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Morphology: A Brief Overview


This paper provides a brief overview of morphology. It starts by defining morphology and outlining its types. Moreover, it briefly discusses how and what types of morphology that pose difficulties to English as a second/foreign language (ESL/EFL) learners as well as how the second language acquisition (SLA) of morphology takes place in English .


What is morphology?

Morphology can be defined as "a branch of linguistics concerned with analyzing the structure of words. The morphology of a given word is its structure or form" (Baldick, 2001). A word is considered to be made of smaller unites called morphemes that can carry a meaning or a grammatical function. For instance, when the morpheme –er is attached to the verb work, it turns it to a noun, the doer of the action to work (worker), and the morpheme -s can also be added to it (workers) to convey plural.

There are two kinds of morphemes, free morphemes and bound morphemes. (1) A free morpheme can stand by itself as a single word, for example, man, walk, and; whereas a (2) bound morpheme cannot normally stand alone such as the plural –s in workers. Free morphemes are classified into (a) lexical morphemes such as ordinary nouns, adjectives and verbs and (b) functional morphemes such as conjunctions, prepositions, articles and pronouns. Bound morphemes are subcategorized into derivational and inflectional (Yule, 2004). (a) Derivational morphemes derive new words, for example, lonely = loneliness. (b) Inflectional morphemes are related to grammatical inflections used to modify the tense or the number of a word, for example, cry = cried.

Every language has its unique structure. The number of morphemes of a certain word in one language might differ from its correspondence in another language. For instance, (They have gone) can be translated into Arabic as غادروا; the English sentence is translated in Arabic in one word that contains two morphemes غادر+ وا; a lexical morpheme غادر) gone) and the inflectional morpheme (وا indicates masculine plural- They). On the other hand, (Reorganize) is conveyed in Arabic in a sentence يعيد التنظيم-unlike the English word- it consists of two lexical morphemes يعيد + التنظيم (the verb is absent).

Morphology and ESL

Morphological description might be a problem to ESL students. Words such as institutional, react, input are described morphologically as (institute + tion + al), (re + act), and (in + put). Students sometimes over-generalize what they learn, so they describe words like repel as (re + pel), incident (in + cident), repeat (re + peat). Those words can not be described morphologically in this way because they are a part of the stem/root, i.e. in repel, (pel) can not give meaning when it stands alone unlike react (act) which gives meaning when it stands by itself.

It has been observed that derivational morphemes (e.g. prefix dis) pose more difficulties to ESL students than inflectional [grammatical] morphemes (e.g. plural –s). This is due perhaps to the fact that during the early stages of learning English, students do not have good command of grammar rules; they very often forget the -s for the third person singular (goes) and conjugate irregular past tense forms by adding –ed (drinked), whereas derivational morphemes are presented as a list of vocabularies where students can memorize them, for example, happy – unhappy and useful – useless.

In this respect, Norman Segalowiz (2003) and others (in Lightbown & Spada, 2003, p.39) have suggested that during second language acquisition, "learners have to pay attention at first to any aspect of the language that they are trying to understand or produce … [by] using cognitive resources to process information". However, Lightbown and Spada have argued that there is a limitation to the amount of information a learner can pay attention to. That is, while learners at the earliest stage concentrate more on understanding the main words of the message, they may not pay attention to the grammatical morphemes attached to some of the words that do not affect the meaning. Consequently, with practice, those words become automatically used by the learners.

Morphology and SLA

Several researchers focused on how children acquire grammatical morphemes in English. A remarkable study was carried out by Roger Brown (1973) and his colleagues to explore the language development of three children showed that children mastered the morphemes at different ages, but the order of their acquisition was very similar. Their research stated that there was a developmental sequence or order of acquisition. That is, children start to acquire the following grammatical morphemes in sequence: the present progressive- ing (Mommy running), plural –s (Two books), irregular past forms (Baby went), possessive 's (Daddy's hat), copula (Annie is happy), articles the and a, regular past –ed (She walked), third person singular simple present –s (She runs) and auxiliary be (He is coming). Many hypotheses have been advanced to explain why these grammatical morphemes are acquired in the observed order. However there has been no clear explanation for the sequence (Lightbown & Spada, 2003, pp.3-4).

Another study, Grammatical Morphology in Children Learning English as a Second Language: Implications of Similarities with Specific Language Impairment, was conducted by Johanne Paradis (2005). It used grammatical morphemes in order to investigate if there are any similarities between language characteristics of typically developing children learning English as a second language and those of monolingual children with specific language impairment SLI. The results showed that both children's accuracy and errors were similar in producing the following grammatical morphemes: third person singular [-s], past tense [-ed], irregular past tense, BE as a copula and auxiliary verb, Do as an auxiliary verb, progressive [-ing], prepositions in and on, plural [-s], and determiners a and the. Accordingly, Paradis sees that "the results provide information that can be used to set appropriate expectations of error patterns and rate of grammatical development in the early stages of ESL learning." (2005, p. 199).


Morphology is an important branch that should be examined in depth. For students who need to obtain a broad knowledge of languages, like TESOL students, it is as a significant tool to investigate and analyze the basic elements used in a language and to understand how words and sentences are constructed.

Both studies which were carried out by Brown (1973) and Paradis (2005) emphasized the similar developmental sequence, accuracy and errors of acquiring grammatical morphemes among native English children speakers, ESL children and monolingual children with specific impairments, without arriving to specific reasons for that. After going through those readings, one may ask a question, do children learn/acquire grammatical morphemes by conditioning and imitation, or is it innate language ability which children are born with?


Brown, R. 1973. A first language: the early stage. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Baldick, C. 2001. The concise oxford dictionary of literary terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lightbown, P.M. & Spada, N. (2003). How languages are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paradis, J. (2005). Grammatical Morphology in Children Learning English as a Second Language: Implications of Similarities with Specific Language Impairment. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. 36(3), 172-187.

Segalowitz, N. (2003). 'Automaticity' in Lightbown, P.M. & Spada, N. (2003). How languages are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 39.

Yule, G. (2004). The study of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 62.

About The Author
Eman Elturki
Eman Elturki is a PhD student in the Language and Literacy Education program at Washington State University. Eman holds a master’s degree in TESOL from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. She has taught different levels of English as a foreign language in Libya. Her research interests include English language teaching, second/foreign language acquisition, and discourse analysis.

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