How ESL Arab learners use the 3rd person singular-S in speech and writing

How ESL Arab learners use the 3rd person singular-S in speech and writing






Second language acquisition is both systematic and variable as learners have to undergo several developmental stages before they acquire competence in the language. This study will investigate the acquisition of English as a second language (ESL) by Arab learners and how they use it in speech and writing. It is clearly known that second language (L2) learners show changeability in the second language (L2) production of verbal inflectional morphology by either making unsuitable substitution or omitting inflections in speech and writing. According to Prevost and White (2000), the Missing Surface Inflection Hypothesis proposes that second language learners have skill of functional features and categories underlying agreement and tense although sometimes they do not produce the subsequent obvious forms. It has been noted that Arabic learners acquire mastery of the third person singular-S in the later stages. The objective of the study is to investigate how ESL Arab learners use the Third Person Singular-S in speech and writing. The study hypothesis is that there is a relationship between high levels of learning and language perfection (use of the third person singular-S) by ESL Arab learners. In order to examine and evaluate the nature of ESL Arab learners’ inter-language (IL) grammar and how the learners use third person singular-S in speech and writing, four subjects will be interviewed. The units of analysis will be four ESL Arab learners in the US. The study will apply the quantitative research methods. Data will be analyzed using the narrative or descriptive analysis to discuss the research findings.


In English language, there are three parties involved, the first person, the second person and the third person. In this case, the major concern is on the third person. The use of third person singular-S in English language is governed by some grammatical rules. These rules are used in forming the conjunction of a verb. In many cases, an ‘-s’ is simply added to the end of a verb to create the third person singular. For instance ride- rides, drink- drinks, write- writes. In third person singular, if a verb ends with –ch, -sh, or –x, -es is simply added to the end of the verb. If the verb ends with a consonant –y, the y is changed to i and –es added to the end of the verb. Some verbs like go, do, be and have are irregular and one has to omit them to memory. Go- goes, do- does, be- is and have- has. In some cases, however, there is a lot of misuse of the third person singular- S. this means that the ‘s’ is either omitted or used where it is not supposed to be used. This is brought about by being unaware of the tense, aspect or person of the subject.

The problem that arises in learning English as a second language for the Arabs has to do with the fact that Second language acquisition is highly systematic and highly variable (Myles, 2004). The acquisition of second language is highly systematic because of the progression of development that is the route taken by a second learner in developing aptitude in the second language. This implies that learning English is not just a one time process, but follows a number of developmental steps and stages for the learner to develop proficiency in the language. This process according to Myles (2004) cannot be affected in any way by the learner’s first language (L1), as well as the context under which learning is undertaken. The rate of learning and the result of the learning process are highly dependent upon individual learners, which vary from one individual to another.

The process of second language acquisition is focused on the route of development of second language for L2 learners as it helps both teachers and learners to obtain important perspectives on the route that learners take in their development and understanding of the second language. The speed at which people develop proficiency in language differs from one individual to the other. It has been, however, noted that the quicker the learner develops proficiency, the better it is for both the teacher and the learner, and the more both will comprehend what makes individuals learn languages faster. In learning the importance of second language acquisition, it is also important to discuss the significance of errors as explained by Myles (2004). Errors in learning a second language may be made in both speech and writing, which creates grammatical errors as is the case when the third person singular-S is either omitted or used incorrectly. The learning that takes place outside the classroom, the U-shape of learning is important in understanding certain aspects in the learning process. This process of learning the appropriate aspects in language. This form of learning also applies to first language learners. Learning acquisition therefore, is a natural process of the individual learner, and cannot be forced. Learners develop the required skills and knowledge by experimenting through making and correcting mistakes over and over again, till the required mastery is achieved. This is only possible if teachers understand and appreciate the fact that language acquisition is highly systematic and variable.

Most Arabs have a problem with the use of third person singular-S in speech and in writing. English as a language is taught as a second language for almost 8 years in schools and the university levels in Yemen. However, observations have shown that most ESL Arab learners have difficulty in acquiring and producing proper grammatical forms in speaking, as well as writing, particularly the third person singular- S. functional categories are important in English as they play a role in a sentence and learning these is vital to the acquisition of L2. According to White (2003), the acquisition of the functional grammatical categories has been a major issue of concern for first language (L1) and L2 acquisition research within the framework of generative grammar. Over the years, generative study and research have examined the important question of whether the acquisition of L2 is similar to the acquisition of L1 by determining the availability of Universal grammar (UG) to the second language learner. Universal grammar refers to the theory of an innate language that consists of invariant principles for all languages and a number of factors that account for language variation. Similarly, acquisition of language is assumed to engage setting a small number of parameters and the concern in second language acquisition is whether accessibility of the Universal language is possible for L2 learners in the same way as it is for first language learners. There have been a number of assumptions as to the second language learners’ access to universal language and the role of the first language in the processof second language acquisition, which have been the central points of investigation. The main aim of this study, therefore, is to determine and be able to explain how the ESL Arab learners use the first person singular-S in speech and writing.

This study seeks to test the theory of the systematicity of Second Language Acquisition. It seeks to establish whether Second Language Acquisition is systematic and variable; that is, whether it follows a predetermined pattern that is arranged in terms of development stages which all individuals naturally go through, and that the agility of learners’ in maneuvering through the different stages is highly dependent upon the individual learner. In doing this, the study will apply quantitative method of study to examine the progress of four Arabic students who are all learners of English as a Second Language in the United States of America.

The aim of the study is to find out where and how often the participants would miss the third person –s more; whether it would happen more in writing or in the oral presentation.  Because gaining mastery of the third person –s is one of the developmental stages in Second Language Acquisition, this study will establish the competence of the different levels of learners with regard to their usage of the third person –s and possibly elucidate on the rate of language acquisition and whether indeed there are stages that learners go through before gaining mastery of the second language they are studying. It will also establish whether mastery of the language is gained first orally then through writing or vice versa.

Literature Review

Most of research in the study of language research has focused on the grammatical properties of the L2 learners. The relevance and applicability of UG to L2 acquisition has been demonstrated by many studies (Hawkins, 2001). Most of the researchers of L2 have concentrated on the question of whether L2 learners have access to similar innate principles of UG. In the recent years, the question of whether the Universal Language is available in the acquisition of the second language has been viewed from the perspective of the acquisition studies since the 1990s (Mitchell and Myles, 2004). Much recent work concerned with UG of second language has concentrated on determining whether functional categories are present in L2 learners. According to findings of previous studies, learners either have no access, partial access or full access to the innate principles of the Universal Grammar.

The theory of the Universal Grammar (UG) states that human languages operate within certain constraints and is learnable by all individuals. Learners need to be adjusted to the central elements of a certain language in three ways. First they should learn how the new language fits into the universal principles and rules of language use that are naturally programmed into their mind. Secondly, learners should learn how the new language varies within the possible determined limits in the essential elements by establishing particular values for those parameters. Thirdly, learners should learn the vocabulary of the language been studied and how each word fits into the whole sentence structure in order to make sense and convey the intended meaning (cook, 1996). These principles are the general requirements on the form of grammar for the specific language. Language depends on a rigid structure of sentence formation. This therefore means that learners should internalize the rules and structures in order to make sense of it, as well as, being able to gain proficiency that is required. According to Cook (1996), L2 learners should internalize sufficient speech and vocabulary in order insatiate the principles of the learner’s knowledge of language in the appropriate form for that language. The learner must also gain adequate evidence to be able to tell the parameters required for a particular language. Dunlap (2006) states that both first and second language learners go through a process of language acquisition to learn a language. The process of learning, however, involves a number of developmental stages that must be followed in learning the key aspects of a language. That is, in order to gain mastery and proficiency of a particular language, there are various steps involved. According to Dunlap (2006), learners of English as a second language must learn both the language and how to use it at the same time. The developmental stages of L2 acquisition have names, but these names differ from one place to another. For example in California, the stages are marked as Beginning, Early Intermediate, Intermediate, Early Advanced and Advanced. I other places, the stages of acquisition are marked as the Random Errors, Emergent, systematic and stabilization stages. No matter the names of the acquisition stages, the final results are the same. It should however be considered that there are different learner types. Freeman and Freeman (2007) states that there are three basic learner types: one of these is those that are new to English with adequate schooling. The second type according to Freeman and freeman (2007) is those that are new to English with limited formal schooling, while the third and last type is those that are long term ESL learners. The acquisition processes for these groups of learners may be different.

According to Dunlap (2006), learners try to relate new sounds with their meanings in the Beginning stage. This stage is called the silent stage as learners listen and no much talking goes on at this stage. Learners try to get the basic idea of the phrase without understanding all words used in the phrase. This goes on until a measure of mastery is achieved. In the Early Intermediate stage, learners begin to use some words in conversation or in constructing sentences. In the third level, the Intermediate stage, learners consolidate what they have learnt and improve on their sentence structure. At this stage, learners expand their vocabulary and continually learn and memorize new words and how to use them in both speech and writing (Dunlap, 2006). During the last stages Early Advanced and Advanced stages, learners exhibit a bit of mastery of the English language. In these stages, learners are able to completely communicate and exchange ideas using English. Dunlap (2006) insists that at these stages, additional support is needed to help the learners acquire competence and proficiency in English, which is used for content construction. Learners should be guided to ensure that their competence in the English language covers the central areas of school work and that learners will be able to communicate fluently. In addition, learners should be guided in order to be able to link concepts and ideas, as well as, being able to structure an argument in academic works (Hudelson et al. 2003). There are five hypotheses in second language acquisition. The learning or acquisition hypothesis states that individuals have two different and independent means of developing the ability in second language that is through acquiring and learning. The natural order hypothesis holds that people acquire grammatical structures in a predictable order. The monitor hypothesis proposes that there are two processes for developing ability in a second language (acquisition and learning). The input hypothesis describes how individuals are able to acquire by understanding the inputs available. On the other hand, the affective filter hypothesis is concerned with the role of affective variables in learning a second language (Geçkin & Haznedar, 2008).

Most of previous studies done focus greatly on L2 acquisition as a whole. It is however important to look at the specific issues of concern that are related with acquisition of English as a second language by Arab learners. Most learners experience difficulties in using the third person singular- S, both in speech and in writing. This is exhibited in their omission or wrong use of the singular- S in constructing sentences or phrases. It is therefore important to look at this issue.

Third person singular –s, a later development of English

The third person singular –s is one of the later developmental stages of English as a Second Language Acquisition (Gabryś, 2008). The third person indicative –s is generally viewed as an introductory concept for L2 learners of English. The concept is both comprehendible and teachable. However, its significance is only a later development in English and this could mean serious difficulties in its use especially for ESL students or learners. It is evident to ESL teachers that some learners apply this according to Bittner (2003), omission of the morpheme –s continues to occur even in the production of advanced learners or students. Problems with the morpheme –s might be expected in speech, as well as, in writing using English language. In fact, most of the teachers are surprised when learners fail to use or use – s incorrectly, even after careful editing. More surprising is the fact that some students omit –s while reading something that has been written. The difference between spoken and written language has been identified by some scholars. Dunlap (2006) notes that spoken language is acquired through active listening to grasp the nuances of the language being learned. Written language on the other hand is language codified in a system of symbols, letters, words and characters to represent “linguistic-conceptual objects” (Perfetti & Dunlap, 2008).

According to Gabryś (2008), most ESL teachers, researchers and students seem to agree that the rules and principles underlying the use of third person singular –s is simple, and that the form of using it is available in the language environment. This, however, is never the case for all individuals as the mistakes made while using the third person singular –s are evident and this calls for attention as English requires fluency both in speech and writing (Geçkin & Haznedar, 2008). According to Bittner (2003), the acquisition of third person singular –s is not as easy as most people think or believe. Syntactic and semantic complexity in the context of the morpheme –s, as well as, phonology constraints can hinder complete or full acquisition for many ESL learners. According to Bittner (2003), the influence of sonority hierarchy can cause variability in the use of the third person singular –s.

Linguistic Assumptions

Arabic and English differ in their unmarked order of word. For instance in most cases, while English takes the form of subject verb object (SVO), Arabic mainly takes verb subject object (VSO). Morphology in both language s is different. This could be the reason behind the difficulties experienced by ESL Arab learners (Benmamoun, 2000).

Purpose of the study

There are difficulties experienced in learning English as a second language. It becomes a challenge for learners, and this cannot be ignored. The study of how ESL Arab learners use third person singular-S is very important as it will establish other crucial aspects in acquisition of ESL. Learning English may not be easy as it may sound. Arabic students that learn English as a second language experience difficulties related to grammatical errors. An example of these errors committed by ESL Arab learners is misuse of the third person singular-S. That is most of the learners either omit or use the ‘-s’ inappropriately. As fluency is important in English (Hudelson, et al. (2003) the study focuses on establishing use of such aspects by learners.

The use of written and oral production is also important in enhancing uptake of second language by learners (Christian, 2011). Activities involving students, guided by instructions from the teacher, should be encouraged in Second Language Acquisition especially those that will encourage learners to use the language skills they have learnt in challenging and thought provoking exercises such as essay writing, public speaking and writing various types of compositions. Christian (2011) also says that situations that encourage regular use of the language being taught should be created, for example by having a strict policy to use that one language, the language being learnt, as both an instruction as well as a general communication tool. The study is therefore important especially for other learners learning English as a second language, in understanding the key aspects underlying the study.


Research questions

The main research question of this study is: How Do Arabic Learners of English as a Second Language use the Third Person Singular –s? The study hypothesis is that there is a relationship between high levels of learning and language perfection (use of the third person singular-S) by ESL Arab learners The study of how Arabic students in the US use the third person singular-S should reflect the level of competence an individual being studied has. In order to answer this question, the study seeks to establish the developmental stages of four different ESL Arab students in the United States. This will be determined by specifically looking at the time the students or persons have spent in the United States, as well as, the level of education that they have acquired. In addition, interview schedule will be used in order by the interviewer and research findings for the four individuals will be analyzed through quantitative methods. This will aid in achieving the objectives of the study.

Research Methodology and Design

The study will employ quantitative method of research in order to achieve the objectives of the study as well as to test the hypotheses. This study will use unstructured interview, where respondents will be asked to write on various topic as will be determined by the interviewer. An oral interview will also be performed on the interviewees. These two tests will help in determining the use of the third person singular- S, which is the main objective of the study. These methods are appropriate as the number of cases is very small and does not require questionnaires. In addition, the subject of matter will only be achieved by use of these methods. Coding will be used in classification of data. The units of analysis will be four ESL Arab students in the United States of America, as they will help in determining the difficulties that Arabs experience in acquisition of ESL. The research design that will be used is case study on four ESL Arab students in the United States. The data will be analyzed using both descriptive and statistical techniques. The researcher will use both frequency distribution table and percentages.

Significance of the study

Vocabulary acquisition between written and spoken English affect the rate of acquisition, hence the interest by SLA researchers in this area (Corson, 1995). As the learning and understanding of grammar is fundamental to L2 acquisition, and due to the growing demands for the use of the English language in most fields such as education, communication, and many other fields, it is significant that the ESL Arab learners be competent in the language, both in speech and writing. The findings of the study could shed more light on learners’ L2 acquisition process and contribute to the gap in the body of the L2 acquisition literature, particularly in the Arabic context. This may also help students learn how to model and build relationships between concepts in the language before they are taught to express these ideas in symbolic and diagrammatic forms through written language. Learning to read and write can help ESL learners to better conceptualize ideas in English, but they have to first learn to think in the language (Corson, 1995).



Myles, F. 2004. Second Language Acquisition: Its Significance for Learning and Teaching Issues. Subject Centre for Langiages, Linguistics and Area studies Good Practice Guide. Retrieved 17 April 2012, from

Dunlap, C. Z. 2006. Helping English Language Learners Succeed. Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Education Publishing.

Christian, D. 2011. Dual Language Education. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of Research in Second Language teaching and Learning (Vol 2) (pp. 3-20). New York: Routledge.

Cook, V. 1996. Universal Grammar in Second Language Acquisition. In P. Jordans and J. Lalleman (Eds.), Investigating Second Language Acquisition (pp. 167-186). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter and Co.

Corson, D. (1995). Using English Words. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Prévost, P. (2003). Truncation and missing surface inflection in initial L2 German. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 25, 65–97.

Perfetti,C. A. & Dunlap, S. (2008). Learning to Read: General Principles and writing Systems Variations. In K. Koda and A. M. Zehler (Eds.), Learning to Read Across Languages:

Hudelson, S., Wolfe, P. and Poynor, L. (2003). Teaching Bilingual and ESL Children and Adolescents. In J. Flood et al. (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts (pp. 421-432). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Freeman, Y. and Freeman, D. 2007. Four Keys for School Success for Elementary Learners. In J. Cummins and C. Davidson (Eds.), International handbook of English Language Teaching – Part One (pp. 349-364). New York: Springer.

White, L. (2003). Universal Grammar and Second Language Acquisition: From Initial to Steady State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mitchell, R. & Myles, F. (2004). Second Language Learning theories, 2nded. New York: Oxford University press.

Benmamoun, E. (2000). The feature structure of functional categories: a comparative study of Arabic dialects. New York/Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Geçkin, V., & Haznedar, B. (2008). The morphology/syntax interface in child L2 acquisition: Evidence from verbal morphology. Current Trends in Child Second Language Acquisition: A Generative Perspective, B.

Bittner, D. (2003). Development of verb inflection in first language acquisition: A cross-linguistic perspective. Berlin [u.a.: Mouton de Gruyter.

Gabryś, D. (2008). Morphosyntactic issues in second language acquisition. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.


Use the order calculator below and get started! Contact our live support team for any assistance or inquiry.