English prepositions have always been a source of great difficulty for English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners regardless of his or her mother tongue (Celce-Murcia, 1983:250). One reason for this is because EFL learners usually try to relate the use of English prepositions to their mother tongue (MT) prepositional system. In many instances, the difference in the number of prepositions and the lack of a one to one mapping between the English and the MT prepositions is the source of the difficulty. In addition to this, since prepositional usage in English can be highly idiomatic (especially in preposition verbs and prhasal verbs), the nuances of idiomatic usage of English prepositions are highly challenging to EFL learners and even native speakers are sometimes unsure of the correct form (Gethin, 1983: 161). Furthermore, problems EFL learners have with the prepositions are compounded by the fact that prepositions, in general, are highly polysemous and represents an ontological category that is highly conceptual. These means that EFL learners are often confronted with making decisions as to which prepositions to use since the conceptual mapping in the mother tongue might be different. Thus, prepositions usage often stand in the way of achieving grammatical fluency and accuracy for the EFL learners.
Among Arab EFL learners, prepositions are considered to be the most difficult because of cross-linguistics differences between the Arabic and English prepositional system. The language specific differences between the Arabic and English prepositional system include some English prepositions that are not present in the Arabic language. In learning these prepositions , Arabic EFL learners sometimes transfer their mother tongue system with a limited number of prepositions to transfer their usage of English prepositions resulting in incorrect English prepositional usage and the lack of idiomaticity. Sometime, inaccuracy in prepositional usage (especially in translation) are also produced as a result of the cross-linguistic differences (Zughoul, 1973).
This paper examines the problems Arab EFL learners have with the basic English prepositions at, in and on and attempts to account for their difficulties with these English prepositions through a comparative study of the Arabic prepositional system.