English Past Simple & Present Perfect in Relation to Thai Learners
simple and present perfect are two areas of English grammar that are often
introduced to Thai learners at an early stage of any language
programme in English. However many
Thai learners seem to have repeated difficulties using and distinguishing
between the two even at an advanced level.
I will try to illustrate a variety of the problems that lead to such
difficulties. Not the least of
these is that Thai is a ‘tenseless’ language. This is in common with other
Southeast Asian languages such as Vietnamese, Malaysian and Laos, and as has
been noted by various writers (Svalberg and Chuchu 1998; Hinkel 1997, 1992),
speakers of such languages rarely become proficient at using tense and aspect in
English. I will begin my discussion
with an examination of past simple and present perfect in English and then
contrast this with Thai, showing in particular how the same functions can be
expressed in Thai. This will lead
into an assessment of what Thai learners do, and some suggestions as to why.
Finally, I hope to look briefly at the pedagogic implications of this.
has been characterised as
containing two tenses; present tense and past tense (Huddleston
1984; Quirk et al. 1972). Tense is used to locate an
event or state to a point of time. The
present tense usually refers to the
present time and general time. The
past tense usually refers to past time
(Quirk et al. 1972).
past tense is usually used in reference to some definite time in the past that
took place before the present moment and excludes the present (Leech, 1971),
hence it can be referred to as the ‘exclusive past’ (Huddleston, 1984: 158).
The past tense is often found with time adverbials indicating a definite
past time, e.g. yesterday, last week, two years ago.
above, exclusive past illustrates what could be called the ‘prototypical’
use of past tense. However, there
are other uses. Some other uses of
past simple would include ‘backshifting’ (Huddleston 1984), where a verb in
a subordinate clause, within a larger clause that contains a past tensed verb,
will also be in past tense. The
most common example of this is in indirect speech.
1.You have some interesting books. --->
2. He said you had some interesting books. (Still true in
as Huddleston notes, this is optional and the verb in the subordinate clause
could remain in present tense.
less ‘prototypical’ use of past tense is attitudinal past (Quirk et al.
1972: 86). This is a use of past
simple to indicate the attitude of the speakers rather than a past time and it
denotes a polite request.
3. Did you want to see me?
Past tense can also be used to express a
hypothetical situation or what Huddleston refers to as ‘factual remoteness’
(1984). This includes ‘If’ and
‘Wish’ clauses (Conditionals). Another
use of past tense identified by Leech is in narratives even if the narrative
takes place in an imagined future (1971)e.g. The
year was 2020.
Further uses of past tense, in particular in
academic writing but also in spoken English, are identified by Riddle (1986) and
Hinkel (1997). They examine uses of
past tense in various writing conventions in English such as giving background
information or referring to events with past associations.
For example, in giving background information:
4. “The school was
an all girls school and there were around a thousand students.”
However, it may still be true that the school is
an all girls school and there are a
thousand students. In describing past associations:
5. “My first teacher was
a great teacher.”
Your first teacher may well still be a great teacher, however the event is associated with a past
temporal reference and so ‘was’ is more appropriate than ‘is’.
This use of past tense is associated as much with conventions as with a
temporal reference to past time.
In addition to tense English also contains aspect.
Aspect does not relate an event or situation to a point in time like a
tense, but is rather concerned with “the internal temporal constituency of one
situation” (Comrie 1976: 5). That
is, aspect is related to the time structure of the event itself rather than its
‘external’ temporal location. English
can be said to have three aspects: simple, progressive and perfect (Svalberg and
Chu Chu 1998). Given the
interests of this paper it will obviously be the perfect aspect that is examined
Comrie (1976) observes that the perfect aspect in
English is different to other aspects, in that it doesn’t tell us so much
about the internal temporal situation of an event or state, but relates it to a
preceeding time. Therefore, the present perfect expresses a relationship between
a present state and a past situation. This makes perfect very close to a tense
when compared to other aspects (Huddleston, 1984:164).
Nevertheless, it is still classified as an aspect.
As previously said present perfect relates the past
to the present, however this needs to be clarified further. Four main types of
‘perfect’ have been identified (see Comrie 1976, Leech 1971, Leech and
A. The perfect can be used with a state which began
in the past and continues up to the present time and can continue into the
6. The house has been
empty for ages. (Leech
and Svartvik 1979: 66)
An adverb of duration is usually required for this
use (Leech 1971: 31).
B. The perfect can be used with a habit in a period
of time from the past to the present.
7. I have lived in
Thailand for four years.
Again an adverb of duration is required for this
use (Leech 1971: 34).
C. The perfect can also be used for the indefinite
past, at some time between the present and past.
8. I have been to
In this use the exact time is considered
unnecessary or irrelevant to the speaker.
D. The perfect is used for a past event with a
9. Your friend has arrived.
To this Huddleston (1984) also adds that the use of
perfect is required with certain time adverbials e.g. since last week, for a month, and yet. In addition it is
used with recent events.
10. I’ve just been to the cinema.
However Leech and Svartvik (1979) include this as
part of use C, indefinite past time.
simple versus present perfect
Tense in English is marked on the first verb in a
tensed verb group (Svalberg and Chu Chu 1998). Past simple can be identified as;
past tense with simple aspect and present perfect as; present tense with a
perfect aspect. Past simple is
formed with a finite verb + ‘ed’ for regular verbs and in a number of
different ways for irregular verbs. Present
perfect is formed with have/has + en form (past participle) of the verb.
Huddleston has defined present perfect as the
‘inclusive past’, as opposed to past tense as the ‘exclusive past’
(1984). Thus we can think of past
tense as having some fixed point in a time previous to now and ‘excluding’
the present, and the present perfect as expressing a relationship between some
past time and now, therefore ‘including’ the present time.
However, it is very important to note that the
choice of past simple or present perfect often resides with the speaker, rather
than any temporal location of an event or situation.
For example if asked, “Have you ever been abroad?” it would be
perfectly acceptable to reply, “Yes, I went to Mexico last year.” or,
“Yes, I’ve been to Mexico.” The
selection relies on the speaker’s perception of the situation, and whether
they think it necessary to give a definite time or an indefinite time.
It should also be noted that in conversation we tend to move from the
general to the specific (Leech, 1971), in the above example, from the indefinite
time of present perfect to the definite time of past simple.
Nevertheless, as already noted, certain time
adverbials such as yet, since, and for require the
use of perfect aspect, whereas others such as last week and a month ago,
demand the use of past tense. In
addition if we contrast various sentences in present perfect with past simple we
will see some clear distinctions.
11. He has lived in London all his life.
12. He lived in London all his life.
In sentence 11 we understand that he is alive and
still living in London at the present time.
In sentence 12 we understand that the person is now dead.
So in expressing an event that started in the past and continues up to
the present we must use present perfect.
13. Your taxi has arrived.
14. Your taxi arrived.
For sentence 13 we understand that the taxi arrived
some time in the past and is now waiting. Sentence
14 is very unlikely and the speaker would probably have to clarify whether the
taxi had arrived and then left, or whether it was still waiting.
So to express a past action with a present result we must use present
15. Have you seen the new teacher?
16. Did you see
the new teacher?
In this example, we can see the difference between
indefinite (present perfect) and definite (past simple) time. In sentence 15 the question is asking if you have ever seen
this teacher, at some time in your life. In
contrast, sentence 16 refers to a specific time in the past, perhaps the new
teacher has just walked past, or you had an appointment with them.
From the above analysis it can be seen that to have
a good understanding of past simple and present perfect in English, learners
must be aware of the temporal references and distinctions associated with each
of them. Learners also need to be
aware of various conventions regarding the choice of either form, which may not
be related to temporal meaning, but rather personal perspectives or discourse
conventions. In addition learners
need to understand the various morphological features, particularly in terms of
inflection for past tense or past participle (en) forms of English verbs.
Hopefully, by now looking at Thai it will be
possible to get some indication of what features of tense and aspect Thai
learners need to learn, to be able to use past simple and present perfect
There is no system of tenses to mark temporal
relationships in Thai (see Sindhvananda 1970).
Thai verbs do not inflect for number, tense or aspect (Haas 1964)as they
do in English. Of course, this does
not mean the Thai language has no way to express time.
Temporal placement of a situation or event is shown predominantly through
context, in common with other SE Asian languages (Hinkel 1992).
Where specific reference to a time is needed, and not available through
context, time adverbials are generally used.
In addition, it has been claimed that there is a system of auxiliary
verbs which function as ‘tense and aspect markers’ (Noochoochai 1978),. However, these are predominantly used in written Thai, and
even then not very frequently (Marketing Media Associates). Furthermore, I hope
to show, they are not equivalent to English tense and aspect.
To express a temporal reference in Thai analogous
to past simple in English it would be necessary to use a time adverbial such as
yesterday, last week, before.
17. Pom pai Krungthep muer
(I go Bangkok
(I went to Bangkok yesterday)
18. Muer gone nee
pom yoo tee
(I lived in England before.)
For a statement such as:
19. Chan mai
roo tam aria
(I don’t know what to do/ I didn’t
know what to do)
The only way to distinguish between a past time
reference and a present time reference would be through context.
There are various auxiliary verbs such as ‘dai’, ‘laew’ and ‘pen’ which can also indicate a past time reference and generally indicate that the action is completed (Noochoochai 1978).
20. Chan dai arn
(I read a book)
21. Fon tok laew
(It rained, or It has rained, or It has
With the exception of ‘laew’, which is not exclusively used in this sense of
completed past, these are mainly restricted to writing and rarely used.
For narrative past tense there are again various
time adverbials that can indicate a temporal reference to the past for example,
(in the past), and ‘su mai gone’
(a long time ago).
Although Thai has something comparable to indirect speech in English, the verb form and auxillary verb are not exclusively used for past reference.
22. Chao bok wa kuhn
(They said you must go to the market)
23. Chan ja
bok wa kuhn tong
(I will say
do good good)
(I will tell you, you have to do it well)
As regards other uses of past simple tense in
English identified earlier such as attitudinal past, factual remoteness and
discourse functions, these are expressed outside the verb group in Thai, with no
In relation to present perfect, it is sometimes claimed that Thai has perfective markers (Marketing Media Associates). However, these are not really an equivalent to English verb inflections for aspect and they can often be used for different aspectual functions depending on the context (Kanchanawan 1978). Nevertheless the auxiliary verb ‘keuy’ has a function similar to the present perfect in English used for indefinite time, and ‘pung’ is used in a similar way to present perfect for recent events.
24. Chan keuy pai
(I’ve been to China)
25. Row mai keuy
(We’ve never cooked English food)
Pom pung glap
(I’ve just got back)
Unlike English present perfect though, it is
possible to use ‘kuay’
with a specific time reference.
27. Pom kuay yoo tee pra-ted India
bee tee laew
country India before three year
(*I have lived in India three years
It should be stressed that, although temporal
references can be made in Thai through time adverbials and auxiliary verbs these
are usually only used when the context is not sufficient.
The context is by far the most important component of temporal reference
It can be seen from the above analysis that there
are a variety of contrasts between Thai and English.
Firstly, there is no tense system in Thai and although there are
obviously ways to make explicit temporal references, they are often not
analogous to all the uses of past simple or present perfect in English.
Secondly, there are no obligatory inflections on verb forms in Thai for
either tense or aspect. Thirdly, temporal references in Thai are made through;
most commonly context, and then either optionally or where necessary through
time adverbials, or auxiliary verb ‘tense markers’.
This latter group is used much less frequently than English verbs marked
for tense or aspect, and although their functions at times coincide with English
tense and aspect functions, none of them are exact equivalents.
For many of the non-temporal functions, of past tense in particular,
there are no analogous forms involving the verb group in Thai.
Now that an analysis of past simple and present perfect in English has
been completed and this has been contrasted with the Thai language, it will be
necessary to examine how Thai learners make use of the present perfect and past
simple, and some of the difficulties that arise.
learners’ use of past simple and present perfect
Firstly, Thai learners make much less use of past
simple and present perfect than native speakers would in both written and spoken
English. This is consistent with
studies on tense and aspect use of speakers from tenseless languages (Hinkel,
1992 and Svalberg and Chu Chu, 1998). When
Thai students are asked about what they did at the weekend or last week they
will frequently, even at advanced levels, reply using uninflected verb forms.
This may be for a variety of reasons.
As previously noted, Thai verbs do not have obligatory tense and aspect
inflections and so at lower levels learners may simply not have fully recognized
the importance of this in English, particularly if the temporal reference is
clear from the context. However,
this is unlikely to be the case for more advanced learners.
Indeed, if asked to correct their own speech or writing, Thai learners
are often able to immediately identify problems with tense or aspect. It may well be, as Svalberg and Chu Chu, (1998) have
observed, that this awareness of the difficulties and uncertainty in tense and
aspect rules causes learners to avoid using them.
In addition, in Thai there are also problems
related to the pronunciation of verb inflections.
Thai syllables always end with either a vowel sound or a single consonant
(Haas 1964). Hence consonant
clusters associated with verb inflections such as ‘watched’ cause
difficulties for Thais. This is
further compounded by the tendency in Thai for elision of the final sound from a
word or syllable. Therefore, even
if Thai learners are aware of the grammatical constructions needed, they may not
be able to physically produce them, especially when attempting fluent
conversation. It is worth noting
that the above problems are frequently associated not with L1 transfer but with
‘L1 expectations’ (Svalberg and Chu Chu 1998).
That is, although the learners may often know that uninflected verb forms
are incorrect, they feel like a cumbersome and unneeded grammatical and
pronunciation requirement and are avoided.
Looking now at Thai learners’ actual use of past
simple and present perfect there are various problems that arise.
The examples below are taken from an informal writing assignment given to
a class of fourth year English minors at a Thai university.
The task was to, ‘Write a brief profile of yourself including major
events or achievements in your life so far’. A very common error can be seen
from the following two examples.
Describing looking after some stray cats:
28. Although I was so
tired, I kept going on for only one reason, that I love them.
Discussing a summer job:
29. Unbelievably that is
the most exciting experience for me. I
am very impressed.
In both of these examples, the students have used
present tense to describe feelings that would more usually be expressed in past
tense by a native speaker. This is
perhaps a result of the writers feeling that the emotions associated with the
event are still true at the time of writing, and so should be described in
present tense, even though both the events were discussed in past tense.
This I would suggest results from a failure to properly understand the
discourse conventions used in English. The
importance of this as an area of difficulty for non-native speakers has been
highlighted by Riddle (1986) and Hinkel (1997) and has been
Further problems arise for Thai learners in
selecting either past simple or present perfect and with L1 interference.
The following examples are frequently encountered in Thai students
writing and speech.
30. I have ever been to Singapore.
In the above example, the use of ever is a
translation of the Thai word ‘kuay’ and as noted above frequently occurs in Thai with
an indefinite time reference. The situation becomes further complicated when we
look at the next example:
I have ever studied it in Rajini School for 3 years.
In this example the writer has both formed the
present perfect incorrectly, and used it in a context where past simple is
necessary due to the definite past time reference of a completed event (the
student is now at university). This is most likely a result of the use of ‘kuey’
in Thai being possible with a definite time reference. In
this second example, the mistake is not so much one of L1 interference, as of L1
influences leading Thai learners to make false hypothesis about English temporal
reference, based on what they know of Thai grammar. Similar conclusions about
the effect of L1 grammar on hypotheses for English grammar in NNS have been made
by Hinkel (1992), and Svalberg and Chu Chu, (1998).
A final problem that can often be observed is the
use of a time adverbial for temporal reference when tense or aspect would be
more common, as the following example illustrates:
32. On studying French; I did not like it … I don’t know why until
Here the student has used the time adverbial ‘until
to refer to a state which began in the past and continues to the present.
As already shown, this is a function more commonly performed by the
perfect aspect in English (it is worth noting in the above example it would be
possible to use the adverbial ‘still’
rather than present perfect), yet in Thai there is no analogous use of a
perfective aspect to do this. Again
this is could be viewed as an example of a false hypothesis about English based
on L1 expectations.
There are a number of important teaching issues
that arise from the above discussion. Firstly,
the grammatical analysis of past simple and present perfect is in contrast to
more traditional classifications of English tense and aspect.
Many grammar books make a distinction between twelve tenses in English
(Sinclair 1990: 455-456) and assign each tense a temporal reference.
This has certainly been the case in my experience of Thai learners'
perceptions of tense in English. Meziani
(1998) has highlighted the limitations of this approach to teaching.
It should be clear from this analysis that English tense and aspect have
a variety of functions, and it is perhaps as Meziani suggests more useful to
look at the functions and how we use different constructions for this.
It therefore follows that it would be beneficial
for students to look at the different functions and temporal relations between
the different uses of present perfect, in a variety of contexts, rather than the
more general rule that present perfect refers to the past with a present
relevance. Four main uses of
present perfect were identified above and learners should be given the
opportunity to see and practice their uses in contexts, such as describing past
events with current relevance: e.g. Your
car has broken down again!, talking about past experiences e.g. I’ve
sung on stage before., describing habits e.g. He’s been a teacher for 20 years., discussing states
that began in the past and continue now (and possibly into the future)e.g. Bangkok
has been the capital of Thailand for 200 years., or additionally,
describing recent past events e.g. I’ve
just met the new girl. It
would also be helpful for learners to observe the way native speakers can change
between present perfect and past simple: e.g. in the context of a conversation
talking about a previous holiday, where the speaker moves from an indefinite
time I’ve been to Thailand, to a definite time I
was there last year.
Past simple as we have seen, particularly involving
the discourse function, does not only refer to completed events in the past.
The teacher needs to highlight the conventions regarding its use, give
students opportunities to see its use in context e.g. in academic texts and
narratives, and present tasks that lead to students own production of it (see
None of the above implies that the teacher should
not explain the temporal relationship between aspect and tense, but rather that
the teacher needs to explain the different possible uses and relationships,
within given contexts as highlighted above.
In the case of Thai learners, where they may not have the same temporal
concepts as native English speakers, it will be necessary to draw explicit
attention to the temporal reference associated with tense or aspect in a given
context. As previously seen, Thai
learners do not have the same strict distinction between past simple completed
time and present perfect indefinite time. The
perfect in English also contains a wider range of usages than any Thai aspectual
equivalent. Therefore overt
explanations of temporal reference through, for example time-lines, perhaps also
supported by time adverbials such as before
or after (Hinkel 1992: 568) may help
learners’ understanding. In
addition, the teacher needs to highlight that for past simple and present
perfect, the choice between the two often depends on the speaker’s subjective
perspective of the temporal reference of an event or state.
The teacher also needs to be aware of the
morphological and phonological problems verb inflection causes Thai learners.
Due to the lack of inflection in Thai, English tense and aspect marking
on verbs can seem cumbersome and complicated for Thai learners.
A number of pronunciation problems have also been raised regarding final
consonant clusters. The teacher
needs to give Thai students plenty of opportunities to practice using verb
inflections in English.
In this paper, I have shown some of the important
uses of past simple and present perfect and distinctions between them. I have
also tried to emphasize in particular the variety of uses which are not always
related to temporal reference, and also, at times, the subjective distinction
between past simple and present perfect. Additionally,
I have attempted to draw attention to some of the important contrasts with Thai,
so that it may be possible to decide what a Thai learner will need to know to be
able to use past simple and present perfect proficiently.
From my own experience, I would agree with writers who have concluded
that SE Asian learners find temporal and aspectual reference in English hard to
grasp, despite years of studying English (Hinkel 1992; Svalberg and Chu Chu
1998). Nonetheless, I feel that if
teachers are aware of the many different uses of past simple and present perfect
in English and the distinctions between them, and also of where they differ from
the Thai language, teachers can become more conscious of what areas will need
special emphasis for their students, and can prepare materials and lessons
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©Will Baker 2002. All rights reserved.