March 2020
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Robert Taferner, Hiroshima University, Hiroshima, Japan

This study is part of an ongoing large-scale project that focuses on the topological features of in and on for a variety of contexts, including vehicles, as demonstrated in this article. Due to the difficulty second language (L2) learners have with the use of the English prepositions (or more generally adpositions which also include postposition particles in other languages), this article expands Taferner and Yamada’s (in press) crosslinguistic investigation of the spatial prepositions in and on for vehicles.

Features of Spatial Prepositions

Spatial prepositions are used to illustrate relationships between objects i.e., figure and ground. Spatial prepositions include prototypical core and polysemous non-core functional usages (see Landau, 2018). Prototypical or core uses of prepositions generally have geospatial frames of reference with figure and ground features combined. Two examples illustrating these features are:

(1) The ball is in the box.

(2) The ball is on the table.

In (1), the ball (i.e., figure) is contained in the box (i.e., ground). While in (2), the ball is on the surface of the table. For polysemous (i.e., semantic extensions) and more abstract meanings (see e.g., Jamrozik & Gentner, 2015) of (1), we can conceptualize in line, in trouble, and boxed in. Extended meanings of (2) include on TV, on the ball, and on the money. These examples go beyond what we would consider core to the notion of in or on with additional non-imaginable non-spatial dynamic properties or senses such as the inclusion of emotion.

To understand these phenomena, this study will utilize prelinguistic image schema conceptualizations of how objects (i.e., figure and ground) are spatially related to each other and meaning is constructed through redescriptions of perceptual events (see Mandler & Cánovas, 2014, p. 17). Image schema include building blocks known as spatial primitives (figure and ground), simple spatial events represented by image schemas (spatial primitive configurations), and schematic integrations (image schemas plus non-imaginary non-spatial information). Image schemas plus additional non-spatial information create schematic integrations that may be too complex for L2 learners to comprehend, and thus require explicit instruction supported by contrastive analysis of linguistic and schematic features.

Contrastive Analysis: An English–Japanese Example

When there is a difference between the first language (L1) and the L2, there is a strong likelihood that negative transfer of L1 features to the target language (TL) will occur, affecting learners' output. To determine the possibility of negative transfer, contrastive analysis of linguistic features can be useful for identifying problems that need further clarification, especially for non-prototypical usages. For the contrastive English-Japanese cases illustrating vehicular transport in (3), (4), and (5), English spatial prepositions are used; however, the Japanese translations may omit the equivalent postposition particles naka (for in) and ue (for on) in preference for the non-specific particle ni and verb notte-iru which can be used for transportation.

(3) Jim is in a car to Tokyo. Jim wa Tokyo e no car ni notte-iru.

(4) Jim is on a train to Tokyo. Jim wa Tokyo e no train ni notte-iru.

(5) Jim is on a motorcycle to Tokyo. Jim wa Tokyo e no motorcycle ni notte-iru.

Relying only on traditional contrastive analysis of linguistic features for these items would not be very effective as English and Japanese do not always have appropriate adposition compliments to compare. If L1 transfer is to take place, we may need to turn to prelinguistic schematic representations for some additional insights.

Image Schema Theory

As an addition to traditional contrastive analysis of linguistic features, variations in prelinguistic conceptual image schema can also be used to illustrate their differences. These variations between languages suggest that non-imaginary features may be sufficient to facilitate negative L1 transfer to the TL and cause misunderstandings. In particular, imperceptible spatial qualities in non-prototypical scenes are the most difficult to explain between two languages. These subtle differences between image schema provide an approach by which explicit instruction facilitates learners’ comprehension of many complicated prototypical and non-prototypical features of spatial prepositional usages. Simply, the greater the difference in image schema between languages, the more difficult the spatial interpretations may be for L2 learners. The application of this approach has the potential to uncover many hidden spatial features necessary for L2 learners to improve their understanding of adpositions in any TL.

The Case of In and On for Vehicles

In the case of vehicles, the prepositions in and on can be used to show both simple prototypical spatial relationships indicating inside a container and on a surface, as well as non-prototypical use of in or on a vehicle for the purpose of transportation. To my knowledge, there has only been limited investigation into crosslinguistic analysis of spatial image schema. Therefore, a crosslinguistic comparison of English and Japanese can be used to show examples of how spatial features may be embodied in different languages. Taferner and Yamada’s (in press) grammar test results report correct responses for in/on boat was only 27.5% (see Figure 1 and Figure 2); in the car was 79.6% (see Figure 3); and only 18.0% of the learners had correct answers for all of these items.

Figure 1. There is a boy in the small boat.

Figure 2. There is a boy on the boat.

Figure 3. There is a man in the car.

These results suggest that further research is needed to enhance learners' knowledge of these prepositional usages.

In Table 1, contrastive analysis of the English prepositions in and on for vehicles and the Japanese postposition equivalents naka and ue is shown with their equivalent image schema (i.e., containment, scale, and platform support).

Table 1. Contrastive Analysis of In and On for Vehicles

English explanation

Japanese explanation

(i) in small boat

containment (scale)

ue platform support

(ii) on large boat

platform support (scale)    

ue platform support

(iii) in car

containment (scale)

naka containment

(iv) on train

platform support

ue platform support

(v) on motorcycle     

platform support

ue platform support

From Table 1, it appears that in some cases the non-imageable properties of ground (i.e., vehicles) may be imperceptible to the L2 learner and L1 transfer is likely to shape prelinguistic conceptualization. For items i, and ii, in and on is used for different boat categories, where the distinction of scale or size of the vehicle (see Landau & Jackendoff, 1993) is important in English but not in Japanese. Item iii, car, further shows scale, which mandates the use of in for small vehicles where the figure (e.g., person) is enclosed or partially enclosed by the ground (e.g., small boat, canoe, car, helicopter). These scalar features of vehicle are likely to be unknown to L2 learners, and thus learners likely rely on other cues such as the English family resemblance of vehicles and/or L1 transfer of the container image schema to this context. This reliance, however, leads to poor performance, as suggested by Taferner and Yamada (in press). Item iv, train, is representative of a typical vehicle used for transportation with an emphasis on platform support. Item v shows that vehicles generally used for individual transportation, emphasize platform support, where there is little or no possibility for figure containment.

Experimental Treatment and Pedagogical Implications

The treatment used for this experiment includes three categories for vehicles:

Category 1: On + Vehicles that you can walk around on

Category 2: In + Vehicles that you cannot walk around on easily

Category 3: On + Vehicles that are usually meant for individual transportation and cannot be entered

Description of each category includes bilingual (English and Japanese) explanations highlighting image schema, three model sentences, and accompanying sketches illustrating figure and ground features. After reading the description of each category, participants make new sentences and sketches of these scenes. These are then shared with classmates and instructor for comments and feedback.

A variation of this treatment of spatial prepositions can be adapted for classroom usage. First, contrastive analysis of L1 and L2 may be conducted to find comprehension difficulties for any prepositional category. If traditional crosslinguistic analysis does not explain why learners are having problems, consider the possibility of differences in image schema as part of the solution. This crosslinguistic image schema differential research on prepositions and the natural extension to adpositions has the potential for a significant contribution to cognitive sciences including cognitive linguistics, psycholinguistics, and second language acquisition (SLA), culminating in more effective L2 classroom pedagogy.


Jamrozik, A., & Gentner, D. (2015). Well-hidden regularities: Abstract uses of in and on retain an aspect of their spatial meaning. Cognitive Science, 39, 1881–1911.

Landau, B. (2018). Learning simple spatial terms: Core and more. Topics in Cognitive Science, 1-24.

Landau, B., & Jackendoff, R. (1993). “What” and “where” in spatial language and spatial cognition. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16, 217–238.

Mandler, J.M., & Cánovas, C.P. (2014). On defining image schemas. Language and Cognition, 6, 510-523.

Taferner, R.H., & Yamada, J. (in press). Complications in the L2 acquisition of the simple spatial prepositions in and on: Crosslinguistic differences in image schema and family resemblance. Journal of Second Language Studies.

Robert Taferner is an Associate Professor at Hiroshima University, Japan. His research interests include Psycholinguistics and acquisition of prepositions/adpositions through the development of the Crosslinguistic Image Schema Differential (CISD) Hypothesis.


I would like to thank Professor Emeritus Jun Yamada (Hiroshima University) for his guidance and friendship as we explore psycholinguistic and cognitive realms of spatial and temporal adpositions.

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