#5. The Value of Repetition (Part 2)
by Jayna Tokie Tanaka
I did not have such a difficult time understanding why Japanese students sometimes could not create proper English sentences. After all, Japanese and English form sentences in very different ways. That some students did not automatically start sentences with subjects (because of the lack of clear subjects in many Japanese sentences), I could accept. However, it always puzzled me when students seemed to ignore verb tense completely. I believed that English verb tense was very easy to understand. Each of the frequently used tenses have very specific uses, and if you ignore exceptions, there should be nothing to worry about. It seemed to me that Japanese uses verb tense, so it should not be so difficult to understand English tenses. However, many students during all my many years of teaching in Japan have had problems with verb tense, and this problem is always more conspicuous in written English than spoken.
The reason writing demands more careful use of verb tense is obvious. When we speak, our listeners can always ask if we are talking about yesterday or tomorrow. However, when we write, the errors in verb tense stand out and cannot easily be ignored. I have found over the years that many students fail to make distinctions between the past, present, and future tenses. Okay, I told myself, the present tense is misnamed. It does not refer to the present time, so it is a little tricky. What bothers me, however, is that I always have students who use the present tense in narrative writing. Narrative writing means writing that tells a story, so naturally, the verbs should be in the past tense. This is especially true if the story is a personal experience, which is one kind of writing first year university students are expected to be able to do. When writing a paragraph entitled “My Scariest Experience,” why do they not use the past tense automatically? An experience is what happened to you; it is over, and it is certainly not something that happens habitually. The same thing happens when students talk about the future. What is the problem? I have not really come to any conclusion. I sometimes ask myself if Japanese is really that vague, and I wonder if my use of tense when I speak or write Japanese seems strange because I have not mastered the many differences.
The problem, of course, is not Japanese but the use of English tense, which, as I have mentioned, I think is quite straightforward. Would it not be possible to use transformation drills to make the different tenses “stick” in students’ minds? The cue words would be “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow.” Of course, after the first three or four times, any of the words in the sentence can become a cue.
Student A: I went to an Arashi concert yesterday.
Student B: I’m going to an Arashi concert tomorrow.
Student C: I’m going to an Arashi concert today.
Cue: practice volleyball
Student D: I’m going to practice volleyball today.
Student E: I practiced volleyball yesterday.
I always tell my students that the English language is centered around the verb. This is in contrast to Japanese, which is centered around the noun. If the right verb and the right verb tense are not used, what you say and write will not make sense. The first kind of sentence in which students have to learn to put the right verb with the right tense is in the simple affirmative sentence. Everything begins here. If this basic idea is not learned properly, the next step, learning to use clauses, cannot be taken.
Jayna Tokie Tanaka（ジェイナ・トキエ・タナカ）