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Computer-Assisted Error Analysis: A Study of Prepositional Errors in the Brazilian Subcorpus of the International Corpus of Leraner English (Bricle)
Leonardo Juliano Recski

1. Introduction

The impetus for the present study stems from the fact that English prepositional usage is highly anomalous and frequently a matter of collocational competence and experience rather than logic, which makes prepositions hard to learn. Long after EFL students have achieved a high level of proficiency in English, they still struggle with prepositions. Moreover, prepositions are one of the most difficult items to be acquired in English, partly because of the complexity of the English prepositional system which allows one preposition to have several meanings and functions, and also because many times the English prepositional system functions differently from the Portuguese system.

2. Overview of the Brazilian Corpus of Learner English (Bricle)

The rationale behind creating a computerized corpus of learner English is to make use of advances in applied linguistics and computer technology to carry out a thorough investigation of the interlanguage of Brazilian Portuguese English learners at advanced level.

Bricle is being compiled following the guidelines suggested in the ICLE1 (Granger 1992, 1998), which comprises corpora from 18 different countries. The data collection for Bricle started in May 1999, and currently (October 2002) the corpus contains 33,954 running words, or 17% of the total planned, represented by 67 essays collected at PUC/SP, UFU, UNICSUL and UFSC.

When complete, the corpus will contain a minimum of 200.000 words representing approximately 400 essays of 500 words written by at least 200 students (a student cannot contribute with more than 1000 words).

Comparability is one of the threads running through the current project, and thus, the learning population meets the following criteria:

a) Type of learner: EFL - not ESL;
b) age: adults (undergraduate university students of English);
c) stage of learning: advanced
d) task: argumentative essay writing

All relevant biographical information - such as years of English at school, prolonged stay in an English-speaking country, knowledge of other foreign languages - is encoded in a learner profile questionnaire which contributing learners were asked to fill in.

Some of the argumentative topics which were suggested to the students can be seen below:

(1) The prison system is outdated. No civilized society should punish its criminals: it should rehabilitate them.
(2) Most university degrees are theoretical and do not prepare students to the real world. They are therefore of very little use.
(3) Crime does not pay.
(4) There is no place for censorship in the modern world.
(5) A man/woman's financial reward should be commensurate with their contribution to the society they live in.

3. Contrasting the Portuguese and the English prepositional systems

It can be argued that prepositions in Portuguese are invariable words which link two terms and whose role is to establish among these terms a relation of place, manner, time, possession, means, cause, instrument, etc. For exemple:

Barbara mora em Florianópolis.           (place)
O carro do Leo                                          (ownership)
Estudam com entusiasmo                    (manner)
Eles falaram sobre inflação                  (subject)
Morreu de fome                                        (cause)
Surfei com eles                                        (company)

It is also worth noting that some Portuguese prepositions may also correspond to more than one relationship or function or that the same use can be expressed by different prepositions. For instance, illustrating the first case, the preposition a can be used to indicate:

Place: Eu vou à praia.
Time: Eu estudo à noite.
Finality: Eles foram às compras.
Price: Ele vendeu o barco a R$ 700.00

In the same way the preposition em can indicate:

Place: Ele está em casa.
Time: Nós chegaremos a praia em duas horas.
Manner: Vivemos em paz.
Price: A prancha foi avaliada em R$ 250.00.
Finality: Vou pedir ela em casamento.

By comparing the English and Portuguese prepositional systems one may observe that the semantic roles established by grammarians to determine the function of a preposition can sometimes find correspondence in both languages. For example, the preposition em in Portuguese can be used to indicate place, time, manner, price, finality, cause, etc. This preposition can relate to several forms in English: at, in, on but among them we are going to find some of the same categories as the Portuguese form, e.g. in can indicate place, time, manner; at can also denote place, time, price; and on may also imply place, time, and manner. Thus, we can argue that there is an overlap of some prepositions (forms and semantic roles).
There are some prepositions in English which bear a one-to-one correspondence in Portuguese e.g. with, without, beside, during, and against. On the other hand, one English prepositions may correspond to two or more forms in Portuguese, or one form in Portuguese may correspond to more than two in English.

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