Thursday, July 28, 2011

Past Progressive – Use it wisely

Students of English often fall in love with specific tenses.  English teachers are somewhat guilty in that they overemphasize certain forms of the verb because they are either easy to teach or demonstrate.  The classic example is the present progressive, am/are/is ___ing, but the past progressive is also generally over and misused by Israelis.

To clarify the matter, the past progressive, was/were ____ing, has three specific meanings:

a.      The most common – an unfinished action that must be completed by a verb in the past tense:  I was walking home when I saw an elephant.  I was on my way home, but did not reach it.  You cannot have just the past progressive.  It is like throwing one shoe and leaving the listener/reader waiting for the other shoe.

b.      Two or more simultaneous actions, all in the past progressive:  you were sleeping while I was cleaning the house.

c.       Rare: asking about a specific action at a specific time in the past, as the police or your parents would do:  What were you doing at four o’clock in the morning in the park? (Parents really don’t want to know!)

In terms of other languages, the French imparfait is not really the equivalent.  It emphasizes repeated actions, such as Je dormais toute la journée quand j’avais 15 ans (I used to sleep all day when I was 15 years old).  The closest in terms of the first meaning is j’étais en train de rentrer chez moi quand je suis tombé.  Russian has the imperfect aspect in the past tense (несовершенный вид).  One of the uses is for unfinished actions as in я открывал окно [ya otkrival okno],  I was opening the window, which implies that the window has not been opened.

As a rule, do NOT use the past progressive unless you want to say that the action was not completed.  The other two uses are in fact very rare.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

All Men Are Created Equal (or at least in Language)

Language use changes.  When those words were written in 1776, the term “men” included women for some purposes at least. 

In modern English, it is politically correct to adjust words and grammar to avoid any hint of sexism.  There is nothing wrong in doing so as long as it is done properly.

One way is to exchange the man in a word with person or a more general word.  For example, a meeting is run by a chairperson while the firefighters and police officers deal with the riot outside.  In none of these cases is the structure of the sentence changed or rendered clumsy. 

For pronoun reference to general groups of people, using the plural noun avoids the gender issue.  For example, students that fail their test will have a second opportunity.  That is far more natural than a student that fails his/her test.  Sometimes, the context does not allow that option.  In that case, my personal preference is to write s/he.  In legal language, there is an additional trick: define the individual as a party of some kind.  Then, the writer can use the term it and dispense with the various forms of he and she.

Other languages handle the issue differently.  Russian has the pronoun свой which refers to the subject, whether that is first, second, or third person.  So, at least in the sentence, after using a noun or pronoun as the subject, the writer can avoid the his/her construction.  Another advantage of this pronoun is that avoid a classic problem in English with two male or female persons in a sentence and one possessive pronoun: My father and uncle argued about who had taken his wallet.  Whose wallet are we talking about, the former’s or the latter’s?  French places grammatical gender as the main criterion: Madame Le Juge.  Note that Madame is clearly feminine but le is masculine because the noun juge is masculine.  Hebrew, coming from the Middle East, simplifies the matter:  if there is one male in the group, a male pronoun is used, period.  After all, all men are created equal!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Is it hard to learn a new language?

Is mathematics easy or hard?  Is physics challenging or impossible?  Ease is in the mind of the beholder, of course.  For those whom a certain subject comes naturally, what can be simpler?  By contrast, for those who have struggled unsuccessfully all their lives to learn something, understanding always seems out of reach.

Practically speaking, when learning languages, the learner must overcome the following challenges:

a.      New alphabet (sometimes)

b.      New sounds or variations of known sounds

c.       New roots

d.      New endings on words according to grammar

e.      Different grammar rules

f.        Different intonation

While the first one seems quite daunting, learning a new alphabet is mainly a matter of will and drill rather than intelligence and skill.  Even the rather complex Arabic alphabet in which each letter has three forms depending on its location in the word can be learned within a week for the purposes of reading a very simple learning text.  As for sounds, it requires a good teacher, an attentive ear, and a willingness to make “funny” sounds.  For example, there are major differences between the completely flat Russian “r”, the middle of the road English “r”, and the rolled French “r”.  (One of my favorite words to practice in French is serrurière.) Vowel sounds also vary.  For instance, French vowels are in general much more than tense than in English.  Compare the English tutu with the French tu.

The next three are simply a matter of practice.  People who use a language, whether they speak, read, or write it, will improve gradually in all those aspects as long as they are open to constructive criticism.  The most significant issue seems to be adult pride.  We forgot how everybody laughed at our early mistakes in our native language.  Small children are experts in laughing with us, learning from their mistakes, and then pointing out  mistakes, especially to immigrant parents.

In my opinion, the most difficult aspect of a language is the intonation.  Every language has its own rhythm and cadence, rising and falling in a unique manner.  That is how we recognize foreign languages and accents.  We may not be able to tell the difference between the Italian and Spanish words, often quite similar, but the Italian intonation is clearly different than the Spanish one.  It takes great effort to get your mouth to do something that seems unnatural, like die at the end of sentence in Russian or go on a rollercoaster ride as in French.  This can be learned, but most learners are either unaware or unwilling to retrain their voice.  They retain their native language intonation even when speaking the second language quite correctly otherwise.

 Like most matters, learning a new language requires some need, effort, and willingness to make mistakes.  Is that hard?

If you have any remarks, please comment.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Present Perfect I

English with all of its tenses poses many learning problems for students, none of which are worse than that strange creature, the present perfect.  For those who were sleeping during that lesson, that is the tense that has the verb to have in the present tense followed by the V3 (or past participle), i.e. the sun has risen. 

The problem with this tense is that it only basically exists in English.  The French passé compose is really a past of completed action, as in J’ai vu le film.  In other words, the English past simple is its equivalent.  Russian, Hebrew, and Arabic, to name just a few, don’t even anything like it. 

This means that it is hard for English language learners to intuitively understand what it means while native English speakers never formally study it, absorbing it from the air.  I would suggest a comparative approach.  Examine the following three sentences:

a.      I ate hot chilies.

b.      I eat hot chilies.

c.       I have eaten hot chilies.

To confirm what you think, the first in the past simple;  the second in the present simple; and the third is in the present perfect.  The issue in hand is to define the difference between them.

a.      The first describes in a neutral fashion what you did in the past.  For example, someone wanted to know in which food contest you participated.   You indicate that you joined the chili eating contest (what hot fun!).

b.      This describes a habitual action.  For instance, if someone is preparing Kung Pao chicken, you explain that you have no problem with that.

c.       This describes something that is relevant NOW, no matter when you did it in the past.  For example, if your friend accuses you of being a wimp because you don’t like hot food, you feel attacked and defend yourself. 

As you can see, the present perfect in this meaning is an emotional statement about now: I have finished and I want to go home; I have seen the movie and can recommend it; I have eaten and am not hungry.  In this sense, the reader or listener will read a meaning into verb.

There is another use for the present perfect, but that is the subject of another blog.