Listen – the Gist is in the Detail IH Webinar

Here’s my third blog post in the last 12 months. I really do churn them out, here at the blogging factory. But I digress. Below is the video for the IH Live Online Workshop I did in December on looking at decoding, as well as comprehension, in listening lessons. The webinar goes over some background to what is involved in listening itself and then looks at some minimal preparation listening activities to work on decoding in class. The slides are below the video. Hope you find it useful.

On Being Corrected… When You’re Right

Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers

There is a remarkable passage in Anthony Burgess’ brilliant novel Earthly Powers in which the protagonist, a successful English author named Kenneth Toomey, is discussing matters religious with a local person of seemingly great import called Mahaligham, who’s a Tamil speaker (the interaction takes place in what is now Malaysia though, at the time this conversation takes place, it was a British colony known as The Federation of Malaya, and Toomey is there to do research for his work). It goes as follows:

“You may say my religion is personal and electric”

“Surely you mean eclectic?”

“I mean what I mean”, he said loudly. “Because you are an Englishman does not mean you have a monopoly of the language” (1)

What is remarkable is how (the insane – you’ll see if you read the book) Mahaligham reacts to being corrected. It turns out that he did mean “eclectic” as the conversation develops (or so it seems to me) and he keeps mentioning it, but he clearly did not like being corrected. Not only that, he links this correction to a greater question of who ‘owns’ English, which in the late 1940s or early 1950s (when this was), was very probably considered by most people to be ‘the British” (whoever they are), or the English (from England, which is simply a “conspiracy of cartographers” anyway).

Now, as proponents of ELF (English as Lingua Franca) or EIL (English as an International Language), amongst others, will tell you, nobody ‘owns’ English, particularly the British (as might have been traditionally assumed: RP as prestige form and all that – perhaps my own interpretation there). Indeed, nowadays, most English interaction will take place between people for whom English is a learned language of communication, not a first language. However, even so, there is still a tendency for many learners of English to regard native speakers (don’t think too hard about that term) as somehow in command of it, experts, consultants on acceptable use, etc. As Barbara Seidlhofer describes this “paradox”:

“…on the one hand, for the majority of its users, English is a foreign language, and the vast majority of verbal exchanges in English do not involve any native speakers of the language at all. On the other hand, there is still a tendency for native speakers to be regarded as custodians over what is acceptable usage” (2)

As usual in one of my posts, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with, well, anything. So I’ll tell you. All this reminds me of a strange correction situation I was

Muscat from the B&B (run by a brilliantly mad Swede)
Muscat from the B&B (run by a brilliantly mad Swede)

recently in in Oman. My girlfriend (a celebrated ELFer no less, and Jane to my Dave Willis) and I were in a bar in Muscat, where we met one of a number of very friendly Omanis. He was particularly talkative and took a shine to Katy, so we ended up talking for about 12 minutes and 26 seconds (roughly). Our new friend, who was maybe called Khalid (well, he is now), was very well-travelled and knew the UK well (the very definition of well-travelled..), including Edinburgh (near where I’m from), as well as Katy’s neck of the woods. I’d say his English was about B1+, though my memory is fading slightly on that point. He was also speaking to two native-speaker English teachers, something he was effusively happy about, and Katy and I were doing that accommodation thing I’ve written about before (a talk here and post here). So there’s the background.

At one point in the conversation, the following dialogue took place:

Chris: “did you go to the festival [in Edinburgh]?”

Khalid: “did I went to the festival?”

Chris: “Yeah, did you go and see it?”

Khalid: “did I went? Yes, I went to it. August.” [Katy and I share a look]

What you want to read into reformulation as a correction technique is up to you, but notice who corrected who: he corrected me. I wasn’t correcting him in this interaction – I was just speaking the English I know, use and, well, speak in bars (and elsewhere, I should add) – but he was definitely correcting me. This was the first time I think I’ve ever had my English grammar ‘corrected’ by pretty much anyone, but I’ve definitely never been corrected by someone of level B1+ in a bar!

So, what does this tell us? Probably very little in the grand scheme of things (has anyone ever seen this putative ‘grand scheme’ anywhere?), but it does highlight some interesting points that  the gregarious Khalid probably didn’t know he was making. For instance, Khalid would surely be in disagreement with Tricia Hedge’s approach, were they to meet in a bar (one day it will be me..), which Li summarises as “only ‘global’ errors (those which cause communication problems) [should] be addressed, but not ‘local’ errors (those which do not)” (3). Khalid seems to be from a more Behaviourist school of error-avoidance and explicit recasts.

Coming back to the original thread of this piece (for one should), for Khalid, native speakers clearly do not own English, as Mahaligham most forcefully points out to Toomey in the quotation at the start of this post. Nor are they experts or consultants, but are simply interlocutors of equal weight (not in the BMI sense) in a conversation – after all, in the above conversation, he was telling me he was right. It seems Khalid would agree with Widdowson when he says:

“How English develops in the world is no business whatsoever of native speakers in England [surely the UK, Henry?], the United States, or anywhere else. They have no say in the matter, no right to intervene or pass judgement. They are irrelevant… [English] is not a possession which they lease out to others, while retaining the freehold. Other people actually own it” (4)

Moreover, for Khalid, so what if I’m an English teacher and teacher trainer. So what?? He had no fear in correcting me, regardless of the different ‘status’ we might be seen to have as regards whose English is ‘correct’. Because what does that even mean any more?

So, what should I have done? If we believe that successful communication is the ultimate end, then possibly I should have done what I did: nothing. However, is Khalid going to continue in his English-speaking ways to make that error, one which is clearly not a slip or mistake, but an error based on a lack of linguistic knowledge (another consideration for the Hedge)? If he does that, does it even matter? After all, he communicated fine and most of his interaction in Muscat will be with other non-native English speakers, which will make Seidlhofer happy at least. But then, does this (Khalid’s error, not Seidlhofer’s happiness) diminish ELF as a concept, ‘reducing’ it to a simplified ‘English’, a a pidgin contact language? Why would that even be a problem? Or is it potential evidence, if it were to be repeated in many different bars across the globe, of an ELF grammar developing its own internal logic? And then what?!

Or, y’know what, maybe Khalid had just had one too many bottles of Peroni and I should get out more. Or stay in. I stand to be corrected.

References

(1) Burgess, A. Earthly Powers. Vintage Digital; Kindle Edition. 18 Oct 2012.

(2) Seidlhofer, B. (2005). English as a Lingua Franca. ELT Journal, 59/4. October 2005.

(3) Li, S. (2013). Oral Corrective Feedback ELT Journal, 67/4. First published online 13/12/13.

(4) Widdowson, H. (1994). The Ownership of English, in Jenkins, J. (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: OUP. 

Reading and Listening Lesson Musts

Why are reading and listening lessons often treated as procedural, formulaic and possibly even dull? Do learners actually get a chance to develop their skills in such lessons, or are they just given opportunities to read or listen in class? If the latter, is that a valuable use of time? Is skimming always the first thing we should do with a text?

Below is a talk I gave for IHWO a few weeks ago that tries to address the above questions. I’ve shared it here so you can see the slides too, which are below, and which might be helpful as the video lags slightly at points.

Many thanks to Neil McMahon for inviting me to speak and for all the technical wizardry, as well as everyone who attended the talk over the two days.

What is the Point in Pre-Teaching?

In an earlier post on top-down/bottom-up processing and context/co-text, I mentioned that there might well be another one on issues to do with teaching receptive skills. And here it is.

Recently I have become somewhat fatigued watching trainee teachers pre-teach vocabulary prior to receptive skills work in class. I would actually go further and say I am starting to actively hate it. A bit like other pernicious habits such as smoking or having children, it’s not something I do myself, but I see a lot of people I know doing it (they don’t post about it on Facebook though, admittedly) and so it’s always sort of just blended into the background of language teaching for me, which is always a worrying realisation. Such a worrying realisation, in fact, that I more or less blindly suggested trainees include it in receptive skills lessons for about two years before I started to wonder. A little reflection can be a dangerous thing.

What is pre-teaching?

Christine Nuttall (1982: 62) points out the suggestion that “moderate L1 readers can recognise about 50,000 words”, which does seem like a lot (maybe it’s lexemes?). Now there’s no way that most learners are going to build a lexicon of so many items they can recognise, so can they never become even ‘moderate’ readers? Teachers, then, need to find ways of helping learners cope with text and read better. One way many people employ of doing this is to pre-teach vocabulary (or “lexis”, for the sophisticates amongst you), which is part of trying to scaffold the comprehension of the text.

In a ‘standard’ reading lesson procedure, it would come before the learners read the text, but generally after there’s been some sort of lead-in and schemata activation. It tends to involve the teaching of a few (3 or 4 usually) selected items that the teacher assumes the learners will not know and which are useful when reading the text in question.  Its purpose is to facilitate the learners’ reading development by helping them not concentrate on every word or unknown item that might distract them from the reading work, most likely a immediately preceding a subskill task such as reading for gist (skimming) or specific information (scanning), amongst others.  It is particularly common with the use of authentic text, which will more likely contain more difficult lexis.

My problems with pre-teaching

Seems pretty logical, right? So why would I be thus nonplussed by this practice? Here’s my reasons (in no particular order):

  • It really can break the flow of a lesson.

  • Learners often seem to look a bit bewildered at why 4 seemingly random words are being taught.

  • I’m just not convinced it actually helps learners read better or develop strategies to deal with text.

  • Don’t think of white bears! What are you thinking of now? If you highlight some lexis before moving on reading work, is there not a risk you actually distract from this work by drawing attention to difficult items? (This can be Tolstoy or Dostoevsky’s contribution to ELT…)

  • If done badly, it’s seriously counter-productive and can lead to boredom, disengagement, etc.

  • It’s not how we read in real life – this is hugely important: just who is going to pre-teach some selected items for learners when they read in the real world?

  • Selecting the words necessarily involves assumptions about the learners. How do you know they won’t know that word? Why do you think they don’t? What if they do?

  • And it also involves assumptions about the usefulness of the items – would you pre-teach “lusophone”, for example, in Dubai?

  • It’s not appropriate for every receptive skills lesson but is often presented as such cf. when I did CELTA years ago.

  • It can distort the focus of the lesson from a reading skills development one to a lexis learning one.

  • If you’re ‘demanding high’, why not just let the learners get on with it and come back to lexis, etc., after the reading stages of the lesson (more on that below).

  • It may hinder learners’ developing “word-attack skills”, to borrow Christine Nuttall’s term (anyone else actually see a text being knifed by Nuttall there?), such as working out which words are important/can be ignored, inferring meaning, etc.

One size does not fit all

Perhaps you feel I’m being a bit harsh on the poor wee lamb to the pedagogical slaughter that is pre-teaching. Let me redress the balance a little then. Pre-teaching does, mayhap, have a place in some lessons, but not all. You may want to help learners a little bit with a few items that may be tricky, or let them know that Mariánské Lázně is a place, so they don’t worry about it upon encountering it in a text about Spas and faded European grandeur; however, this should be decided upon based on the text, the lesson, the learners, the aims, the loadsa things specific to that group and that class and not simply be a given in any skills lesson. There is, as usual, no one-size-fits-all solution.

Another argument for pre-teaching (or actually more for raising awareness of reading as strategies/skills) is that this idea can often be revelatory for trainees who have little access to professional development or training, or who have come for more ‘traditional’ teaching backgrounds, as it is a common practice to teach all (presumed) new lexis before learners read (often out-loud one at a time – heaven forfend!). This approach has precedents in older approaches such as The Reading Method recommended in the USA in the 1920s, which revolved around the text as the central component of the learning process, with each text being accompanied by a list of vocabulary which was to be taught before any reading occurred (Richards and Rodgers, 2001:50). However, this is not pre-teaching, as it aims to teach lexis, not facilitate reading development. Here, we have a text being used for language development, not to develop the learners’ skills in reading. While this distinction may seem unintuitive for some, it is an important one.

Well if you must…

So, what if you are going to pre-teach? While this isn’t the point of this post, here’s an idea or two. It makes more sense to me to work with the most frequently occurring words in the text, as these will be the ones that help the learners get the gist of a text more than “glabrous”, for example. Try using a Wordle (you just input the text and it prettifies it into the most frequently recurring words) or putting the words up on the board and getting the learners to check them in a dictionary (paper or electronic), or to predict the content of the passage from them before reading to check (efficient gist task there). There is actually research that claims that pre-teaching the most frequent words can greatly aid learners’ reading comprehension (the article itself is more concerned with vocabulary and frequency lists, but there is a brief treatment of pre-teaching near the end).

The final word

So, to conclude this ramble, the answer is to be judicious and to take a more complex approach to skills lessons. These are merely not ‘easy’ lessons for the teacher in which they can sit back, relax and let the learners get on with it and it worries me they are often treated as such. But to come back to pre-teaching, use your professional expertise and make judicious choices about whether to pre-teach and you’ll probably find that it is not as necessary as you might think and can be cut from a good number of lessons.

Once the skills work has been done, then there’s a perfectly good text there to work to exploit further. By all means, go back to it, unpack it, teach some lexis from it (or better still, try to get learners to work it out for themselves), use it as a basis for other language work or as a model for some writing/speaking work. But first, let the learners try to make sense of the text as they would in real life, help them develop their skills in reading and don’t over-scaffold by pre-teaching too much or at all. Or is it just me?

References

Nuttall, Christine (1982). Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. Macmillan.

Richards, J. and Rodgers, T. (2001).  Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. CUP.

The Spanish Acquisition

I’m just back at work after a wonderful three week break. The first 9 days of this brief sojourn to pastures greener were in Spain, first Valencia for a couple of days and then a week in Andalucía. I was confronted for the first time with prolonged exposure to Spanish Spanish, in its various forms, (let’s not get into the politics of that here) which, for someone who learned their Spanish primarily in Costa Rica, was a fascinating linguistic adventure (isn’t this why everyone goes on holiday..?). However, it brought to my attention once more something which I’ve pondered before: the difference between learning a language and actually using it (I use myself as an example in this post simply as I have much more evidence about myself than anyone else – skip the next five paragraphs if that interests you not!).

A short anecdote

During my brief trip to Spain, I experienced something I’ve often struggled with in the past: Spanish. Ok, that’s not quite right. Using Spanish would be more accurate. I think I’m pretty good at learning Spanish: I know my subjunctives from my imperfects, notice things people say all the time, pick up on collocations, like the grammar and enjoy reading. My problem comes when I try to use the damn language (the same used to happen to my French too). It doesn’t happen all the time, but often when I try speaking Spanish I can become completely tongue-tied (or brain-tied), despite having passed the DELE C1 exam (which suggests I should be better than I am). I often just can’t think of how to begin to say the simplest thing and can’t quite seem to get over this in the moment.

In Sevilla, I had to buy an adaptor for my phone charger so I could plug it in. More specifically, I had to buy a USB adaptor which would then allow me to connect it to the mains. Having got to the centre of the city, I set of in search of one and within 5 minutes had stumbled across a small electronics shop. In I went and spoke to the man behind the counter, explaining what I needed.  He got an idea of what I wanted and then, when I said “I’ll show you it [the USB cable]”, he simply stared at me blankly. After eventually completing the transaction for a bargain 1.50, I left the shop and wondered why the breakdown in communication occurred.

Now, I hadn’t really spoken Spanish for about 6 months, but still, I should have the necessary lexis or ability to paraphrase my way out of most given situations. The grammar isn’t difficult for this type of description or request.  I was at a bit of a loss. I hadn’t been at my most fluent, but was out of practice with the language and felt a bit nervous due to this. Then it dawned on me, or rather, smacked me in the face so hard I could have been in Monty Python’s fish slapping dance. Instead of saying to the man “te lo muestro” (I’ll show you it), as intended, I actually repeated 3 times “te veo” (I see you), which makes so little sense in this situation as to be absurd.  Oddly enough, he was somewhat confused by my telling him in mid conversation about an adaptor that I could see him. Why did this happen?

Using Spanish?
Using Spanish?

The situation is made all the more frustrating for me by the fact that there are times when I’m really very fluent and have no problems at all speaking. I have puzzled about this a lot, trying to find reasons or spot a pattern and one or two things have suggested themselves. I principally have problems when I’m nervous or unsure, when I think a lot, with certain individuals,  when I’m with people I perceive to speak the language better than me, with L1 Spanish speakers who speak English to a high level. All of this really does point towards some sort of psychological/affective issue, but for the sake of writing something, let’s look at some other ideas.

In the following paragraphs, I’ll outline some potential theoretical accounts of why I might have the problems I do. This is not intended to be exhaustive or authoritative, merely some ideas that might be a useful introduction to such things for DELTA module 1 candidates.

Not So Smooth Operator

One of the aspects of speaking in an L2 which is difficult for learners is that, outside the contrivance that is the language classroom (to paraphrase Ellis), speaking takes place in real-time conditions or real operating conditions; that is to say, that instead of having time to prepare what I’m going to say about a given topic, for example, I’m thrown head first into the cut and thrust world of a real conversation in which, amongst other things, the topic may suddenly change, lexis I do not know may be used/needed, I may have to suddenly respond to something said, the grammar might be quite complex or there may be a group of native speakers having a good chinwag and I get lost. There is also the element of listening to consider, for spoken interaction wouldn’t really work without it (see ‘mansplainer’). In real operating conditions, there’s a lot for your brain to handle and so sometimes it’s just overload and you lose fluency or accuracy or both.

“I can’t control the way I’m movin my lips… it’s automatic, it’s automatic”

In order to cope with the above, learners have to develop a degree of automaticity. This lovely combination of six syllables basically means that, when speaking, the learner does not need to focus their attention on putting the language together, but rather can devote a greater degree of brain power to getting their point across i.e. they are what is perceived to be fluent. There are numerous aspects to this, such as relying on chunks, fillers and other discourse features, as well as having had enough practice at actually speaking to make it more automatic (like riding a bike, say).  If you think about recounting an anecdote in an L2, for example, you probably don’t do it so fluently the first time you find yourself doing it; however, by the fifth time, you’re probably regaling everyone as if you were a native. Why? You’ve thought about it, practised it and started to make the things you had to think about before more automatic; in other words, you’ve developed that degree of automaticity.

Performance Anxiety

Most teachers (and many learners) will be familiar with the problem I outlined above: the learner knows the language quite well in class and on paper, but when it comes to using it, it just doesn’t work out for some reason.  This seems to me to mirror what Ellis in SLA Research and Language Teaching, following Chomsky and Sharwood Smith, describes as the difference between “linguistic competence” (knowledge of the formal properties of the language) and “performance 2” (actually using the language receptively and productively). Thus, a learner may have a reasonable degree of linguistic competence i.e. I know the ‘rules’, lexis, quite well, but a low performance ability i.e. I can’t always turn that knowledge into successful language use to communicate, and hence comes across as not fluent to some degree.

Krashen Burn

Krashen proposed five hypotheses for SLA (Second Language Acquisition). I’m only going to discuss three here, as I feel these are the most germane to the topic of this post, but the other two are but a Google search away.

The first of these hypotheses is that there is a distinction between “acquisition” (all quotations from The Natural Approach pp26-27) and “learning”; that is, the former is “natural”, “unconscious” and achieved through “using language for real communication”, while the latter is “conscious, “formal knowledge of a language” aided by formal instruction (or ‘teaching’, to you and I). Krashen uses this distinction to suggest that fluency would be directly linked to acquisition, not learning, and so only that which has already been acquired would be used fluently in a given situation. How this is measured is anyone’s guess, but that’s more or less what he says.

The Medium is not the Monitor

Another hypothesis, the third, was that of the Monitor. This proposes that what we have learned in the L2 is only really useful in terms of monitoring what we have acquired and is thus not particularly useful for fluency, which relies on the acquired system. In other words, this implies that our fluency is directly related to what we’ve acquired and that our learning only comes in to check this (for Krashen, this can happen before, during or after an utterance – make of that what you will). So, if I over-use the Monitor, I will be thinking too much about being ‘correct’, this disrupting my fluency and, possibly, communicative success; if I under use the Monitor, I won’t be focussed on accuracy at all, but distinctly on the message. Furthermore, I have to be aware of any rule to monitor before I even use it i.e. I haven’t studied or been exposed to the present continuous at all, so I ain’t going to be using the Monitor to check my accuracy with it. However, for the purposes of this post, the thing to take away is that Monitor over-use can have a very negative effect of fluency.

Personal Affects

An affective filter?

The fifth hypothesis was the Affective Filter. Here, Krashen describes how affective factors i.e. factors linked to feelings or emotions, can affect language acquisition. His basic point is that if the learner is motivated, has a positive self-image and is relaxed, there will be “deeper” language acquisition if there is sufficient input as the Affective Filter will be low to allow the language in; conversely, if the learner is incredibly nervous, in no way open to learning or lacking in self-esteem (these can of course all be linked), then the Affective Filter will be high and the chances of acquisition severely dented.

Krashen is talking about SLA, but I see no reason why the same should not apply to performance (and indeed often see the term low Affective Filter used to describe having a good classroom rapport so that learners aren’t afraid to speak). You could then extrapolate that if a learner is nervous in any given situation, than their chances of being able to speak fluently will be severely dented due to a high ‘Affective Filter’. So, a learner may be very well aware of the language they need to communicate their message, but unable to access it and perform due to affective factors such as self-esteem, nervousness or pressure.

In Conclusion

So, there’s some ideas to think about next time you have a learner who’s having problems with their fluency. There are others and so why not mention one in the comments below. My own idea about my problems is that it is something affective and thus very much out of my language learning control. Perhaps NLP is the answer… or perhaps not.

The Past Simple and Present Continuous Walk into a Bar. It was Tense.

This is a summary of a DELTA session I did recently introducing the notion that time and tense may not actually be the same thing. It largely follows Michael Lewis’ The English Verb, which comes highly recommended, and I touch on aspect at the end.

How Many Tenses Does English Have?

This may seem like quite a tricky question to answer, if you start counting all those coursebook tenses up: present simple, present continuous, past perfect… However, it’s actually much simpler than that. English has but a mere two tenses, which are present (or non-past) and past. This assertion may seem surprising, but should become clearer as you read on.

The reason that English is said to have two tenses is the definition of grammatical tense which, according to Lewis in The English Verb, involves “a morphological change in the base form of the verb” (p50). You can see why this limits English to two tenses if you then try to work out what morphological changes are permitted in English verbs. Take the verb say”, for example. In the present we can say “he says”, while in the past “he said”. However, for the future, we have to add something else, we can’t simply express futurity with a change to the verb and get examples such as “I’m going on holiday with Marion Cotillard next week” or “I’ll say yes when Marion proposes”.  Other languages, such as the Romance languages, have a conjugation to express futurity cf. “je dirais” in French or “yo diré” in Spanish, where there is a morphological change in the infinitives “dire” and “decir” (other ways of referencing the future can also be used).

Only 2 Tenses, But Time?

Of course, we have more than two ways of thinking about time. In the West, we’d probably say that time is conceived of in terms of the past, the present and the future (that said, Steven Pinker’s idea of our core notion of time in The Stuff of Thought is “before-or-after” and “at-the-same-time” (p 85), which is more or less the same idea, I guess, though I’m straying a bit from the point here). Thinking of past, present or future gives us three notions of time, but only two tenses, and so leads to the conclusion that time ≠ tense. After all, time is a semantic notion, whereas tense is grammatical. They can certainly correlate, as when I say “I hung out with Marion yesterday”, where I am clearly using the past tense to reference past time. However, consider the following and think about the tense being used and the time being talked about

  • “If I went for a drink with Marion Cotillard, we’d talk about the English tense system”
  • “So I go to meet Marion and she says to me ‘let’s talk tenses’”

In the first one, we have the past tense (went) but referring to a hypothetical present or future; in the second sentence, we have the present tense (go, says) referring to past time (I’m narrating a past event here). Indeed the present and the past tense can each be used to refer to past, present or future time. Another example of seemingly strange present tense referring to past time occurs in sentences like

  • “Marion Cotillard marries Chris”? [as a newspaper headline]

The event clearly happened in the past, but is referred to using a present tense.

Distance Relatives

Great, huh? It’s a total mess. Why is English so complicated? It’s ok, take a breath, breathe, there’s some underlying logic at work here. Following Lewis, this underlying logic is that of remoteness (or “distance” as Alex Tilbury labels it in IH LAC). If we look at some of our sentences from above again, this becomes clearer

  • “I hung out with Marion yesterday”
  • “If I went for a drink with Marion Cotillard”

In the first, there is temporal distance; that is to say, the past tense is used to show that the event happened at a point in past time remote from now, in this case “yesterday”. In the second sentence, the distance here is from reality: I use the past tense to show that I am not talking about reality, that I am distancing what I say from it and thus dealing in hypotheticals. Now think about the following sentence

  • “Could you pass me the claret, Marion?”

Here, “could” is seen as the past of “can” and is used to create a social distance between the speaker and the listener, which is interpreted as a more polite way of asking this question as it’s seen as less direct.

So, we can conclude that when the past tense is used, it’s because of one of the three types of distance that we wish to express, namely temporal, hypothetical or social. The present tense would be used in all other cases and for this reason is also called the “non-past” by some. This helps explain the seemingly odd “Marion marries Chris” on a newspaper headline – the present tense is employed to make the event seem less remote and more urgent now, which is what the headline writer would try to do to capture the reader’s attention. The same could be said of the present tense being used in narratives, making the events being described more urgent for the listener or reader and thus keeping them on the edge of their seats, so to speak.

What distance is being employed in the following sentences?

  1. “What was the name, please?” [said by a receptionist in a doctor’s]
  2. “Jessica got a job in Turkey the a couple of weeks ago”
  3. “I wish Marion was reading this”

The answers are that the first is social, then temporal and finally hypothetical (she isn’t reading this, is she?). The last one, though, is different in another way too as the verb form isn’t simple.

That’s only one aspect of it

Ok, so two tenses which can be used to refer to the past, present or future. But what about the present perfect or the present continuous, I hear you cry? Well, these are examples of the present tense in conjunction with another grammatical concept known as aspect. Grammatical aspect is the speaker’s use of auxiliaries, affixes, etc. in the verb phrase to indicate their interpretation of events, such as whether the event is perceived as a completed or in progress. Take our sentence from above, for example:

  • “I wish Marion was reading this”

This would be analysed as the past tense with the progressive aspect to give a verb form described as the ‘past continuous’. As another example, the ‘present continuous’ would be the present tense combined with the progressive aspect, as in

  • “Marion is enjoying my blog posts”

English has two aspects, progressive (continuous) and perfect. The perfect shows “the relationship between one state or event and a later state, event, or time” (p391), while the progressive “indicates that an action is incomplete, in progress, or developing” (p427) (both quotations from the Longmann Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics ). Scott Thornbury has a couple of good videos discussing these in more detail on his blog here

Let’s take the progressive as an illustrative example. We form this by using auxiliary be and the –ing form of the verb:

  • “Marion is enjoying my blog posts”

If the auxiliary is in the present tense (is, in the previous example), then we have the present continuous; if, on the other hand, it is in the past, as in

  • “I wish Marion was reading this”

then we have the past continuous. Here, both examples probably indicate that the events in question were in progress (enjoying, reading), and so I use the continuous to express this. Compare

  • “Marion enjoys my blog posts”

This indicates that I see this as a timeless fact, that it isn’t temporary or in progress, and so I use an unmarked simple verb form. So, if we unpack all the meaning from “I wish Marion was reading this”, we see that the past tense is used to show hypothetical distance and the progressive aspect employed to indicate an unfolding event in progress. Note that it now seems natural that the past tense would be used after “wish”, as this automatically triggers a sense of hypothetically (you could look up colligation here too, which is the grammar that certain lexis triggers i.e. past tense after wish structures)

And with that, I’m off down the pub. If Marion weren’t so hypothetical,  she’d be present too.