Chinese Speakers' Use of Tense and Aspect in an English Past-time Context

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Department of English, NTNU


Several researchers have investigated non-native speakers' tense use in English discourse. They tried to find out what influences them to use tenses in a different way from native speakers of English. The studies came to various conclusions. Basically replicating Hinkel 's (1997) study conducted a case study to examine Chinese speakers' decision-making processes in the use of tenses in a past-time narrative. Concepts such as simple past tense and simple present tense in English, aspective features in English and Chinese, and tense conventions in English discourse are discussed in this paper. Five native speakers and five Chinese speakers were chosen as subjects for this study. They were asked to produce a composition in English and complete two cloze passages. After that, I arranged interviews to ask them about theirperceptions of tenses and tense use in English discourse. In this article, I focus on the results of their writing task and the interviews. The results suggest that Chinese speakers seem to understand the rneaning and the use of tenses at the sentence level. They don't seem to realize that tense conventions at the discourse level override tense decisions at the sentence level. This leads to some tense errors in Chinese speakers' writing. Tense in Chinese speakers' writing shifted more frequently than that of native speakers. Unclear contextual time frames and sequences of events were therefore present in their writing.