Tense and Aspect in English and in German

From a learner's perspective

Seminar Paper 2009 16 Pages

Didactics - English - Pedagogy, Literature Studies


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. The acquisition of tense and aspect by learners in general
II. 1. The three stages of tense-aspect acquisition
II. 2. What has to be kept in mind concerning the learners
II. 3. The Influence of Instruction

III. The tenses of English and German

IV. The perfect in English and in German
IV. 2. The uses of the perfect in English
IV. 3. Difficulties for and errors made by learners

V. The Progressive
V. 1. Lexical devices in German to express progressive
V. 2. Different uses of the progressive in English
V. 3. Difficulties for and errors made by learners

VI. Conclusion

VII. Bibliography

I. Introduction

As English and German are both Germanic languages they are closely related. However, there are still a lot of differences to be found when comparing the two languages. This is among other things due to the fact that English and German represent different language types.[1] Among the grammatical categories relating to which the two languages can be analysed, tense and aspect are certainly salient. Before starting to analyse both languages with regard to these categories, the difference between tense and aspect has to be clarified. Tense is both a deictic and a relational category. Therefore it locates an event on the time line usually with reference to the time of speaking. Aspect, by contrast, does not locate an event or situation on the time line nor does it relate the time of one situation to another. It is rather concerned with “the internal temporal constituency of one situation”.[2] In order to define the different tense and aspect forms, Reichenbach developed a model. In this model he defines different tense and aspect forms by establishing the three parameters point of speech (S), point of event (E) and point of reference (R). According to this definition, Matthews claims that past and non-past differ in the relations of S and R while the progressive, in contrast, differs in the relation between R and E.[3]

This term paper will examine how English and German differ in their use and expression of tense and aspect taking the perspective of a learner. First the three stages of tense and aspect acquisition by learners will be described in general terms. Particular attention will be paid to the influence of instruction on the learners. Then this term paper will examine how English and German differ in their use of tense. This will be illustrated on the example of the different uses of the perfect. Afterwards the focus will be on aspect. While English uses the progressive to indicate a change of aspect, there is no such formal equivalent in the German language. Therefore German learners of English are confronted with the question of how to express this “internal constituency of one situation” in their mother tongue. Various devices that are used by German learners of English to express the progressive will be exemplified. Both the section on tense and the section on the progressive will conclude with a focus on the difficulties for and the typical errors made by the learners. However, as there is no material available concerning English learners of German, only the German learners of English will be taken into account.

In consideration of the general stages of tense-aspect acquisition that learners have to undergo, Bardovi-Harlig was very useful. For the examination of the differences in tense use, König & Gast was mainly used. The section on the progressive is based on a study by Römer that investigated “the differences observed between English as it is used in natural communicative situations and the type of English pupils are confronted with in a foreign language teaching context.”[4] This study was especially useful as it deals with the difficulties for and the errors made by German learners of English.

II. The acquisition of tense and aspect by learners in general

II. 1. The three stages of tense-aspect acquisition

There are three main stages of development in the acquisition of temporal expression that are identified by Bardovi-Harlig[5]: the pragmatic stage, the lexical stage and the morphological stage. These stages occur during the process of learning in the given order. However, these three stages cannot be examined in isolation, as learners in later stages still use the devices achieved in the previous stages. Therefore the three stages do not function in isolation but rather in interplay with each other.

In the earliest stage of tense acquisition, there is “no systematic use of tense-aspect morphology.”[6] As the learners do not use morphology to indicate the time they are referring to, they develop four different ways to express temporal reference: “by relying on the contribution of their fellow speakers (scaffolded discourse), through reference inferred from a particular context (implicit reference), by contrasting events, and by following chronological order in narration.”[7] However, Bardovi-Harlig points out, that learners may use several of these means at the same time.[8] Learners, who have reached one of the following stages, still use pragmatic means to express temporality, since “in standard language, verb morphology interacts with, supports, and often duplicates the work done by pragmatic devices in expressing temporality.”[9] Thus, the pragmatic stage forms the base for the following stages.

Learners using lexical means for expressing temporality include “temporal and locative adverbials (in the morning, now, then, here, there), connectives (and, and then, und dann), calendric references (May 19), nouns (Saturday) and verbs (start and finish)”.[10] The lexical stage is characterized by the frequent use of connectives. In the lexical stage learners use lexical expressions to indicate their time reference and still do not use verb morphology. Therefore verbs occur only in morphologically unmarked forms, which are referred to as “base” forms or “default” forms. As invariant forms are chosen for this “default” form, Bardovi-Harlig found out that in English the infinitive tends to be used as “default” form.[11] Learners in the lexical stage tend to over-use the lexical means for expressing temporality in comparison to native speakers. As lower-level learners rely more on adverbials than advanced learners do, Bardovi-Harlig points out, that “many untutored learners may reach this stage and not go beyond it.”[12] The pragmatic stage and lexical stage together form the basic variety, which all learners attain. Thus we can observe that learners are able to express temporal relations in their early stages long before the emergence of tense-aspect morphology.

It is not until the last stage of tense acquisition, that the learners use verb morphology to indicate the location of their utterance in time. At first, however, learners do not use the morphological means systematically, but continue to rely on the use of time adverbials. But, “[a]s the use of tense morphology increases, the functional load of the adverbials decreases.”[13] It has to be kept in mind, though, that the importance of the previous stages does not decrease with the acquisition of verb morphology, but still is significant for the learners to express temporality. Learners develop functional and often rich means of temporal expression before the acquisition of verb morphology. Concerning the emergence of verbal morphology Bardovi-Harlig points out that four general principles can be established:

“First, the development of temporal expression is slow and gradual. […] Second, as part of the slow and gradual acquisition of the tense-aspect system, form often precedes function […]. In other words, verbal morphology may emerge without clear meaning; it may offer a formal contrast, but lack semantic or functional contrast with another emergent form. […] A third general principle is that irregular morphology precedes regular morphology. […]. Finally, Bhardwaj et al. (1988) claim that learners tend to avoid considering discontinuous marking […] and formulate an initial hypothesis that tense relies upon suffixed inflections.”[14]

Furthermore, Bardovi-Harlig states, that “[h]igh levels of appropriate use of verbal morphology seem to be more common in tutored learners than untutored learners, although appropriate use is by no means guaranteed by instruction.”[15] This statement already leads to the next important section concerning learners of a foreign language: There are several features that have to be kept in mind when examining difficulties for and errors made by learners.

II. 2. What has to be kept in mind concerning the learners

First of all, there is a great difference between an adult learner learning his second language and a child learning his first language. Von Stutterheim and Klein claim that

“a second language learner – in contrast to a child learning his first language – does

not have to acquire the underlying concepts. What he has to acquire is a specific way

and a specific means of expressing them.”[16]

It is often assumed that learners have particular problems because they already know their mother tongue and therefore tend to transfer certain features of their mother tongue into the target language. Kortmann also names possible errors made by learners because of interference, i.e. the errors resulting from the negative transfer of characteristic features of one’s mother tongue to the target language. According to Kortmann, this may result in substitution, over-/underdifferentiation or over-/ underrepresentation.[17] However, Kortmann also points out, that only the first two can actually lead to mistakes while over-/underrepresentation may only result in unidiomatic language use.

Another difference in the use of correct past-tense morphology can be observed in the comparison of oral interviews and written narratives. According to Bardovi-Harlig, learners showed “lower rates of appropriate use of past-tense morphology”[18] in the oral interviews than in their written narratives. The studies also demonstrated that “learners were able to write connected narratives much earlier than they were able to produce them orally.”[19] These striking differences between oral and written corpora might be due to the fact that the learners used more time to think about an appropriate use of tense and aspect when they were writing than they did when they were asked to give oral interviews. However, Bardovi-Harlig also points out that in addition to this obvious difference between the oral and the written methods of collecting data, the resulting corpora differed in a further way: “[T]he oral texts are constructed by dyads (whereas the written texts are constructed alone), so that the contribution of the interviewer may influence the production by the learner.”[20]

The most salient difference, however, can be observed between tutored and untutored learners. The influence of instruction on learners of a foreign language will therefore be investigated in the following section.


[1] While English is a clearly analytical language, German tends to be defined as a synthetic language.

[2] Comrie (1976) cited in Bardovi-Harlig (2000), p. 96

[3] Matthews (1994), p. 84

[4] Römer (2006), p. 231

[5] Bardovi-Harlig (2000), p. 22.

[6] Bardovi-Harlig (2000), p. 25.

[7] Bardovi-Harlig (2000), p. 25.

[8] Bardovi-Harlig (2000), p. 31.

[9] Schumann (1987) cited in Bardovi-Harlig (2000), p. 35

[10] Bardovi-Harlig (2000), p. 36

[11] Bardovi-Harlig (2000), p.37

[12] Bardovi-harlig (2000), p. 44

[13] Bardovi-Harlig (2000), p. 46.

[14] Bardovi-Harlig (2000), p. 111 – 113.

[15] Bardovi-Harlig (2000), p. 46.

[16] Von Stutterheim and Klein (1987) cited in Bardovi-Harlig (2000), p. 22.

[17] Kortmann (2005), p. 156-157

[18] Bardovi-Harlig (2000), p. 61

[19] Bardovi-Harlig (2000), p. 50-51

[20] Bardovi-Harlig (2000), p. 129.


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University of Freiburg – Englisches Seminar
Tense Aspect English German From



Title: Tense and Aspect in English and in German