This from an explanation given to my class of Italian adults learning English, yesterday evening, after they had spent years, probably decades, failing to understand English tense forms.
1.) OK, so you guys don’t know English perfectly, right? (They agree.) Which means that a lot of the time you’re uncertain about how to express yourself? (Nods.)
2.) So when you’re not sure how to say something, what you do is ‘borrow’ the grammar from the language you know best, cioè Italian. Of course you do, you don’t have any better options. Just guessing randomly is inefficient. Naturally, when you’re unsure, you’ll use Italian as a guide to forming your utterance in English. Follow? (They do.)
3.) For example, you might want to say “I’ve finished!”, but you’re unsure whether that should instead be “I finished!” so you refer to Italian and find “Ho finito!”, which makes the choice pretty easy. And in this case, given the explanation mark, it would probably be the right one.
4.) Whereas if you wanted to say “I finished yesterday” and followed the same process, you’d find “Ho finito ieri”, and this time you’d be incorrect (and yes, I know you don’t really understand the difference between these two tenses. Be patient!)
5.) ‘Borrowing’ grammar knowledge from Italian works for you most of the time, or even just some of the time, but when it doesn’t work, it doesn’t usually cause a FATAL ERROR – people will figure out what you mean. And because there are not usually fatal errors, your brain marks the ‘borrow it from Italian’ solution down as ‘good enough’ and moves on to something with a higher priority. Logical?
6.) OK, here’s the interesting part. SOME ITALIAN TENSE FORMS ARE FLEXIBLE, IN THE SENSE THAT THEY HAVE MULTIPLE USES. So for you guys, ‘Ho finito’ can be approprite when you mean ‘just this minute’ but also when you mean ‘at some point in the past.
7.) English is different. English tense forms mostly have one specific meaning. For that reason there are a lot more of them! So when we CODE MEANING, we specify as exactly as we are able to, given the constraints of language, whether we mean “I have finished” (“Ho finito”) or “I finished” (“Ho finito”).
8.) When CODING MEANING IN ITALIAN, we may select a ‘general purpose’ tense form, knowing that we can expect the listener to do the work of DECODING MEANING in the way that is most appropriate to the context. Many aspects of language are imprecise in this way, so a normal part of the listening process is figuring out what the speaker intends. In Italian, that’s true of decoding the intended meanings of tense forms (not all of them – there are two or three that are as precise as their English equivalents). In English, it mostly isn’t – you need to code appropriately, because that’s what the listener expects.
9.) Some further examples? Sure! You remember the famous English ‘future’ tense forms, that you learnt at school but were mystified about? “I’m going to do”, “I’ll do”, “I’m doing”, “I do”, “I’ll be doing”, “I’ll have done”, “I’ll have been doing”, “I’m about to do”, etc. Remember that lesson? Of course you do – it was memorable, if only because of the confusion it caused! Now if you said any one of those things to me, I could have a good guess at exactly what you meant. While if you had instead chosen a different form, I would know that you intended to communicate something different (unless you were making a mistake, perhaps out of over-enthusiasm for the tense you had just studied!) See? In Italian you have basically three forms to select from, “Faccio” being the most common, “Farò” and “Avrò fatto” also being options. But in English I managed to list eight or nine options, without trying too hard. Nota bene: only one future tense form option, “I’ll have done” and “Avrò fatto”, is an exact match – the Italian palette of tense forms is much more limited.
10.) Insomma, in Italian you get by perfectly well CODING your meanings with just the three future tense forms because you expect the listener to put in the heavy lifting when DECODING what you intend to communicate. Whereas in English, it’s you, the speaker, that does the hard work when you are CODING (by selecting the most appropriate form – that’s why there are so many), and the listener gets an easy ride when DECODING.
11.) A final example? Certainly. “Vado”. You know what that means, right? Tell me. “I go” you say? Well, that’s ONE OF THE MEANINGS. What are the other meanings of “Vado”? Come on, try a little harder. OK, now you’ve got it: “I’m going” and “I’m going to go” are the obvious ones -so doing it now or in this period, and intending to do it in the future. IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER: if you translate ‘Vado” as “I go” you will be wrong most of the time, because in English “I go” has a general meaning, so sometimes, usually, always, and typically we talk about general things less often than we talk about specific, immediate things. For the more specific present or future meanings we use other forms, not “I go”.
12.) You think all this is impossible to learn? You’ve studied it a million times and still don’t get it? That, my friends, is the root of the problem. While you are ‘studying’ you are not ‘observing’, you are not ‘noticing’, you are not ‘absorbing’. You’re focusing on ‘rules’ not on how things are actually done. You’ve read and heard lots of English over the years, right? So you could, in theory, have been figuring out for yourselves, given enough examples, how the two languages are fundamentally different in this and other respects. But instead, you’ve been memorising nonsense which, I think we’ve established, hasn’t really helped you.
13.) The solution? Read and listen more. See how people actually use the language that you’re learning, see how they use it to CODE what they want to communicate – sometimes precisely, when the language allows that, and at other times much more generally, because the community of users of that language are tolerant of ambiguity in some areas (which differ from language to language.)
14.) The key? Refer back to point 2.), if you please. Any time, and it will be much of the time, that you are ‘borrowing’ or ‘transfering’ from your native tongue, because you don’t (yet) know your second language well enough to be sure how its users would CODE the meaning you hope to communicate, any time you do that, you are prioritising communicating over learning. And rightly so, for that is the nature of ‘speech’. But be aware that to speak BETTER, more accurately at least if not more fluently, you need to be reading and/or listening to the way the language is actually used, and noticing the differences.
End of sermon. I rest my case.
A coda, though.
I have had Italian students, mostly young teenagers, who read all seven of those enormously fat Harry Potter books, in English, before they were available as translations into Italian. They were that desperate to find out what happened, they couldn’t wait.
And I have other students, Italians of all ages, whose idea of a good time is to watch Netflix series in English.
And these people often say to me, when we meet in class, or when they ask for information about our courses, that they can read or listen and understand a lot. But that they’re worried about their speaking. They don’t feel confident when they have to speak (unsurprisingly if they’ve had their head in a book, or been glued to the TV screen, for years).
And yet, in fact?
They usually speak perfectly well, often much better than I’d expect, having evaluated what courses and so on they’ve previously done.
What they’ve read/heard over the years has given them a framework of reference to decide what ‘sounds right’ when they come to speak, a framework that their grammar-obsessed or lazy peers do not have.
You’re doing the right thing, I tell them. Don’t worry. Your speaking is fine.
Your native tongue whatever it is, is different from Italian in certain ways. If you have a teacher who usually or only teaches people who have the same native tongue as you do, it’s possible that she will be able to help you discover what these differences are, as I have tried to do here (but don’t bet on it…)
But you can easily and quickly do it for yourself, and once you begin, you’ll see the benefits. Once you start to pick up on HOW Italians code/decode meaning differently from English-speakers, you’ll be on your way!