Research Key

Mastery of Question Tags by ESL Learners; Case Study: Bilingual Letters Students of the University of Buea

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Qualitative research
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Descriptive statistics
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This work focused on the mastery of question tags by Bilingual Letters students at the University of Buea. In order to properly investigate students’ competence in this part of the English language, we had to administer a test to the respondents. The test consisted of a series of questions on the respondents’ attitudes vis-à-vis the English language. On the other hand, the test had a second section where some incomplete sentences were given and the respondents were asked to complete them with the right tags. More so, we earned out an observation so as to note the students’ oral performance too. These exercises permitted us to point out the student’s loopholes in tag questions. After the evaluation and analysis of respondents’ responses, it was discovered that the respondents did not lack question tag mastery but had a problem of oral proficiency as the students who performed poorly in the test as well as those who had high scores hardly used tag questions in their daily conversation. When they are presented with this usage they divert to other inappropriate forms. This foregrounds that there is a big gap between written and oral proficiency. This is the main problem the students faced rather than the tag question mastery problem. In order to reduce the gap between oral and written proficiency which creates a linguistic imbalance, teachers should focus on the practical aspects of the language which will enable students to amend their manner of speaking rather than concentrating mostly on the written part of the language.




Grammar is the whole system and structure of a language or languages in general (Oxford online dictionary). In linguistics, grammar is the set of structural rales governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term can also refer to the study of such rales and this field includes morphology, syntax, and phonology, often complemented by phonetics, semantics, and pragmatics. The term grammar is often used by non­linguists with a very broad meaning. As Jeremy Butterfield puts it, “Grammar is often a generic way of referring to any aspect of English that people object to”. However, linguists use it in a much more specific sense. Speakers of a language have a set of internalized rules for using that language. This is grammar, and the vast majority of the information in it is acquired — at least in the case of one’s native language – not by conscious study or instruction, but by observing other speakers; much of this work is done during infancy. Learning a language later in life usually involves a greater degree of explicit instruction.

Grammar can also be used to describe the rales that govern the linguistic behavior of a group of speakers. The term “English grammar”, therefore may have several meanings. It may refer to the whole of English grammar, that is, to the grammars of all the speakers of the language, in which case, the term encompasses a great deal of variation. It can also refer only to what is common to the grammars of all or of the vast majority of English speakers.

English language speakers are thought to have an inert mastery of the rules of English grammar. But this is not always true as some people tend to misuse grammar for some unknown reasons. In this study, we will be focusing just on the usage of question tags which is an integral part of English grammar.

In their day to day conversations, students of Bilingual Letters in the University of Buea speak the English language since it is the main language of study in the school. This work seeks then to enquire mastery of question tags amongst students of the above field of study. In other words, this study is concerned to know if the students in question use question tags properly.

Background of study

Cameroon is a Central African country bounded by Nigeria to the west, Chad to the north, Congo to the east, and the Central African Republic, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea to the south. Cameroon is a bilingual country. Its bilingual status is a result of colonization. In 1884, Germany colonized Cameroon with its initial capital in Buea which was later transferred to Yaounde. Kamerun, the German territory, became Cameroons and Cameroun after the First World War. This was following the defeat of Germany by Britain and France who eventually ousted Germany from Cameroon, partitioned the country, and consequently had to change the German appellation of Kamerun to Cameroons and Cameroon for the British and French part of the territory respectively. This meant that Cameroon was to be administered using English and French languages. Even after Independence, the country continued in almost the same system of administration as in the past; Cameroon remained bilingual.

The country is home to 280 languages. These include 55 Afro-Asiatic, two Saharan languages, 4 Ubangian, and 169 Niger-Congo languages. This latter group is divided into one Senegambian language (Fulfulde), 28 Adamawa languages, and 142 Benue-Congo languages (120 of which are Bantu languages). (Simons, and Penning (ebs) 2013)

As it has been noted above, English and French are official languages, a heritage of Cameroon’s colonial past (1916-1960), but the two are the official languages. They are the languages used in teaching, law, administration, and several other domains. In fact, these two languages are second languages; this is because the indigenes of the country had a plethora of languages before the coming of the colonizers. Therefore, the indigenous language is to the native a first language whereas either English or French is the second language.

So, the English language in Cameroon is a second language\ foreign language, and also one of the official languages in Cameroon.

Identification of problem

University students are considered by most people as masters of the English language. This is due to the fact that these students have been studying in a higher institution of learning for almost three two or one year minimum and with all the knowledge of the language acquired so far from the various fields of their study: Social sciences, Health Sciences, Engineering, and languages, not forgetting literature written in English, they are seen undoubtedly as language professionals.

Again, the fact that these students are studying in an Anglo-Saxon milieu (Buea) is another reason for others to consider them as experts of the English language. This is so because the zone of study can be said to be the ideal environment for the effective learning of the language due to the abundant presence of English language experts (lecturers) especially in the University campus who can serve as help in times of difficulty.

Why then do students of the University of Buea have question tag problems?

Aims of the Study

  • This research has as objective the discovery of reasons for the lack of question tag mastery by the Bilingual Letters students.
  • Moreover, it is interested in ways of helping these students improve their knowledge of question tags.


ESL learners at the University of Buea do not use question tags effectively.

HO: ESL students of the University of Buea face no difficulty using question tags.

Research questions

  • Why do students of the English and French departments of the University of Buea have tag question problems?
  • What can be done to ameliorate their condition?
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