CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS (FRENCH-ENGLISH) IN TEACHING ENGLISH PRETERIT AND PERFECT THROUGH TECHNICAL TEXTS
The current article represents a continuation of previous work focussing on contrastive analysis (CA) and teaching of above-mentioned categories in literature. Hereby we limit our study in a more detailed presentation of French perfect temporal and aspectual meanings (our previous work included contrastive presentation of French preterit too, Ruzhekova Rogozherova 2007, on teaching English preterit and perfect to influenced by French learners) and its English equivalents in technical texts. The corpus we used is based on data collected from numerous scientific railway transport journals (some of which bilingual, written in French and translated into English), transport Round Table proceedings, news bulletins, these documents’ English translations and other sources.
Thus we hope to be contributing on the one hand, towards the deepening of overall understanding of examined categories and their nuances interpretation and on the other, towards the more linguistic awareness-rising and consequently, efficient contrastive teaching and learning of English preterit and perfect. We reckon the article also gives insight into the specific use and functioning of examined categories in technical and scientific texts.
2. Importance of contrastive teaching (CT)
Before we proceed with issues related to temporality, aspectuality and relevant characteristics of treated categories we shall share a few ideas on contrastive teaching.
Is CT important and consequently, worth applying? We shall definitely say it is. Research has proved there is positive and negative transfer (negative one is also called “interference”) on different levels of language including pronunciation, lexis, grammar, structures not only between mother tongue and FL1 but also between FL1 and FL2 (or other previously acquired languages or ones in the process of acquisition).
Various opinions have been expressed so far regarding the influence of similarities and differences in structures of studied languages on transfer. In Lado’s view (Lado 1961: 59) similar structures “will be easy to learn because they will be transferred and may function satisfactorily in the foreign language.
Those structures that are different will be difficult because when transferred they will not function satisfactorily in the foreign language and will therefore have to be changed.”
On the other hand, Corder (1973: 230) states that not necessarily “...any particular feature of the target language which differs from the mother tongue” should create learning problems. However, later on in his study (p. 285) Corder mentions about structural differences in French and English that are likely to cause problems to learners of both languages whose native language is either French or English.
We marked above not necessarily with Italics, as we would like to put an emphasis on the fact that although divergence or lack of isomorphism may not obligatory precondition difficulties and errors, it must make us aware of their possible source. Our experience and not just theoretical background shows us equally that lack of isomorphism should not be underestimated neither in translation nor in teaching.
Let us refer to Odlin (1989: 36-38) sustaining that positive transfer facilitates initial reading and writing as well as similar grammar structures acquisition, whereas negative one causes deviations like underproduction (avoidance most often), overproduction, production errors (substitutions, calques, alterations of structures) and misinterpretation.
Thus we can state that CT based on CA turns out to be not the only one, but a relevant prerequisite of successful learning, a powerful means for avoidance of negative transfer error.
3. Tense and aspect in English and French
Although numerous scientific works have been written on the topic of tense and aspect, their essence and characteristic functioning in different languages, we would like to lead into the issue of French → English preterit and perfect functional equivalents in technical texts by a few introductory words.
Tense and everything, which has to do with it or temporality like adverbs and prepositions of time, numerals and indirect time indications, through space or overall context determinations (we shall point out some interesting exemplifying instances from our corpus), etc. is deictic. This means tense indicates an activity’s location on the conventional time axis or in other words, the category refers to the moment in time to which the process belongs (ref. Quirk 1985, Comrie 1998: 2, Imbs 1960: 12).
On the contrary, aspect and the broader category aspectuality are descriptive, as they refer not to a point in time, but to “... viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation.” (Comrie 1998: 3). We can state that aspect is involved with expressing the way a process develops in time, whether it be punctual, repetitive, ingressive or terminative, whether it be completed (perfective) or uncompleted (imperfective), whether it be related to the moment of utterance (anteriority and resultativity) or entirely devoid of current relevance (further details in Brinton 1988, Cohen 1989, Verkuyl 1972). Taking into account the lack of aspectual morphological markers in examined languages, aspect assumes in English and French cumulative characteristics. That is to say, it is on the one hand dependant on tense and time parameters of an utterance and on the other, on overall sentence, paragraph (and why not text) context, aktionsart or verbal inherent meaning, on adverbs, set phrases, phrasal verbs, articles, prepositions and conjunctions meanings. This very fact makes the general aspect-tense category (Imbs 1960 considers because of the strong interdependence between both categories they form a global entity), its inner connections and external manifestations in French and English as well as CA and consequently CT in this field extremely vivid, exciting and intriguing.
We should point out that notwithstanding considerable similarities in compared languages, tense and aspect are to some extent differently distributed in English and in French. As far as contrastively examined categories are concerned, the preterit and perfect are both considered tenses in French. This is due to the aptitude of French perfect to partially assume (apart from conveying its typical meanings of resultativity, anteriority, acquisition, attribution and subjectivity) quite often preterit’s meanings and use which is not the case in English. In theoretical grammar English possesses two tenses only - the present simple and preterit (Quirk 1985) whereas the perfect is most frequently referred to as aspect.
Here we must state that French perfect in comparison with the preterit (with the exception of a few occurrences) is almost predominantly used in technical texts, representing the topic of our study. This is due to the essence of technical texts belonging to the whole range of commentaries (like literary retrospection, summary, expression of personal ideas) (Weinrich 1973). The commentary because of its subjectivity and current-relevance presupposes a relatively limited number of preterit uses, the preterit being objective, accurate in positioning the event back in time, narrative and non-current-relevant. That is why we shall in the current paper only proceed with concise presentation of French perfect’s values and also of these ones of its most frequent English functional equivalents - English preterit and perfect.
4. Temporal and aspectual features of French perfect
We shall start this description by presenting the category’s structure, as meaning is always dependent on form. As it is the case in English, the perfect is a two-component category comprising two parts - auxiliary (avoir and être) and a past participle. The auxiliary kind of “possesses”, “acquires” or “attributes” (with être) the result of an activity typically expressed by the past participle, marking the final point in this activity’s development or the expiration of its tension (on past participle Guillaume 1970: 17, 18). Possessive shading leading in French as in English to above-enumerated aspectual characteristics of perfect results from historical development of the periphrasis, the first stage expressing entire possession of an object, present stage being characterized by weakened but still existing possessive hues. We reckon in French this nuance is even stronger, fact proved by the gender and number agreement between participle and noun, direct object of the activity in the case of avoir. With être possession growing into attribution and thus creating an even stronger subject-participle cohesion is proved by the obligatory gender and number agreement.
For a variety of reasons (Weinrich 1973) most of which related to development of modern society, journalism and probably losing narration abilities, French perfect has acquired almost all temporal and aspectual features of preterit apart from its lack of current relevance and consequently, objectivity expression. However, this use is mainly typical, as we have just mentioned, for commentaries, technical and scientific texts, retrospection and colloquial speech. French perfect with its preterit values is not excluded from literature (there are vivid literary examples revealing contrast between preterit and perfect-preterit as we may call this use, pointing out the periphrasis’ deliberate use) although it does not prevail in this kind of texts. Thus, French perfect fulfills a double function, replacing in some texts and in characteristic context the preterit and also, where needed expressing typical above-mentioned perfect values. Because of its strong resultativity the structure possesses as well a transpositional value replacing the future perfect and due to its present connection it can be used in the “if-clause” of a first conditional phrase (similarly to its perfect English equivalent). This incredible variety of functions and meanings is the reason why, on the one hand the category is so vivid and linguistically intriguing, as we shall establish it later on through appropiate examples and, on the other, tricky and demanding analysis because of likely interference when translating into English and when teaching its English counterparts.
5. Temporal and aspectual features of English preterit
Before we illustrate through original examples and their translations French perfect meanings and equivalencies to be used in CT, we shall mention just a few words related to French perfect’s English counterparts this way facilitating CA.
English preterit as it was pointed out above is considered in theoretical grammar along with the simple present to be part of the two-tense English temporal system. It is deictic as it precisely indicates the moment of happening of an event. Similarly to French preterit and perfect-preterit it is not current-relevant which together with its temporal location function makes the form the “par excellence” narrative tense. For this very reason the preterit expresses not only individual past events but also series of consecutive past events (though not consecutive events and simultaneity are not impossible) and is therefore accompanied by the so called sequencing words and time determining adverbs or expressions. It is characterized by a really high degree of temporal determination, definiteness and, consequently, uniqueness of events so the form is compared to the noun phrase definite article and to the definite pronouns this and that (Quirk 1985). Remoteness of events due to the lack of current relevance and temporal definiteness motivates transposition use of studied category and namely, this one in “sequence of tenses” as well as in second conditional clauses.
As far as preterit’s aspectual characteristics are concerned (we have just mentioned temporal ones) we must point out that unlike French preterit and its perfect replacement English preterit possesses a double function that may cause interference. The category not only expresses a finished non-current activity (perfective preterit) but also a continuous non-finished past activity (imperfective preterit or imperfect) thus being similar to the continuous past.
Preterit’s essential aspectual features within the framework of perfectivity are related to expressing ingressiveness, termination, punctuality, repetitiveness and duration.
6. Features of English perfect
Perfect in English is a frequent French perfect equivalent in case the latter expresses typical above-mentioned perfect values. The periphrasis due to its two-component structure comprising auxiliary have + past participle (again similarly to its French counterpart; we have already mentioned both forms’ common origin) and again to historical reasons expresses partially preserved possessive hues causing its anteriority, resultativity and current relevance. In Comrie, Mc Cawley and Brinton’s view (Comrie 1998: 56; Brinton 1988: 10) in accordance with its use, English perfect is subdivided into perfect of result, experiential perfect, perfect of persistent situation and perfect of recent past. Of course, lacking deicticity, which is not the case with French perfect-preterit, and expressing relations and connections, English perfect possesses typical subjectivity nuance. Because of its strong present relevance and resultativity, again as it happens with its French equivalent, the form can replace by transposition the future perfect as well as the present simple in first conditional clauses. For the same reason it can be used with predominant resultativity hues after conjunctions like as soon as, before, until, after and even following the deictic when in case the activity refers to the future.
While presenting French perfect → English preterit or French perfect → English perfect translation equivalencies, meanings of studied categories will be motivated through means of CA. Later conclusions serving CT will be made.
7. Contrastive French → English utterances
Considering following contrastive instances, we should always bear in mind that even in cases where French perfect functions as preterit’s replacement, and exhibits temporal value, this meaning is always accompanied at least by resultativity nuance. Due to the great variety of aspectual nuance and the interesting way different hues are interwoven, we decided while presenting exemplifying contrastive temporality or typical perfectivity instances to mention each utterance’s characteristic aspectual value/ set of values as well.
Let us start by putting forward examples possessing temporal value (T) accompanied by additional hues. Aspectual meanings like resultativity (R), ingressiveness (I), repetition (Rp), duration (D) and termination (Tm) will be marked following the original utterance. As we shall establish it, the prevailing French perfect equivalent in these cases is English preterit due to both forms’ deicticity.
As it was mentioned above all adduced instances (these are only representative examples of a considerable translation data corpus) supporting one of the most essential French perfect English equivalencies, require preterit translations in English. This correspondence is due to a coincidence of already presented temporal values of both categories and namely, to the deictic reference to a finished event in the past. As it was pointed out, French perfect-preterit assumes most important preterit’s characteristics thus partially replacing it in technical, scientific texts, commentaries, summaries, journalism and colloquial speech. This is naturally the case because of French perfect’s current relevance, resultativity and subjectivity. Thus, besides temporal as well as aspectual preterit’s features, French perfect-preterit exhibits its typical resultativity and anteriority nuance.
Above-presented utterances illustrate studied correspondence for the following reasons:
In a. (one of most frequent temporal location approaches) events are referred to by dates, years or expressions stating time periods back in past regarding a known point in past.
In b. temporal location results from spatial location, time and space being closely related.
In c. sequence of events (kind of narration) is evidenced by sequencing words.
Additionally presented aspectual hues (with the exception of typical for all utterances resultativity), which also coincide in both equivalent categories in cited examples are:
a1. repetition: expressed through plurality of agent or patient of the action as in (1), (2), (3), (5), (6), (9), (10) and (12) (Ruzhekova Rogozherova 2007, on French preterit’s repetitive value) and adverbs as in (3);
b1. duration: expressed through lexical units containing the idea of duration as in (10) and (12), lexical units combining their meaning with this one of duration prepositions as in (2), (6) and (9);
c1. ingressive activity: expressed through lexical units containing the idea of beginning as in (4) and (7).
We should note that due to misunderstanding of French perfect’s dual nature or interference wrong translations in English are unfortunately observed. We shall adduce some supporting illustrative instances practically proving the need of CA and CT later in the paper.
After having presented utterances exemplifying French perfect → English preterit equivalence, we shall proceed with suggesting another group of instances and namely, these ones revealing French perfect’s similar although not identical to English perfect characteristics and consequently requiring perfect translations in English.
We shall begin our presentation by putting forward instances revealing perfect’s values of result and experience (see above) and proceed with illustrating perfect of current activity as the latter sub-category’s French counterparts may present variations. We shall refrain in the present paper from suggesting perfect of recent activity utterances in both languages (in French this idea is often expressed through the immediate past periphrasis as well). This is so because of some existing Br. English-Am. English fluctuations in tense/ aspect use (preterit or perfect) following just, recently, lately and similar to these by meaning adverbs. While presenting this set of instances we shall again mark compared categories’ values, (R) standing for result and (Ex) for experience as well as other observed nuances. We reckon both meanings (R, Ex) originating from perfect’s inherent current relevance (and consequently, anteriority) can also function simultaneously. We also estimate perfect meanings may combine with some above-presented values accompanying French perfect-preterit’s temporality, especially with repetition and ingressiveness (duration being incompatible with perfect’s resultativity and experience meanings requiring their perfect English counterpart). We shall be later on analyzing a value similar to duration or the current activity perfect while exemplifying it through interesting contrastive French → English equivalencies.
Adduced utterances confirm already pointed out isomorphism in examined French → English equivalencies due to the common nature and meanings of studied forms (rf. 4, 6 of the menu), French typical not replacing preterit perfect (or as we may call it perfect-perfect) and its English counterpart. All perfect correspondences reveal perfect’s characteristic resultativity originating from anteriority and possession (see above) sometimes accompanied by aspectual nuances like repetition (2), (5), (6), (7), (11), (13), (15) and (17) or ingressiveness (1) and (15), their explanation being similar to this one in 7.1.2. Resultativity is often emphasized on through déjà in French and already in English like in (13) - (15). There are though utterances where already is omitted in translation this not hampering understanding due to overall resultative meaning.
We must state that quite frequently this type of perfect is also translated in each of studied languages either through the present simple (16) or a noun (17). We produce these examples although they do not illustrate the perfect-perfect equivalence. However, they show the high degree of perfect’s present relevance, the result being interpreted as basic truth (as current relevance is much stronger in English than in French.)
English perfect of current activity describing an activity going on till the present (present is included) or even further with a known point of beginning is a really intriguing sub-meaning of examined category. We may say that to some extent this use is unique in comparison with other languages’ perfects (its uniqueness is widely accepted in theory). We wrote in Italics to some extent, as this statement, as it will be shown, is only partially true. In the process of corpus formation and analysis we found numerous French perfect examples exhibiting the same current activity use though it is a fact that this value is much more frequently conveyed in French through the present simple. Actually, this estimation is valid as far as literature is concerned. However, the percentage of isomorphic French current activity instances is pretty high in technical texts being our current research field. We would like to justify this use, bringing still closer without being identical both corresponding categories, through considering it in the wider context of omnitemporality. Let us examine the following representative equivalencies:
As it was mentioned above this type of perfect is quite characteristic in English. However, the meaning can be conveyed in French through the simple present equally, this latter form considered being more frequent. We share this view as far as literature is concerned. However, treatment of our technical texts corpus reveals approximately 66% for French perfect instances expressing the idea of an activity with a known past initial point going on till the present and often into the future to 34% for French simple present occurrences translating the same meaning. We should state that in result of our technical texts corpus investigation we determined French present simple’s propensity to combine while conveying the studied meaning with depuis, de and dès or dès lors (similar perfect utterances though occur as in (12), (13) and (14). French perfect actually turns out to be more frequent in combination with: jusqu’à présent (1) and (2), jusqu’ici (3), à ce point (4), in cases when these conjunctions are implicitly understood (5) - (8), with expressions similar to au fil des années (9), to au fil du temps (10) or to ces dernières années including logically the present (11). These results are quite significant as they support on the one hand the higher degree of both examined languages’ perfects similarity (at least in commentaries and related texts) and on the other, the extremely rich and varied in aspectual shades and meanings nature of French perfect. Once again, it proves CA and CT necessity while presenting English preterit and perfect to influenced by French learners.
As it was mentioned above we shall proceed with examining above presented perfect of current activity correspondences in the context of omnitemporality perfect (even though this type of perfect should not present major problems in mastering because of isomorphism in French). Doing this we shall present and justify our opinion that there is a strong connection between these nuances, the latter motivating the former. Let us examine the following contrastive instances:
Omnitemporal perfect expresses an activity which has always (or has never) been valid or which has been valid for a really long period of time which may equal eternity. Thus, as the name shows it, validity is characteristic for the future as well. Taking into account the meaning of current activity perfect we can state that it represents a particular case of omnitemporal perfect, simply covering a shorter period of time. This relationship can be expressed in the figure below:
We shall not present numerous exemplifying utterances for reasons of French isomorphism in this case. However, “not yet” perfect in our view, similarly to already examined relationship, represents a particular case of perfect of current activity. This is actually the reason of “not yet” perfect’s perfectness in our view. This is so as not yet presupposes strong expectation of an activity’s accomplishment going up to the utterance moment. Examples below illustrate this meaning.
Above-mentioned connection can be shown on a similar figure:
8. CA analysis conclusions related to CT
Taking into consideration error and transfer, meanings of French perfect, English preterit and perfect as well as above presented French → English perfect-preterit and perfect-perfect equivalencies, we can carry out CT through the commonly accepted for teaching grammar stages: lead-in, elicitation, explanatory, accurate representation and immediate creativity stages (Harmer 1991, p. 60). Each one of these moments is characterized by its typical features and procedures. In the already mentioned article of ours (see Introduction) on teaching preterit and perfect to influenced by French learners we wrote about:
While teaching functional equivalents at stage 3. and revising them at stages mentioned at 4., it is worthwhile not only making deductions from contrastive utterances (a crucial step in CT), but also structuring already established and understood correspondences in a scheme or a table. We shall here only summarize most essential French → English equivalencies revealed through above-presented occurrences.
Let us also emphasize on the necessity of appropriate direct and reverse translation materials at last stages as well as during remedial work, translation or interpretation being extremely important not only for the better understanding of categories’ features, but also for preterit and perfect’s consolidation.
As it was mentioned in 7.1.2. necessity of CA in teaching examined categories can be proved by mistakes occurring obviously in result of interference. Here we shall adduce erroneous translation examples, which may be detected even in professional works.
9. Erroneous translation examples and correction
We shall hereby present French → English erroneous equivalencies followed by correction and explanation. Mistakes and remedial suggestions will be stressed in bold whereas correction reasons will be underlined.
In the paper we tried to justify importance of CA and its implementation in CT especially when teaching English preterit and perfect to learners whose FL1 is French. After presenting theoretical basics related to transfer, tense and aspect, we adduced a number of illustrative contrastive French → English utterances thus not just in theory but in practice as well, motivating French perfect → English preterit and French perfect → English perfect equivalencies. We not only mentioned necessity of relevant contrastive materials selection at explanatory teaching stage, but also put emphasis on translation’s crucial role at further teaching stages. CA and CT need was further justified by presenting examples of erroneous French → English translation utterances. We reckon the article could lead to further research in CA and CT fields while examining other, though not so frequent, functional equivalents of studied categories.
Quel rôle pour les chemins de fer en Europe de l’Est?. Rapport de la cent vingtième table ronde d’économie des transports. CEMT 2002.
What Role for the Railways in Eastern Europe?. ECMT 2002.
Rail & Recherche. juillet/août/septembre 2005. no 36.
Rail & Recherche. avril/mai/juin 2006. no 39.
Rail & Recherche. janvier/fevrier/mars 2007. no 42.
Revue Générale des Chemins de Fer. Paris: GAUTHIER-VILLARS, société Anonyme. no 12. Décembre 1990.
Revue Générale des Chemins de Fer. Supplément au no 1-2 - 1992 de la Revue Générale des Chemins de Fer. Paris: GAUTHIER-VILLARS, société Anonyme.
CONDITIONS POUR LE FRANCHISSEMENT DES GAUCHES DE LA VOIE. CALCUL ET MESURE DES VALEURS CARACTERISTIQUES DETERMINANTES POUR LES WAGONS. Rapport B 55/RP 6, avril 1975. ORE, Utrecht.
Latest news. // Alstom Transport <http://www.transport.alstom.com/home/news> (05.10.2007).
Brinton 1988: Brinton, L. The Development of English Aspectual Systems. CUP, 1988.
Cohen 1989: Cohen, D. L’Aspect verbal. Paris: PUF, 1989.
Comrie 1998: Comrie, B.Aspect: An introduction to the study of verbal aspect and related problems. CUP, 1998.
Corder 1973: Corder, S. Introducing Applied Linguistics. Penguin Books Ltd, 1973.
Guillaume 1970: Guillaume, G. Temps et verbe. Paris: Champion, 1970.
Harmer 1991: Harmer, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching. Longman Group UK Limited, 1991.
Imbs 1960: Imbs, P.L'emploi des temps verbaux en français moderne (Essai de grammaire descriptive). Paris: Klincksieck, 1960.
Lado 1961: Lado, R.Linguistics across Cultures. University of Michigan Press, 1961.
Odlin 1989: Odlin, T.Language Transfer. Cross-linguistic influence in language learning. CUP, 1989.
Quirk 1985: Quirk, R. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Longman Group Limited, 1985.
Ruzhekova Rogozherova 2007: Ruzhekova Rogozherova, B. Repetitive Aspectual Value of French Simple Past (in Bulgarian). Sofia: Foreign Language Teaching. In the press, 2007.
Ruzhekova Rogozherova 2007: Ruzhekova Rogozherova, B.Teaching English Preterit and Perfect to Influenced by French Learners. Proceedings of BETA-IATEFL Conference, 2007.
Verkuyl 1972: Verkuyl, H. On the compositional nature of the aspects. Dordrecht & Reidel, 1972.
Weinrich 1973: Weinrich, H.Le récit et le commentaire. traduction de l'allemand. Paris: Seuil, 1973.
The author would like to express her gratitude to Dr. Daniel L.Cadet, Director for External Affairs, Technical Directorate at ALSTOM Transport for providing a number of bilingual technical texts she used to form her data corpus.
Boryana Rogozherova was born in 1969 in Sofia, Bulgaria. She graduated with the highest possible mark from the French Language School, Sofia in 1988. She was accepted into the speciality “French Philology” at Sofia University “Kliment Ochridsky” after successfully sitting exams the same year and completed her higher education with excellent mark (major in French Philology and teacher of French language and literature, translator's specialization and minor in English language).in 1993. Since the beginning of her high education Boryana Rogozherova has manifested strong interests in linguistics related to etymology and grammar which grew later into predilection for contrastive French-English linguistics and its application in contrastive teaching. Her successfully defended MA thesis is entitled “The Periphrasis Aller + Infinitive and its English Equivalents”. Boryana Rogozherova is currently working on her PhD thesis treating French preterit, perfect and their functional equivalents in English. Her publications, most of which contrastively oriented in the field of temporality and aspectuality research, consider: repetitive value of French preterit, teaching English preterit and perfect to influenced by French learners, durative value of English preterit, testing strategies in English (again taking into account possible French language preterit and perfect interference), contrastive analysis (French-English) in teaching English preterit and perfect through technical texts.
Boryana Rogozherova is currently a lecturer of English at the Todor Kableshkov University of Transport, Chair of Humanities and Languages, Sofia. She has been teaching for over 10 years (predominantly English and less French).
© Boryana Ruzhekova-Rogozherova