Sunday, November 12, 2006

More thoughts on teaching the present progressive

When teaching the present progressive, or continuous, tense, we often concentrate on structure: you have a subject, followed by the auxiliary, “be” followed by the “-ing” form of the verb. A lot of teachers have started calling this verb “the –ing verb”, and rightly so, as I am convinced that virtually nobody can say for sure what the correct term for it is.

Would you call it the gerund? No, because the gerund is the noun derived from a verb, not a verb itself. Here we have a completely different discussion, and another lesson to prepare. You probably do a free time/interests lesson where you ask the question “what do you like doing?”. Your students have the opportunity to practise real gerunds, as in sentences like, “I like playing football, going skiing, painting, reading, shopping...”

You, of course, as a serious ESL professional, know that in a sentence like “I am having a shower”, the “-ing” verb is actually the present participle. How sure are you about that?

participles or adjectives?
If I say, “I am tired”, I know that “am” is the verb and that “tired” is obviously an adjective, given that “to be” is a verb of state, and an adjective is used to add detail to a noun, in this case a pronoun, “I”. But tired is also the past participle of the verb “to tire”. Just as past participles can be used as adjectives, so can present participles: The match was tiring, this film is boring” etc. Expressions like “running water” or “travelling salesman” contain “-ing” adjectives.
When saying “I am” we are invariably talking about a present state, so what’s the difference between “I am tired”, and “I am working”? To say “I am working” also indicates my present state, even if technically speaking “working” is the present participle, not an adjective. Interestingly, in French there is no present progressive tense, they use an adjectival phrase which translates, “I am in the process of to work”. A fine line indeed between adjectives and participles!

All these thoughts have led me to believe that they should not discussed with your students, being indeed pointless grammatical debate that will not help them one little bit to communicate more effectively. Instead of trying to have your students build sentences from pre-defined parts, i.e. aux + verb+ing = present progressive = something happening now why not make a mind map of all the possible things we could say starting with “I am”. After all, “I am English” is a present, just like “I am working”. You could brainstorm emotions, physical condition, nationalities, age, jobs, and what is happening now. This way, rather than focussing on meaningless grammatical structure, you are giving your students functional language that they can use outside the classroom.


Dennis said...

Here's a thought on the present simple: why don't textbooks teach the performative use of the present? JL Austin identified this in his book 'How to do things with words' 50 years ago, but it still hasn't made it into mainstream English textbooks. 'I agree', 'I apologise', 'I promise' 'I do' (Si, quiero) are some examples. These are not the same as statives, by the way, such as 'I like', 'I know', 'I understand', but it is interesting both categories contrast with the progressive aspect.

I have a theory about Romance languages and the present tense. It seems to me that the speech act category is wider in French, Spanish etc and that's why speakers of such languages produce utterances like these:

We go now, yes?
I write to apply for the position of...
It's ok, I pay.

Many years ago Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones produced a mildly amusing song in which a hapless rock star attempts to cop off in Franglais, using the infinitive all over place (and confusing oui with si). Learners of English probably do the same thing when they use the present tense (after all, it's practically indistinguishable from the infinitive in English)

Here's the song on Youtube:

Jonathan Lewis said...

Thank you for this very interesting comment. I'm sure you will agree that speech acts belong to a wider group of lexical items that should be taught as such and not broken down into their individual parts for grammatical analysis.
I'm not sure about your theory about speech acts in romance languages, although you may well be right. My attitude is that if that's how it is, so be it. If I want to say 'i'll get these' meaning 'I'll pay for the drinks' I have to say 'je t'offre' - so I learn it as it is, without asking too many questions, even if I know that I would never say 'I offer you' in English.
I think that translations are a useful feature of language learning, but the danger of L1 interference is stronger when we try to find word-for-word equivalents.