This is my attempt at recombobulating my thoughts on article use. Information is mainly drawn from Ionin, Ko & Wexler (2004) and Thornbury (2009). All errors mine.
The following are the (informal) definitions used by Ionin, Ko & Wexler (2004) for definiteness and specificity:
[+definite] the speaker and hearer presuppose the existence of a unique individual
[+specific] the speaker intends to refer to a unique individual and considers this individual to possess some noteworthy property
Ionin, Ko & Wexler, 2004, p.5
The paper argues that English as a two article system (a/an, the) favours the definite-indefinite categorization hence the is definite and a indefinite and it does not mark any articles for specificity. Other languages like Samoan favour the specific-nonspecific categorization where they use le with specific and se with non-specific and does not mark any articles for definiteness.
Side note: apparently in spoken English this can be used to specify nouns (i.e. referential use of this vs demonstrative use) hence we can consider also that English is a three-article system!
The theory is that learners fluctuate between categorizing nouns on definiteness and categorizing nouns on specificity until they eventually settle on definiteness as their proficiency grows.
Both systems of definiteness and specificity predict that learners will use one article the for definite specific and one article a for indefinite non-specific.
However these systems differ on what article will be used with specific indefinites and non-specific definites.
That is the definiteness system will group specific definites with non-specific definites i.e. predict use of the article the; and will group specific indefinites with non-specific indefinites i.e. predict the use of the article a. See Table 1:
Table 1, Ionin, Ko & Wexler, 2004, p.13
By contrast the specificity system will do the opposite – it will group definite specifics with indefinite specifics i.e. predict the use of the article the; and it will group definite non-specifics with indefinite non-specifics i.e. predict the use of the article a. See Table 2:
Table 2, Ionin, Ko & Wexler, 2004, p.13
This means that the theory will predict overuse of the article the in specific indefinites and overuse of the article a in non-specific definites. See Table 3:
Table 3, adapted from Ionin, Ko & Wexler, 2004, p.19
So what does this mean for teaching articles? Not sure but knowing that learners will tend to overuse the with indefinites and overuse a/an with definites due to the conflict with the specificity system is enlightening. Further I found the definitions in the paper very useful as I was confused about how specificity was different from definiteness.
I’ll put here a revised table (Table 4) from Scott Thornbury’s blog on articles that does not have the confusing (for me) label general and colour coded for overuse as in Table 3 above.
Table 4, adapted from Thornbury, 2009
Finally for your students do check Glenys Hanson’s exercises and flowchart.
Thanks for reading.
Ionin, T., Ko, H., & Wexler, K. (2004). Article semantics in L2 acquisition: The role of specificity. Language Acquisition, 12(1), 3-69.
Thornbury, S. (2009). A is for Articles (1) – An AZ of ELT – WordPress.com. Retrieved April 2, 2016, from https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2009/12/12/a-is-for-articles-1/.