Why are prepositions so difficult to learn

Why Are Prepositions So Difficult To Learn?

Learning prepositions and using them accurately can be very challenging for English language learners. Prepositions pose little difficulty for native English speakers who acquired English as their first language as a child. For English as a Second Language Learners, however, prepositions can be particularly difficult to learn. So, why are prepositions so difficult to learn?

There are a number of factors that make prepositions difficult to learn for English language learners, including L1 interference, a lack of collocational knowledge, and the multi-functional nature of prepositions in English. In this post, we will take a look at why prepositions are so difficult to learn and look at somethings you can do to help your students improve their use of prepositions in English.

Before we look at some of the reasons why learners struggle with prepositions, let’s first briefly look at what prepositions are. Prepositions are functional words that show the relationship between two words. For example, prepositions can show the relationship between words in terms of time (in 5 minutes), space (on the box), direction (go to the park), and more. Prepositions are very high-frequency words in English and so it is really important for English language learners to learn how to use prepositions correctly.

Why Prepositions Are Difficult To Learn

L1 Interference

One of the main reasons why prepositions are difficult to learn is L1 interference. Not all languages are created the same and different languages have different amounts of prepositions. As such, prepositions in English often don’t have a direct corresponding word in the learners’ first language. For example, in English, different prepositions are used in the phrases ‘in the afternoon‘, ‘on Tuesday‘, ‘at 12 o’clock‘, but in Korean, the prepositions in these three phrases are all realized by the word (ae).

The lack of a direct corresponding preposition in the learners’ first language makes prepositions difficult to learn. Added to this is the fact that prepositions have multiple functions and meanings in English. The preposition ‘of‘, for example, has more than 22 different meanings in English. Furthermore, different languages also conceptualize time and space relationships differently, and so choosing the correct preposition to use in any particular situation can be incredibly difficult for English language learners. Learners often make errors and choose the wrong preposition due to interference from their first language.

Lack Of Collocational Knowledge

Another reason why prepositions are so difficult to learn is that students lack knowledge about what words collocate with particular prepositions. Collocation is the tendency of words to appear together with other words in natural language. Prepositions have many collocations in English and a lack of knowledge about what prepositions naturally collocate with what words leads to English language learners making errors.

If an English language learner uses a word with a preposition that it does not naturally collocate with, then this can sound very strange to a native English speaker. For example, a student might say ‘at chance’ instead of ‘by chance‘. This error is simply down to the fact that the learner does not know that ‘at’ doesn’t naturally collocate with ‘chance’.


Fossilization can cause English language learners to make errors with prepositions and can make prepositions more difficult to learn. Fossilization in language learning is a process in which learners develop a habit of using incorrect language which cannot be easily corrected.

Errors with prepositions are very easily fossilized making it difficult for English language learners to correct these errors and to learn the correct preposition. Many approaches to language learning these days focus on a communicative approach. If a learner can be understood despite using the wrong preposition, a teacher, or the person the learner is communicating with, may not correct the error. As such, the learner, having successfully communicated their message, may continue to make this error with the preposition and over time this will become fossilized.

As was mentioned above, L1 interference and a lack of collocational knowledge means that learners regularly make errors with prepositions and so there are lots of opportunities for these errors to become fossilized. Once fossilized, it is difficult for learners to correct these errors, making learning prepositions particularly difficult.

How To Help Students Learn Prepositions

Now that we have looked at why prepositions are so difficult to learn, let’s look at some thing you can do to help students learn prepositions.

Teach Prepositions In Manageable Chunks

So that students are not overwhelmed with information, it’s best to teach the different kinds of prepositions in manageable chunks. For example, most curricula first teach prepositions of place, such as on, in, under, and then teach the prepositions of time, movement, and so on, later in the course. This helps learners to slowly build up their knowledge of prepositions over time.

Use Visual Aids And Physical Movement

Using visual aids and movement can help learners to easily grasp the meanings of different prepositions. For example, you could use these prepositions of place flashcards and this prepositions of place memory game to teach prepositions of place in a visually stimulating way. When teaching prepositions of movement, you could use an activity like ‘Simon Says’ and tell students to ‘Sit on your chair’, ‘Stand on your chair.’, etc.

Encourage Extensive Reading

As was mentioned above, one of the main reasons prepositions are so difficult to learn, is that learners often have no knowledge of what words collocate with (naturally go together with) what prepositions. Native English speakers instinctively know what prepositions collocate with what words because they grew up immersed in the English language and acquired prepositions naturally. For those learning English as a second language, however, it is not so simple.

A great way to help students develop a sense of what prepositions collocate with what words is to encourage them to read ALOT! In order to develop a more natural sense of how to use prepositions, learners need to be exposed to a huge amount of comprehensible input. One way to provide this large amount of input is to use extensive reading. By regularly reading comprehensible texts, learners can see prepositions as they appear naturally in the English language, and over time, this can help learners to learn prepositions and the words they collocate with.

Error Correction

As we mentioned earlier, one reason why prepositions are so difficult to learn is that learners often have fossilized errors with prepositions. To prevent this, and to help correct these fossilized errors, it is important to correct students’ errors with prepositions. However, errors with prepositions can be so frequent, stopping a student everytime they make a mistake can be disruptive, not to mention demotivating for students.

A great way to correct students’ mistakes with prepositions is to take notes during the class of common mistakes students are making and then address these errors at the end of the class, without singling out any particular student. This can help to prevent and correct some of these fossilized errors and help students to learn prepositions.

Thanks for reading. I hope you found this article on why prepositions are so difficult to learn useful. Before you go, check out these free resources for teaching prepositions:
Prepositions Of Place Worksheets
Prepositions Of Time Worksheets
Prepositions Of Place PowerPoint
Prepositions Of Time Quiz
Prepositions Of Time Exercises