finally, as a Polish/English native speaker, I can confirm that Polish learners of English have significant difficulties learning how to use English articles, as Polish has no comparable system - the nearest you can get to specifying or non-specifying something is by using variations on some/this/that. Most beginning and intermediate learners see them as tiny words with no meaning, since there is no simple way to translate that meaning into Polish. In fact, even Poles who are otherwise perfectly fluent speakers of English can once in a while stumble on which article to use: I've done plenty of proofreading where one of the only things I had to change was the articles...

If you yourself haven't noticed this while learning English, there could be a few reasons:

  • perhaps Azeri, while lacking articles, has other structures that fulfill a similar role
  • Persian seems to have suffix-based articles, eg. sib, apple; sibe, the apple) - not that I know anything about the language
  • you may just have a knack for "getting" articles; lucky you! ;-)

Language Transfer is the term for influence of the mother tongue (L1) on the production of the target language (L2). Language transfer can be both positive and negative. So, for example, positive transfer accounts for L1 German speakers saying something like:

Careful! The glass has a crack! (Vorsicht! Das Glas hat einen Sprung!)

since the use of the definite and indefinite article is identical in such a context. But the same German speaker might ask:

Do you play piano?

since in German no article is used (Spielst du Klavier?), whereas the definite article is needed in English (negative transfer).

It would seem therefore that there is a clear and inevitable influence of the L1 on the production of L2. Indeed, this was the strong position taken by early researchers in Contrastive Analysis. For example, Lado in his Linguistics Across Cultures (1957) hypothesized that:

those elements which are similar to [the learner's] native language will be simple for him, and those elements that are different will be difficult.

But as Odlin notes in the introduction to his book Language Transfer: Cross-linguistic influence in language learning (Cambridge University Press, 1989) the increasing amount of empirical data about L2 learner errors that was produced in the 1970s called Lado's hypothesis into question. Odlin gives the example of the common omission of the copula by L1 Spanish speakers of English:

... speakers of Spanish, which like English, has copula verb forms, frequently omit forms such as am or is. Moreover, such errors are not only found among Russian and Spanish speakers, but also among speakers of other languages - and also among children learning English as their native language. Thus, while a contrastive analysis might explain a Russian speaker's omission of copula forms, a Spanish contrastive analysis would not explain the same error as they acquire English. The pervasiveness of certain types of errors has thus been among the most significant counterarguments against the importance of transfer.

In the rest of his book Odlin analyses these counterarguments, but in the end comes to the conclusion:

Despite the counterarguments, however, there is a large and growing body of research that indicates that transfer is indeed a very important factor in second language acquisition.

Learner English: A teacher's guide to interference and other problems (ed. Swan & Smith, Cambridge University Press, 2001) aims "to help teachers anticipate the characteristic difficulties of learners of English who speak other mother tongues, and to understand how these difficulties arise".

The book is clearly based on the conclusion that Odlin came to, namely that L1 transfer plays a very significant (but not exclusive) role in the production of L2. The introduction has the following text, with various references to article use:

There is less disagreement than there used to be about how far interlanguages are influenced by learners' native language, and most linguists would probably now agree that the mother tongue can affect learners' English in several ways:

  1. Where the mother tongue has no close equivalent for a feature, learners are likely to have particular problems in the relevant area. Japanese or Russian students, for example, whose languages have no articles, have a great deal of difficulty with English articles.

  2. Where the mother tongue does have an equivalent feature, learning English is in general facilitated. French or German-speaking students, for instance, find articles relatively easy in most respects, despite the complexity of the system.

  3. However, equivalences are rarely exact, and so-called interference or transfer mistakes are common where students assume a more complete correspondence than exists, so that they carry over mother-tongue patterns in cases where English forms or uses are not in fact parallel. French or German-speaking students typically make certain mistakes in English (e.g. *The life is hard, *My sister is hairdresser) precisely because their languages do have article systems.

So, finally, the answer to the question Does the fact that a learner's native language doesn't have articles affect their ability to use them in an L2 with articles? is an emphatic Yes! as far as English is concerned.

I see this every day with my English learners. Those with Japanese, Chinese, Korean or Russian L1s make significantly more mistakes than those with German, French or Dutch L1s. And the learning of the article system seems all but impervious to direct instruction. What works best is copious exposure to written and spoken English, coupled with an ability and willingness to notice article use in natural contexts.

Wikipedia links:

Language transfer

Contrastive analysis



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    As far as I know, language transfer can work in any direction, not only from L1 to L2, but also from L2 to L3, from L2 to L1, etc.
    – Tsundoku
    Oct 26, 2016 at 15:13

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