One major aspect that causes immense difficulties for German ESL learners (aside from the progressive aspect) presents the English present perfect construction (have + past participle). Typically spoken German uses the perfect (habe gespielt; habe geliebt) to talk about past events. Thus, the choice of the correct English tense to talk about the past time is a common problem of German learners. Part of my study is to implement the rather abstract theory of Cognitive Grammar (Langacker 1987, 1991) into the ESL classroom. To elucidate the perfect construction and its meaning (namely the current relevance), Langacker suggests relating the verb ‘have’ to the basic verb of possession. Thus, the subject could imagine a mental contact with the object; in form of a physical or abstract exertion. Through this concept of ownership, a situation becomes potentially relevant in the present moment of speaking.
Reading various books which attempt to explain the present perfect construction in English, I came across Erich Fromm’s essays on The Art of Living. His philosophical view on the use of the verb ‘to have’ is very fascinating. He notes that our society uses the verb ‘to have’ more and more to indicate our egoistic attempt to possess things, activities and even emotions. Furthermore, in modern languages (German as one of the examples) we tend to verbalise our thoughts and emotions with ‘have’ rather than with ‘be’.
From now on, I will consider my choice of the German past tenses more carefully....