Thursday, June 14, 2007

acquisition of present perfect

A colleague of mine is teaching the TOEFL class, and I remarked to her that one of the hardest TOEFL questions I ever heard referred to a simple response to the question: (W) "How are you?" (M) "I've been better." It could have been that TOEFL was trying to test the intonation- the speaker was clearly saying that he was not great. It could also have been that a real TOEFL would not have tested an answer that was so ambiguous (though this is a common answer, it can in fact be interpreted in two ways).

If you think too hard about it, you'll end up in a backwater of confusion, as I did on the day I was trying to teach my way out of this situation. But, this post is really about what my colleague said: Yes, present perfect is difficult. They have a hard time figuring out why we need it.

I thought this answer was a perceptive, incisive comment, coming as it did from a veteran language-learner and linguist, so I thought I'd save it. Though I've studied acquisition of relative clauses a little more carefully (see below), I've also had my eye on present perfect for several reasons. First, even at the high levels (where I teach now), they have trouble with it; they haven't acquired it yet; and quite often I see sentences (given the time markers until now or since I got to Carbondale where one would typically use it. More often, we native speakers might use it naturally but they would not, and give us no time markers to show what they might have missed. In any case it is hard to pinpoint the fact that they don't have it, but it is safe to say that although they were taught it as long as two or three terms ago, it is still on the horizon for them, and, a distant one at spite of the fact that it seems somewhat basic for us, essential to our concept of action, early-on in the systems of first language learners, and a basic building block in more complicated forms.

I'll explore this more later, but for now, I'll just say- you aren't born dividing actions into finished/not finished, set in time/not set in time, etc.; you have to acquire the need to express these things, as well as the ability, if you are an L2 learner; and, the situation is partly governed by how much you can get away with, on a day-to-day basis, without causing severe misunderstanding. If such a phrase as until now will suit your purpose, and express the same meaning as present perfect, in spite of the native speaker's immediate reaction (this is grammatically wrong but I can live with it), then you get away with it- indefinitely- until you learn a better way.

That's it for now- until later-

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home