As a teacher of English to Arabic speaking students I have encountered a number of specific difficulties Arab students have in mastering the English language. In this paper, I would like to focus on a particular grammatical problem they have in the area of verb tenses because, of all the mistakes that my students make, mistakes with verbs and verb tenses impede communication to the greatest degree.
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The specific problem I will attempt to look at the area of verbs is the problem that Arabic speakers have in using and confusing the present progressive. I will base the evidence for these mistakes on actual writing errors that Arabic students have made. Mistakes such as “I am live in Abu Dhabi.” come up frequently in my students’ writing.
This paper is basically a contrastive analysis since I feel that the majority of my student’s problems in this area come from mother tongue interference. However, as will be noted below, this does not mean I rule out other sources of errors such as intralingual errors.
The following is the outline of this paper:
In the first section of this paper, I will describe the various aspects of the grammatical structure of the present simple and the present progressive in the English language.
In the second section of the paper, I will contrast the grammatical structure of the present simple and the present progressive with its Arabic counterparts. I will show how Arabic has structures that vary significantly and radically from their English counterparts.
In the third section, I will introduce a number of examples takes from students’ written work and give an indepth analysis of the possible sources of the errors, mainly with respect to mother tongue interference, but also looking at some possible intralingual sources for these errors as well.
Finally, in the last section, I will attempt to suggest a general theoretical approach to dealing with such problems
Part One: A grammatical description of the English Present Simple and the Present Progressive:
The simple present tense
As we already know, the simple present of every verb (with the exception of the verb BE, which I will not be dealing with as a grammatical description since it is not the specific focus of this paper) is identical in every person with the basic unmarked base form of the verb except for the third person forms “he”, “she” and “it” to which we generally add “s” or “es” (Quirk 1985, p.98). However, numerous irregularities arise in the spelling and pronunciation of this third person form (Leicester 1998, 12.12)(Thomson 1986, p. 150).
Questions are formed by using the auxiliaries “do”, “does”, in the present, and “did” in the past by putting all these before the subject. Negation is formed in the same way using “don’t” (or do not) and “doesn’t”, (or does not) in the present, and “didn’t” (or did not) in the past. These forms go after the subject. In addition, the verb must be changed to the basic form.
The simple present is used for statements that are always true, (e.g. “The earth revolves around the sun.”) (Azar 1989,p.2).
The simple present is also used for events, actions or situations which are true in the present period of time and which, for all we know, may continue indefinitely, (e.g. “Fatima goes to school at Zayed University.”) (Azar 1989, p.2) What we are saying in these expressions is that this is how things stand at the present moment (Huddleston 1984, p.81).
A further use of the simple present is for actions that are habitual, things that happen repeatedly, (e.g. “We study a lot.”) (Alexander 1988, p.163)(Quirke 1985, p.107).
Observations and declarations are another use of the present simple, as in the sentence (“It says here that there is a new night club opening.”)(Alexander 19988, p.163).
The present simple can also be used to express the future, especially when we want to express strong certainty, (e.g. “When we graduate, we will get jobs.”).
Swan, Huddleston, Lewis, Thomson and Quirke, et. al. also add eight other functions of the present simple which might come up in other contexts such as:
Demonstrations and commentaries (e.g. “First, I take a bowl and break two eggs in it, thenâ€¦..”)
The structures “here comes” and “there goes”, (e.g. “here comes your husband.”)
Promises and oaths (e.g.” I promiseâ€¦â€¦.,” ” I swear â€¦â€¦,” “He deniesâ€¦..”)
Formal correspondence (e.g. “We write to advise you.”)
Instructions (e.g. “You go left, turn rightâ€¦.”)
Stories (e.g. “In act one, Hamlet meets the ghost of his father.”), which Huddleston calls the “historic present.”
In expressions of understanding such as hear, see, gather (e.g. “I hear you’re getting married.”)
Finally, the simple present can be used in newspaper headlines (e.g. “RUSSIANS RAISE OBJECTIONS”)
Since there are so many instances of when to use the present simple, is there any way to summarize all of these? I concur with Lewis’ explanation that the present simple:
1-Expresses an event as a total single point in time.
2-Expresses an event as a matter of fact.
3-Expresses an event as immediate rather than remote.
The present progressive tense
Both the simple and progressive forms usually tell us that an action takes place. But the progressive forms also tell us that an activity is or was, or will be, etc. in progress, or thought of as being in progress. In other words, the present progressive tells us that the speaker sees an action as taking place over a period of time as opposed to a point in time. In addition researchers would add that the speaker sees the period as limited (Lewis 1986; Leech, 1975; Huddleston, 1984; Quirke, 1985).
The present progressive tense is formed with the present of be (am/is/are) (which adds aspect and voice), said by Quirke to be the finite verb, plus the “ing” form (the non-finite form) (Quirke 1985, p. 120). There are no complications with the additional “ing” form; however the spelling of the “ing” has some irregularities and needs to be taught to students e.g. write, writing; run, running; begin, beginning; lie, lying). (Alexander 1988; Huddleston 1984; Quirke 1985).
Question formation takes place by switching the place of the auxiliary “be” and the subject. Negation is achieved by inserting “not” between the subject and the auxiliary or by contracting “n’t” with the auxiliary verb forms (with the exception of the first person singular form “am”) (Quirke, 1985).
In the classroom, the classical reason given for why we use the present progressive is that it shows an uncompleted action in progress at the time of speaking. To emphasise this, we often use adverbials like now, at the moment, just, etc. For example, “He’s not home at the moment, he’s working.” (Quirke 1985).
The present progressive can also be used to describe actions which have not been happening for long, or are thought of as being temporary situations, and which are going on “around now,” e.g. “Abdullah is living with his aunt until he can find a place of his own.”.
A further use of the present progressive is to refer to activities and events planned for the future. We generally use adverbials in such sentences unless the meaning is clear from context, e.g. “We’re spending next Thursday in Abu Dhabi.” (Azar 1989; Huddleston 1984; Quirke 1985).
The present progressive can also be used to talk about developing and changing situations, e.g. “That child is getting bigger all the time.” (Swan 1980).
Sometimes the present progressive can be used to talk about feelings, such as “I am feeling fine.” or “My back is hurting me.”.
The present progressive is used to show repeated actions along with adverbs such as “always,” “constantly,” “continually,” “forever,” “perpetually,” and “repeatedly”, such as “He is always helping people.”. In this sense it conveys not temporariness, but continuousness. (Leech 1975; Huddleston 1984).
The present progressive also is used to show repeated actions that are happening around now, e.g. “He is studying a lot of English these days.” “Why is he going to the library?” (Swan 1980).
Dynamic versus Stative Verbs in the present simple and the progressive tenses
Dynamic/progressive verbs refer to verbs which show actions which are deliberate or voluntary, e.g. “I’m building a house.”, or changing situations, e.g. “He’s becoming fat.”. Dynamic verbs can be used in both the progressive as well as the simple forms e.g. “I eat at 5:00 (everyday).” as opposed to “I’m eating now.”.
Stative verbs (also known as non-progressive verbs) are verbs which indicate a state, condition or experience. Specifically, stative verbs fall into categories such as feelings (like, love), thinking/believing (think, know, realize), wants and preferences (need, want), perception and the senses (smell, see), and being, seeming, having, and owning (seem, look, appear). Stative verbs are generally not used in the progressive forms (Quirke 1985).
However some stative verbs can be used in both the present simple and the progressive tenses, which results in a different meaning in each form, e.g. “I’m thinking of a solution.” as opposed to “I think he is the best man for the job.” or “These flowers smell good.” as opposed to “Latifa is smelling the flowers in the garden.”) (Alexander 1988; Azar 1989; Azar 1986; Quirke 1985).
The present simple versus the present progressive
Swan makes note of a number of areas where students might confuse the present simple with the present continuous.
A. We use the simple present to talk about things that are true for the present period of time, or, as was noted above, to say “this is how things stand at the present moment for the foreseeable future.” However, if the event is temporary and is taking place right now, we use the present progressive.
“Afrah studies at the Higher Colleges.”
“Afrah is studying her English lesson.”
B. We use the present progressive to talk about habitual actions if these are happening around the moment of speaking.
“Fayrouz and Fatima are preparing for the Eid holidays.”
However, if the habitual action is not closely connected to the moment of speaking, we generally use the present simple.
“I go to Saudi Arabia once every three years.”
C. Verbs that refer to physical feelings can sometimes be used in either the simple present or the present progressive.
“I feel great!” or “I’m feeling great!”
“My head hurts.” or “My head is hurting.”
PART TWO – A grammatical description of the Arabic present simple and the present progressive
In this part of the paper, I would like to give readers a very brief background of the Arabic verb system in regard to the simple present and the present progressive.
The Arabic verb system is very complicated. However, this does not mean that a teacher has to master the Arabic language before s/he is able to pinpoint errors that may be a result of the interference of Arabic in English. One can study the Arabic language with the goal of simply understanding the structure, rather than with the goal of speaking and writing in the language.
Let us first look at the present simple, then the present progressive, and finally the verb “to be” since all of these grammatical items are specifically relevant to the particular problem at hand.
A.The Present Simple
In Arabic, the formation of the present simple is radically different from English, since Arabic uses a root system made up of the three most important consonants (though two or four consonant roots do sometimes occur). In Arabic the three basic consonants (the root) stay the same but it is by changes in the vowels, the suffixes and the prefixes that tense and number are indicated. It is vastly more complicated than the way some English verbs change tense by changing vowels, e.g. give, gave.
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For example, the sentence, “he learns” could be represented phonetically by “ya-droo-soo.” The “d-r-s” is the root, “ya” is the part that indicates this is a third person singular masculine verb (though this is not the pronoun). The pattern of the vowels and consonants (ya + c1 + c2+ oo + c3 + oo), lets the speaker know that this is the present tense. In contrast, the past could be represented by a different pattern; hence, he learned,” “dar-ah-sah” has the pattern (c1 + ai or ah + c2 + ai or ah + c3 + ah) (and this is just one pattern out of ten!)
From a sentence point of view the verb in Arabic is not necessarily treated as the nucleus of a sentence and, in the case of the copula verb BE, can be omitted entirely (as we shall see below). The verb can also be placed at the beginning of the sentence.
Like its English counterpart, the present simple tense in Arabic expresses a habitual action. There are other functions, but they are not relevant to this discussion.
B.The Present Progressive
In general, the present simple form is also used in Arabic to express the idea of a continuous action occurring in the present. Hence, the English sentence
“He is working now.” in Arabic becomes “He works now.”
(represented phonetically by “huwwah yaamaloo al eyn.”)
“What is he doing?” in Arabic becomes “What does he do?”
(represented phonetically by “mehzah ya”faaloo al eyn?”)
Hence, in almost all cases, the present simple form is used to show the idea of continuous action in the present. However, there is a single verb form in Arabic called the “ism-ul-fail” which is the exact parallel to the idea of continuous action. However, the difference in Arabic is that the “ism-ul-fail” is used very sparingly compared to English and then only for some very specific verbs of movement, or verbs that indicate changing from one state to another (going up, going in, going down, walking to a place, leaving a place, etc.).
Since the “ism-ul-fail” is radically different in form from the English progressive it is doubtful that any interference in form occurs.
C.A Few Points About The Verb BE as a Copula
Although BE as a copula is not the focus of this paper, it does deserve mention here for two specific reasons. The first point is that BE in Arabic, when it is the copula in the present tense, is unwritten and unspoken (although this is not true of the copula in the past tense or the future where it is written and spoken). (Kharma, 1989, p. 89).
For example, the literal translation of the sentence “Ahmed is a student.” is “Ahmed student.”. So it is conceivable that students might leave BE out as a copula OR as the helping verb in the present progressive because it does not exist in the present tense in Arabic (although there are other additional reasons why students might forget to add it to the present progressive as we shall see).
The second point is that BE is used so often in English, in so many different kinds of structures, and that it is so irregular, that it might simply add to the confusion of students (Kharma 1989, p. 161). Students who keep on being corrected for leaving out the verb “to be” when it is necessary, may for example, hypercorrect themselves and start to write it everywhere. Again, we shall explore this issue further below.
PART THREE – A look at some common written errors made by Arabic speaking students when using the English present simple and present progressive
Finding the exact causes of any error can be a difficult and meticulous task. This is partly because there may be multiple reasons as to why students make one particular error and these causes may also overlap at any given time. In addition, it is extremely problematic, even for a native speaker of both Arabic and English, (which I am) to know exactly what is going on linguistically in the mind of a student when s/he makes such an error.
However, having said that, even with these obstacles, we can at least make some good hypotheses and lists of possibilities as to why these errors occur with our own students. As a result, we will be able to generate classroom strategies and methods in order to correct and remedy these sorts of mistakes. The following categories of errors are the most common that I have found in students written work with regards to the simple present versus the present progressive. I will look at each category in turn, and offer an analysis of the sources for these types of error.
“Fatima studies now.”
“Ahmed does his homework now.”
In these sentences, the intention of the Arabic speaking writer seems to be to convey the meaning of what in English would be a present continuous action, expressed by the present continuous tense. This is clear by the use of the adverb “now” or in the case of other examples not shown here, from other adverbs or the context of the sentence. In examples one and two, the Arabic speaker seems to be transferring the rules of his native language into English. The Arabic speaker usually uses only the present simple to express events that would be expressed in English by both the present simple and the present continuous.
“Mariam can’t talk, she eating now.”
This kind of mistake is a bit more problematic in terms of analysis. It could be that the Arabic speaker, feeling that the full meaning of the action is expressed in the verb with the “ing,” has decided that the am/are/is forms are redundant and unnecessary. It could also be the case that this mistake is a direct transfer of a particular grammatical form in Arabic. In certain cases Arabic speakers do express the present continuous with a verb and prefix change (called ism-ul-fail), but without the corresponding “be” form. For example, the literal translation of the sentence “Ahmed is running.” is “Ahmed running.” .
“Are you knowing the way to Dubai?”
“I am wanting to see my family.”
In this case, the student has learned the present progressive form, but is over generalizing it to all verbs (or perhaps does not remember or has not been taught the rules for exceptions such as the above). These types of errors could very well be intralingual.
This over generalization could also be found in sentences that have the function of explaining, demonstrating teaching or narrating such as:
“Next I am pouring the oil into the cooking pan.”
“Ali is passing the ball to the goalkeeper.”
“I am live in Abu Dhabi.”
“We are study English.”
This category is probably the most difficult to analyze. This is because it is unclear whether the Arabic speaker is making the mistake of adding the additional am/is/are form while trying to use the present tense, or making the mistake of forgetting to use the present participle while trying to use the present progressive tense. That is, did the speaker intend to say “I live in Abu Dhabi.” and use the extra “am” form by mistake, or did s/he intend to say “I am living in Abu Dhabi.” and forget the correct present participle form? Of course, there are other possibilities but these seem like the two most likely.
We must obviously look at the context of the paragraph to see if we can get the gist of what the speaker meant. The following is a more detailed analysis of these two possibilities from the standpoint of the students reasoning.
1. If we believe from the context that the student was trying to use the present simple and added the additional “am” in error, then the following analyses apply:
A. The student may be confused by the lack of inflectional endings in English, since Arabic is a highly inflected language, and every personal pronoun has a distinct corresponding inflected verb form. The similarity of the verb forms in “I live”, “you live”, etc. may seem very awkward to the Arabic speaker. Hence, they may want to remedy the situation by distinguishing the verb forms in some way by, for example, adding an exceedingly familiar and overused verb form like “am”, “are”, or “is”.
B. The student may be over generalising based on what they have learned about the present continuous. That is, they may have learned how to form the present continuous quite easily since there is no mother tongue interference from Arabic, (although they may not have mastered its use). They then may go on to conclude that every verb in the present simple or present continuous in English needs to be preceded by am/is/are.
C. Similarly, the student may be “hypercorrecting.” They may have been corrected so many times for forgetting to use the verb BE in their sentences e.g. “Ahmed happy”, that they may start to feel that every sentence needs the verb BE.
2. However, if we believe that the student was trying to use the present continuous tense and used the present simple “live” (instead of the present participle “living”), then the following analyses apply:
A. The student may not have correctly understood how to form the present participle by adding “ing” to the end of the verb.
B. Perhaps students have simply forgotten to add the “ing” prefix because the structure is so different in their language.
This is by no means an exhaustive analysis. However, these are, from my experience and collaboration with other colleagues, both native and non-native speakers, some of the major possibilities.
PART FOUR – Pedogogical implications of the above research for teaching the present simple and the present progressive to Arabic speaking students
From the evidence I have presented here, I believe it is clear that many of the mistakes in using the present simple and the present progressive in form (such as omission of the verb “to be” in the simple present for Arabic speakers, e.g. “I studying”), as well as other mistakes in usage (e.g. using the simple present when the present progressive is required) seem to be traceable directly to Arabic mother tongue interference. Based on my analyses, reading and discussion with colleagues, I do feel that in this particular area, teachers of EFL to Arabic speakers must consider mother tongue interference as a major impediment to learning the present tense versus the present progressive.
If we know that mother tongue interference is the cause of many errors, what should this imply for our teaching? One thing which I think it does not imply is that we teach English from the point of view of the mother tongue. For example, trying to get students to understand English grammar through word for word translations or using the grammatical structure of Arabic to help students to understand the grammatical structure of English are only useful in certain cases, and then only by someone who is a master of both languages.
My experience in reading the research, being bilingual and talking to Arabic speaking students who are at the final stages of their English studies leads me to believe that, at least in the case of Arabic and English, that the two languages are sufficiently different that they are both best looked at in their own respective grammars. Students must be made, not only to think in English, but to understand English grammar in terms of English grammar without constantly switching back and forth to compare it with Arabic. Such practices are ineffective and will cause confusion among students.
As Lewis says “students should never expect the foreign language to be like their ownâ€¦..the fact that English has verb forms that contain [be] as an auxiliary does not suggest that other languages ought to have a corresponding formâ€¦.students should be positively encouraged to explore the foreign language within itself rather than through the expectations they bring from their own.” (Lewis, 1986, pp. 164-165).
In addition, I should add that intralingual factors can also be at work when students make such errors (in addition to context specific factors like student motivation, teaching style and competence, etc.). For example, on the intralingual side, we know that students of ESL from many different language groups and even children make common mistakes with the verb “to be”. Therefore, many such mistakes might be intralingual. (Mattar 1989). Hence, when we try to analyse our students’ errors we should not be prejudiced to any one theory and we should try to be open to looking at all possible sources of errors.
What we as teachers should be doing in the classroom is continually collecting research on student errors and student learning styles in order to form hypotheses about why such errors occur and why such one approach worked and another didn’t. We should then be trying to test these hypotheses to see if they are true or not, and afterwards share this information w ith other teachers in similar situations. Only then will we be able to understand why students make errors and what is the most effective way to correct them.
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