"The Acquisition and Pedagogical Implications in the Teaching of Spanish Preterite and Imperfect"
University of Massachusetts - Amherst
Abstract: This article reviews current research on the acquisition of the preterite
and imperfect tenses in Spanish. It will explore the various ways aspect (perfective and imperfective) is developed, acquired,
and taught in Spanish as a second language, and some of the cognitive processes that occur in those procedures. Through use
of current theory and research, I attempt to find out which ways are the most beneficial to the students in terms of understanding
and accuracy and also discuss some pedagogical implications as to their procedures. Hopefully in assessing our current knowledge
of the acquisition of preterite and imperfect, ideas will surge for future studies, and increase our knowledge of the subject
and efficiency in its teaching.
The debate over the preterite/imperfect distinction in Spanish has intrigued many researchers and inspired many studies.
Perhaps one of the most confusing grammatical structures to acquire for L2 learners, the preterite and imperfect are also
one of the most important structures to acquire, along with the understanding of tense and aspect. Research on second language
acquisition of tense and aspect has been approached in a number of different ways and from a number of different perspectives.
What we do know is that "for language acquisition to take place, children select from a universal inventory of features relevant
to their language and learn to associate these sets of features with morphemes" (Montrul, 1999). In the case of L2 acquisition,
the learners must attend to an entirely new set of features different from that of the L1 and attach and associate different
morphemes with those new features. Through understanding the underlying concepts of the Spanish preterite and imperfect, and
using theories such as the one previously stated, along with a review of current literature and research, I am hoping to find
a sound basis for new pedagogical implications in the teaching of the perfective and imperfective aspects.
Background on Spanish Tense and Aspect:
While the English and Spanish languages may have equivalent tenses in regards to the preterite, or perfective, they vary
in regards to morphosyntactic features and interpretation. The difference here is believed to be accountable for the difficulties
in acquisition and recognition of such tenses. In Spanish, the indicative past tense has two forms-- the preterite, used to
"encode the view of a situation or event as a whole and as completed and the imperfect, which in contrast refers to the internal
temporal structure of a situation" (Bardovi-Harlig, 2002) or is used to describe an event as having an indefinite duration.
The difference in the two forms has to do with aspect. So let us begin with a few basic definitions. Tense is a grammatical
category that refers to how a language encodes the time at which an action or event took place, and sequences them along a
timeline in regards to other events. Aspect on the other hand concerns itself with temporality in a different manner:
it refers more so to the internal view or temporal structure of a situation, and is usually explained in terms of the speaker‘s
point of view (Blyth, 1997). Grammatical aspect is expressed morphosyntactically through the verb and marks the difference
between a complete or incomplete event in preterite and imperfect which can be encoded in the lexical class of verbs. This
refers to lexical aspect, which is a semantic property that depends on a verb’s meaning and internal qualities.
This is to say that an event or situation can also have an inherent endpoint (completed), and would be marked as telic.
Here, events without an endpoint (incomplete) are classified as atelic (Montrul, 1999).
Previous investigations of the tense/aspect acquisition in Spanish have been mostly conducted to evaluate the Primacy of
Aspect Hypothesis of Andersen (1986), "which states that the verbal morphology initially encodes lexical aspect rather than
tense developing grammars" (Montrul 1999). Thus stating that preterite is most often used with telic events and imperfect
with atelic events. These studies tended to focus on the acquisition of lexical aspect of oral and written data by looking
at the aspectual categories of each verb based on Vendler‘s (1967) classification. In this type of classification, telicity
becomes the basis for each of the verbs into one of four categories: States, such as know, be, love have no
internal structure whatsoever. Activities run, sing, are homogenous processes going on in time without an inherent
goal (Mary ran for hours). Accomplishments in a process going on in time and an inherent culmination point,
after which the event can no longer continue (Mary ran a mile, Susie baked a cake). Finally, achievements notice,
find, have an inherent culminating point, but the process leading to that point is instantaneous (The old man died)
The concern here is the opposition or distinction between the perfective and imperfective. The perfective aspect (preterite)
looks at a given situation from the outside, with a beginning and an end (Paula pintó un cuadro/Paula painted a picture).
On the other hand, imperfective aspect looks at the situation from the inside without specifying the beginning or the end
of the situation (Paula pintaba un cuadro/Paula was painting a picture). In this second example, neither the Spanish imperfect
morphology (-aba) nor the English progressive (-ing) show concern with the beginning or end of the situation. (Montrul, 2003).
In English, the perfective-imperfective contrast does not exist, it uses the progressive to convey the Spanish imperfective
aspect. This difference is partly what makes the interpretation and acquisition of such features so difficult. In analyzing
and comparing the above sentences in English and in Spanish, you can see where some confusion may take place. They can be
interpreted in several different ways when looked at morphologically, but in Spanish tense and aspect are combined
when distinguishing between the endings, or inflections of preterite and imperfect. Thus, the perfective aspect is marked
by the preterite tense, and imperfective aspect marked by imperfect tense (Montrul, 1999). Therefore, when considering the
inherent grammatical aspect of the verbs, their meaning may become clearer for the learner.
The Acquisition of Spanish Aspect:
Regardless of the fact that learners receive a considerable amount of instruction on the Spanish preterite and imperfect,
most studies show that the correct usage of these verbal forms takes a certain amount of time to acquire, and the learners
go through systematic stages of development, where a lexically inherent prototype is used. ‘Punctual’ events become
the trigger for the preterite, and ‘states’ become the trigger for imperfect. The preterite, acquired first, becomes
the default and appears with telic events (achievements, accomplishments and later activities and statives). Later, the imperfect
is acquired and used in conjunction with atelic predicates (statives), followed by the preterite and imperfect each crossing
over to be used with telic and atelic events. Finally, the last to be acquired, if acquired at all, is the usage of both preterite
and imperfect with achievements (Montrul 2003).
Sequencing and Cognitive Processes:
Since the preterite and imperfect are so difficult to acquire for English native speakers, it would be beneficial to explore
the cognitive processes and pedagogical implications of this topic. Educators choose to prescribe rules for the two tenses
rather than describe their inherent meaning or semantic functions, and this tends to hinder and often confuse the acquisition
of the tenses more than help them (Blyth 1997). Standard rules and explanations that simply claim the preterite for completed
events and the imperfect as uncompleted, miss the fact that the speaker’s perspective is what is really behind choice
to use preterite or imperfect. In the long run it is what the speaker wishes to communicate which determines the content of
the phrase. Keeping this in mind, a great deal could be learned in order to improve the comprehension of students and the
processes in which it is taught by.
The students will go through their stages and sequences of learning naturally. Also L1 interference may make the acquisition
of certain tenses very difficult so it might be wise to take an approach that focuses on input. Cadierno (1995) states that
processing instruction affects the way students process the input, and in turn has an effect on their development and production.
It seems to be that when we instruct with the idea of "altering the ways in which input is perceived and processed", there
is a greater impact on the learners development, rather than instruction manipulated by learners’ output (traditional
instruction which seems to only provide knowledge for production only). And from a constructivist approach Blyth (1997) argues
that teachers and students alike should have a visual concept of aspect and establish their own "pragmatic mappings" to increase
accuracy in their usage of preterite and imperfect.
This idea of language corresponding with thought is demonstrated by Slobin (1996) where he draws more attention to the
"mental processes that occur during the act of formulating an utterance". He also discusses the different "world views" that
are held in a language and the different views one can have of the world according to their language. This is basically stating
that when we speak to each other in the same language, in the language we communicate in, it is based on human experience
along with coding systems, and a subjective reality. Hence we speak our own reality formed from our own experience, not from
grammatical rules handed to us.
To show an example of how thought is related to the acquisition of a foreign language, we can look once again at Slobin’s
comparison of the grammars of different languages, in describing the same picture. Since subjects from different
cultures described each picture differently, linguistically speaking, it is suggested that "complete concepts exist in the
mind in the form of a mental image" and that the "obligatory grammatical categories of each language apparently sample from
a universal form of mental representation. The mental image is given pre-linguistically, and language acquisition consists
of learning which features to attend to." I would think that is probably one of the reasons many language learners have difficulty
acquiring another language, especially if they are concepts that do not exist in their native language such as the Spanish
imperfect for native English speakers. Slobin shows how different mental images affected the grammar used, in both native
and foreign languages of an individual.
Another example of this would be the technique of visual imaging in learning preterite and imperfect. Through a constructivist
approach to grammar, Blyth (1997) describes his technique for helping teacher’s assistant acquire a greater understanding
of the preterite and imperfect so they can better teach it. His technique basically consisted of the mental imaging of a storyline,
or the plot of a movie, where the TA’s and students were able to acquire a mental image of events that were punctual
as the plot (preterite) of the story, and events taking place duratively, as background (imperfect). In his efforts, the TA’s
did indeed gain a better understanding, in turn helping their students to more accurately use the two features.
Conclusions and Implications for Practice
If acquiring a language requires you to attend to linguistic features that pertain to a certain mental image, it may
be first required to obtain that mental image in order to use the correct linguistic feature. And, if "thought" or mental
imaging is necessary in acquiring a language, in order to acquire a foreign language, it should also play a major role in
its practice and teaching. It may be required that the learners first gain an understanding of aspect, in order to acquire
the correct usage of tense.
As for the pedagogical implications for the teaching of aspect in order to accurately use tense, Ozete (1988) ideas highly
correspond to those of Blyth’s (1997). Ozete (1988) states that in the attempt to hand students prescriptive rule, we
create our own "stumbling blocks" so he feels that the inclusion of "verbal focusing would enhance the teaching of these two
tenses because it considers the conceptual and idiosyncratic biases of the speaker" where the speaker gets to choose
which information to emphasize through the usage of preterite and imperfect. Ozete makes a suggestion to first use a more
structured approach in the learning of the two aspects, through the presentation of a paragraph written in present tense,
where the students have to change the verbs to convey the meaning they choose with preterite and imperfect. For a less structured
practice, one with more freedom, he agrees with Blyth (1997) and suggests the students retell a story, a personal narrative,
a biographical sketch ,"most embarrassing experience" or plots and summaries of films or stories. The point here is that the
speaker must choose which information he wants to emphasize.
I propose that students will learn best when exposed to the ‘inherent aspect’ of the tenses, by creating or
being given visual images, rather than given a set of rules, which always has exceptions and can often be confused. There
have been various studies done on the acquisition processes of language learners while studying abroad, where the learning
that goes on is largely unconscious. I have always thought that the best way to acquire a language is by going abroad. I say
this for the reason that the learner is immersed in the language, culture, and meaning of every word they hear and say. This
will create images and memories in their brain, hence giving them the automatic advantage of having the words associated with
a feeling or a mental picture.
What would be interesting to see in future research is the length of stay in the abroad setting and how it effects accuracy
and permanence of these features, or how L1 (in this case English) specifically affects the learning of Spanish (L2). Until
then, we need to be implementing these new techniques and activities into the classroom and be constantly monitoring and "experimenting"
with their procedures and effects. So rather than teaching preterite and imperfect separately in a certain order, or in contrast
to one another, there is the idea to guide the students through their own natural acquisition into processing their own images
and meanings for the verbs. It seems to be that their processes and sequencing of acquisition remain the same, possibly pertaining
to L1 interference or something inherent of the student. Yet if the students follow their own natural sequence in the acquisition
of L2, and we know that thought and language are highly connected, we should focus more on input, how students perceive the
verbs, what images they are coming up with, and allow their thought processes and sequences to be guided towards communication,
rather than simplifying a bunch of rules for them.
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