Sunday, February 15, 2009

English Tense System and ESL Learners


Tense system of any language is profoundly colored by the way the people think in relation to time. ESL learners often find English tense system a hard nut to crack. Their difficulties can be due to the absence of corresponding forms of English tenses in their first languages ,or, even if corresponding forms do exist, they are differently used than in English. French learners of English may experience both kinds of difficulties. They have sometimes no corresponding forms in the French language. For example, there is no corresponding form in French for English present continuous tense. Thus the sentence Elle va au lycée may mean (1) She goes to schoor or (2)S he is going to school. The French sentence J'ai fini le travail may mean I finished the work or I have finished the work .The distinction between these pairs of sentences is a real one ., but it is lost on the French. As Malayalam is non-cognate with English ESL learners of Kerala experience difficulties of a conceptual nature. They fail to coceptualize English simple present tense.

Simple present still preserves inflection from Anglo-Saxon period in a limited way. The base forms of verbs are inflected by adding -s or -es when the subject is third person singular.While the French , German or Spanish learners of English are familiar with the phenomenon of inflection ,Malayalam-speaking learners find it rather intriguing because Malayalam verbs are never inflected for number and person. Every other grammatial feature may serve some useful purpose. but inflection merely serves to make the learning of English difficult!

Now I will discuss the applications of simple present tense.Generally speaking . it is used to indicate univeral truths and habitual actions.Regularlly repeating actions may come under habitual actions.Sometimes, the boundary between universal truths and habitual actions may be a bit blurred.

While learning simple present tense an important thing to be borne in mind is that native speakers use it to make a narrative vivid and interesting.From past tense they repeatedly make incursions into simple present tense to make the narrative interesting.You may be confused when you see such 'indiscriminate' mixing of tenses.I am quoting below a passage from Shakespeare's play Hamlet to show how native speakers of English mix past and simple present tenses. The speaker is Ophelia;

He took me by the wrist and held me hard
Then goes he to the length of his arms
And with his other hand thus over his brow
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it.Long stayed he so

Hamlet( Act 2, scene 1)
Dear readers, I will continue the discussion in my next post
Thank you

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