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I know that native English speakers can use "a/an" and "the" correctly by the age of 3, but how do they explicitly learn the grammar of articles in their grammar classes? I'm not asking how to use articles correctly, but how much a native English speaker (in particular, a native American English speaker raised in the US) explicitly knows about them.

  1. Does a diligent teenager who has been attentive to their grammar classes know the term "article" in the same way that they know terms such as "noun", "subject", and "verb"? If yes, when do they learn this concept?
  2. Do they also know the terms "indefinite article" and "definite article"? Can they explain the difference?
  3. If I ask them to explain the difference between "This is a dog" and "This is the dog", what would a typical response be like? Do they just give me a blank stare? Will they manage to think of a correct explanation after a while?

I'm asking this because I often teach my native language (Japanese) to English speakers. Japanese does not have articles, but can express the definiteness of a noun in a different way (namely, は and が, which are called "particles"). Average native Japanese speakers never learn the functional difference between は and が explicitly in school, presumably because the concept of definiteness is too complex for teenagers. As a result, even though they can use は and が correctly from the age 3, they can almost never explain the difference even after graduating from high school. I'm curious if it's the same with average native English speakers trying to explain about English articles — knowing it can help me teach my language better to English speakers.

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    In American schools we learn this terminology explicitly (definite article and indefinite article), but in my experience most people forget the precise terminology since it normally has no application in day-to-day life. In real communication situations, we are more likely to use emphasis instead to clarify the intention -- e.g. "do you mean a thing, or the thing?", or "not just a thing, but the thing."
    – Brandin
    Jun 23, 2023 at 8:33
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    I'm not sure if comparison with Japanese wa/ga is so apt, because as I recall, there are many situations where either one of those is acceptable and grammatical in Japanese. In English, however, the choice between a/the seems more strict. If a noun has already been introduced into the discussion, you pretty much have to use "the" to refer to it, to avoid confusion. For example, if you ask me "is a friend staying over at your house", then from that point on, we pretty much have to say the friend or the <equivalent noun> from then on, in the context of that conversation.
    – Brandin
    Jun 23, 2023 at 8:36
  • See also: pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21793774
    – Brandin
    Jun 23, 2023 at 8:46
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    Notice that that article uses an age of 5, not 3. Personally I'd be surprised if a 3-year-old could consistently use definite/indefinite correctly, without prompting or without echoing (e.g. if I say "the blah blah" in a conversation, then the fact that the child later says "the blah blah" as well, does not really convince me that she is really distinguishing between the indefinite/nondefinite concept).
    – Brandin
    Jun 23, 2023 at 8:50
  • @Brandin Indeed, は/が is not even a good analog for a/the, but they do have similar functions in some cases. Just as English speakers say "A thing or the thing?", we sometimes ask "は or が?", but that does not mean we understand the underlying rules. So English speakers explicitly know nothing about a/the except for their names, right?
    – naruto
    Jun 25, 2023 at 1:00

1 Answer 1

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As with most aspects of all languages, native speakers do not need to be explicitly taught the concepts. We learn them through regular exposure alone and pick up on all the granular rules without ever having them pointed out by an adult.

While words like "article", "definite" and "indefinite" are often taught in grade schools in Canada and the US, it's to raise awareness of grammar in general, not to teach us how to use them correctly because native speakers almost never make mistakes with articles.

The average English-speaking adult would struggle to explain the difference in meaning between "a/an", "the" and no-article or what the rules are that govern them.

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  • Thank you. The word class of は/が (joshi = particle) is pretty much everything Japanese people know about them, so this makes sense. If I tell a native English speaker "You typically mark a noun with a(n) when it is firstly mentioned in the conversation", are they more likely to say "Yeah, I knew that at least" or "Oh, is that so"?
    – naruto
    Jun 25, 2023 at 1:05
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    @naruto As a native-speaker of English who learned this particular explanation (i.e. that we first use a/an to denote a noun first mentioned in a conversation, and then later in the conversation to naturally switch to 'the' to refer to it) much later (around university time), personally I found my reaction upon hearing this explanation to be more of the "oh, is that so" variety. Not because I didn't "know" the rule per se, but probably because I'd not heard it explained in that way before, or because I'd heard the explanation but then had forgotten it until that later stage.
    – Brandin
    Jul 25, 2023 at 12:09
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    @Brandin Thank you, that's very interesting. As a native Japanese speaker, my story with は/が is almost the same, but I never had a chance to think about the difference until after turning 30.
    – naruto
    Jul 25, 2023 at 12:30
  • @naruto Like all rules, though, any explanation is probably not perfect. And explanations may change over time. For articles, I've heard some people use the term "null article", for example, to describe words such as "lunch" in a sentence such as "what are you doing after lunch?" English uses "no article" for this, whereas other languages that have articles usually include an article (usually the definite article). So a term like "null article" may be convenient for explaining why we say "nach dem Mittagessen" for that example in German, whereas we normally just say "after lunch" in English.
    – Brandin
    Jul 25, 2023 at 12:51

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