Why is the Present Perfect such a problematic tense?

Seminar Paper 2003 19 Pages

English - Pedagogy, Didactics, Literature Studies


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Interference from the mother tongue

3. How can the present perfect be teached?
3.1. Rules of thumb
3.2. Different Approaches to teaching the present perfect

4. Grammar spot

5. Different Notions of the present perfect tense – Activities to practice them – Critical comments
5.1. Experiences
5.2. Present Result
5.3. Recent Actions/Events
5.3.1. A mistaken idea
5.4. Unfinished Past/Duration
5.5. Indefinite Time

6. Contrasting Present Perfect – Past Simple

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In advance it has to be mentioned that this paper mainly deals with the Present Perfect Simple because otherwise this topic would have become too complex. Furthermore, the present perfect is not always used the same way in British and American English. In this paper, however, the used examples represent British Standard English. It will be shown that the Present Perfect is a problematic tense to learn and to teach because it has so many notions and uses. It will be proved that a major difficulty in learning this tense arises from the interference from the learner‘s mother tongue. As far as teaching is concerned, when introducing a new piece of grammar we always have to teach not only the form, but also its functions, and not only meaning but also use. Therefore, teaching the present perfect is quite a difficult task. This paper will also discuss critical questions teachers should ask themselves and the various notions and uses of the present perfect in detail, providing at the same time possible ways of teaching them with quoted activities from different coursebooks.

2. Interference from the mother tongue

“Students speaking other European languages sometimes misuse the present perfect tense in English because of interference from their mother tongue” (Alexander 171). Thus in German there is no corresponding tense which is able to express all the different notions of the present perfect. German speaking learners often tend to translate directly from German into English, and certain mistakes, as in the following two examples, are therefore obvious:

* I am here since February. (Gitterle)

*I live in Innsbruck for 6 years. (Gitterle)

Thus in German we would use the present tense to express the meaning I’ve been here since February/I’ve lived in Innsbruck for 6 years. That is because the present perfect, as the term already implies, is a tense which is anchored in the present. It is always strongly related to the present and expresses the present state or result of an action. Furthermore, the meaning of the present perfect can be conveyed in German by combining lexis and grammar:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Here the terms “gerade/schon” make the difference and serve to express the full meaning of the present perfect. According to L.G. Alexander, the present perfect is often wrongly seen as an alternative to the past, so that a student might think that I’ve had lunch and I had lunch are interchangable (171). Probably, German speaking learners again rely upon their mother tongue, where one and the same meaning can be conveyed by different (past) tenses in combination with lexis, as the following sentences prove:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

In English the past tense, however, expresses remoteness and a more objective view while the present perfect tense implies present relevance and a more subjective attitude of the speaker. Therefore, it is important that learners look at grammar in different contexts in order to fully understand its meaning.

3. How can the present perfect tense be teached?

Critical questions teachers ask and should ask themselves would be:

- How do I introduce this tense? Should I use an inductive approach giving situations and contexts, where the present perfect is used, or should I explain the different notions first and then practice the uses with the learners?
- What notions of the present perfect do I introduce first?
- Should I restrict the pattern in which the present perfect is being used or should I try to find a more general rule?
- Are rules of thumb or certain guidelines helpful?
- Is my explanation correct, consistent, simple, non-contradictory, complete, exhaustive, productive, memorizable?

These are all vital questions when teaching a complex piece of grammar such as the present perfect. Certainly it is important that teachers do not give over-simplified rules that learners will soon seen being contradicted. That explanations should be consistent and non-contradictory is also valid for lower levels. Good rules do not have exceptions! It is just essential not to overload learners by giving too much information. Basically, there are two major strategies to teach this tense, which can also be combined. On the one hand, teachers can provide rules of thumb or guidelines emphasizing that they are not to be considered hard and fast rules, and on the other hand, they can implement an inductive approach and confront students with patterns where the tense is used.

3.1. Rules of thumb

According to Colin Mahoney (Internet), a good rule of thumb is, for example, that the present perfect is used with time adverbs that describe a time period which is unfinished (eg today, this week, ...). This is questionable, because wether a time adverb describes a finished or unfinished period of time often depends on the context. Thus, teachers should be unafraid of contrasting difficult examples such as (Hoffmann/Schmidt 53):

a) I did not look at the paper this morning. (“morning” is already over)
b) I haven’t looked at the paper this morning. (“morning” is not yet over, I can still look at the paper this morning)

Certainly the learners should be told that if we have a clear time indicator of past time such as yesterday, last year or five years ago, we tend to use past tense and not the present perfect:

* I have seen him yesterday. I saw him yesterday (keyword: yesterday)

Another rule of thumb in this context is that the present perfect is used with certain key words such as ever, never, just, always. Although this is frequently true, learners might encounter sentences as these: Did you ever hear of such a thing?/ I never spoke to her in my life. (Hoffmann/Schmidt 53). Thus, the first example expresses a more objective attitude of the speaker, who distances himself from the “thing” he talks about, while the second example might mean that the person the speaker refers to is already dead. Therefore the appropriate context is again vital for the use of the tenses. This is why teachers must stress the general meaning of the present perfect, namely that it is used to talk about events that have just been completed or events that started in the past and reach up to the present (and may go on in the future) or whose results are still felt in the present. It is also used to talk about events that have not yet happened but might still happen. Naturally, all these notions of the present perfect cannot be introduced all at once, otherwise learners would be confused. But it is more meaningful to teach meaning than to give only simplified rules of thumb.

Similarly the present perfect is said to be used with since and for. This is often the case, but as mentioned before, there is no hard and fast rule! Learners might encounter sentences such as He lived with his uncle for some time (Hoffmann/Schmidt 54). This could imply that his uncle is dead now or that he does not live with his uncle anymore. But if teachers stress that for/since are used with the present perfect when it describes an action that continues up to the present moment, this is certainly a good guideline. But is it meaningful to teach the present perfect with since and for to begin with? As Jeremy Harmer states, this is no good idea because the difference between these two time expressions is not that easy to understand (11). This is because in German since and for are both translated with the word “seit”. A memorizable and well-working rule of thumb describing the difference can be found in the book Breakthrough 1/Tools (Erlbeck 60): In English we use for if in German we can mentally add the word “lang” to the time expression: Tom has been here for two weeks. à Tom ist schon zwei Wochen lang hier. With since this would not work : Tom has been here since last Friday. à Tom ist seit letzten Freitag hier. This guideline is particularly helpful at lower levels, but nevertheless the actual meaning of for (= period of time) and since (= definite point of time) has to be teached to the learner.

To sum up, rules of thumb or guidelines may be helpful, but teachers should always point out underlying meanings since learners will soon encounter examples that represent exceptions to the rules.



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University of Innsbruck – Anglistik und Amerikanistik
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Title: Why is the Present Perfect such a problematic tense?