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Problemas en la comprensión de los tiempos en español entre los estudiantes chinos de Malasia: un estudio de caso

Problemas en la comprensión de los tiempos en español entre los estudiantes chinos de Malasia: un estudio de caso

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Edison Mejia Vasquez

Faculty Bahasa dan kommunicasi

Sultan Idirs Education University

edison@fbk.upsi.edu.my, emejia35@gmail.com


This study examines the written production of four Malaysian Chinese students when they were in the middle of the second semester of their under graduation of the Spanish language course at University of Malaya (UM). More specifically, this study employs Error Analysis to determine the type of errors committed in verb tenses when they were in Spanish III. The errors were classified according to the different grammatical functions they served. The results revealed that the misconception of verb tenses and aspect in Spanish have nothing to do with the languages they speak or how inflected the target language(s) may be, but that are influenced more by other different and yet interrelated aspects in Second Language Acquisition such as: linguistic input and individual differences. This raises crucial theoretical questions as to whether L2 acquisition is influenced by the environmental factors that govern the input to which learners are exposed, or of internal mental factors which somehow dictate how learners acquire grammatical structures. Moreover, it was found that if problems in understanding verb tenses and aspects in Spanish are to be attributable to one phenomenon, that phenomenon is intraference and not so much interference.

Key words: linguistic input, individual differences, intraference, interference, interlanguage continuum


Teachers of a second or third language must know that the learning process in the acquisition of a foreign language is a succession of different stages ranging from the simplest to the most complex, in which the learner adds, deletes and restructures his grammar rules. In other words, “this interlanguage continuum is the construct through which the learner will internalize the norms that make up a language as a means of communication” Fromkin, Rodman & Hyams (2003: 360). These set of grammatical, lexical and functional tools will help him develop his linguistic and communication strategies at any particular point in time.

Teachers might wonder why students repeat the same errors and what it can be done to help them overcome such errors. The problem is that until now it has not been possible to construct a theory that can comprehensively and reliably explain the errors occurring during the acquisition of a foreign language. This is fundamentally due to the fact that the phenomenon is very complex and the studies in the area are relatively new. Furthermore, it was not until the end of the 1960’s that theoreticians began to understand errors produced by foreign language learners.

First, it was thought that the structures from one language to another were copied, the influence or interference of the mother tongue on the new language as a source of errors began to be investigated. That is how the Contrastive Analysis theory (CA) came into conception, which pretended to describe formally the mother tongue and the foreign language, contrasting them to establish the different structures between each one and so predict the errors that may appear in the learning process. This process has been referred to as “negative transfer” or “interference” by a number of researchers (James, 1980; Nobel, 1982; Swan & Smith, 1987; Brown, 2001; Parker and Riley, 1994; Horwitz, 2008). However, new studies in the 70’s showed that not all the errors catalogued as possible by the Contrastive Analysis were produced and that many of the errors made could not be explained as influenced from the mother tongue. This was the break-point for Error Analysis (EA) to appear.

E A, therefore, is based on the assumption that like child language, the language of adult second language learners is a system in its own right; that is, it is one which is rule-governed and predictable. Selinker (1972) used the term “interlanguage” to refer to learners’ developing second language knowledge. Nemser (1971) referred to the same general phenomenon in second language learning but stressed the successive approximation to the target language in his term approximative system. Corder (1971) used the term idiosyncratic dialect to connote the idea that the learner’s language rule is unique to a particular individual alone.

Thus, at approximately the same time, three people proposed that second language errors were to be viewed in quite a different way from the negative manner in which they have traditionally been perceived. All three proposals had, according to Smith (1994: 30), three essential features in common. They assumed:

1- the existence of a complex, creative learning device

2- internal coherence in the learner’s language system

3- the independent character of the learner’s system

In other words, all three views saw the learner as an active participant in the process of language learning in which he was not only filtering the input received and organizing it into interlanguage systems but also in which his mother tongue was not interfering with his performance. Smith (1994) argues that there are two kinds of creativity to be found in the language learners’ achievement: developmental creativity and structural creativity. These three proposals concerning the nature of learner language systems accords with what Corder (1971) called dialects of a given target language.

This study uses Error Analysis and not Contrastive Analysis as a theory to predict and explain learners’ mistakes or errors because researchers have found that not all errors predicted by the CAH are actually made. Furthermore, many of the errors, which learners make, are not predictable on the basis of the CAH. For example, adult beginners use simple structures in the target language either because of simplification or overgeneralization, such as, *durmiste* or *juegaron* instead of dormiste (did you sleep) and jugaron (they played), just as children do in their native language. Thus, such sentences are more similar to a child’s first language (L1) production than a translation from another language. Lightbown and Spada (1999: 75) have referred to these error types, which are common to both learners, as “developmental errors” and sustain that indeed some of these errors are shared by many learners across the world regardless of their L1 backgrounds.

This paper therefore examines samples of learner language to determine the types of verb tenses errors that learners of Spanish make and discusses what these errors can tell us about the learners’ knowledge of the language and their ability to use that knowledge. This information has practical pedagogical value, about which Parker and Riley (1994) commented that “the influence of L1 on L2 acquisition cannot be ignored” (p. 225), and Fillmore and Snow (2000) noted that “understanding the variety of structures that different languages and dialects use to show meaning, including grammatical meaning such as verb tenses, can help teachers see the errors of their students who are learning a second or foreign language” (p. 16).

The objectives of the study are to categorize the errors by different types and to identify the problems the subjects face and to determine the level of influence the mother tongue has on the tense choice of the subjects. As such, the study proposes to seek answers to the following research questions:

1- To what extent do verb tenses errors present evidence of students’ misinterpretations of the verbal systems in Spanish?

2- To what extent do students’ errors in verb tenses reflect or confirm the complexity of time and aspect in Spanish?

3- To what extent the influence from all the languages these Chinese students speak account for all the verb tenses errors?

Literature review

As it was already seen in the introduction, a realisation grew up in the early years of the 1970’s that attention in language research should be directed towards the mental processes that underlie learner’s performance. The initial interest began with people like Corder (1971), Nemser (1971) and Selinker (1972) who recognized the processes that lay behind the systematic performance of non-native speakers. According to Selinker (1972), SLA can proceed in two different ways. It can utilize the same mechanisms as L1 acquisition. That is, those adults who successfully achieve native speaker proficiency in the target language do so because they continue to use the LAD or the so-called latent language structure.

On the other hand, it can make use of alternative mechanisms, which are presumably responsible for other types of learning apart from language, that is, the relatively few adults who reach native speaker competence fall back on a more general cognitive mechanism, which he labelled latent psychological structure. The term to describe the mechanisms responsible for this second type of learning was coined by Dulay and Burt (1977, cited in Ellis 1985: 49) as cognitive organizer and the process of SLA that resulted from its operation was called creative construction.

The Creative Construction model therefore, is a school of thought, which was developed as an alternative to the IL approach. According to the Creative Construction theorists, language development is not dictated by the environment, as the behaviourists claimed, but rather the learner subconsciously selects from all the information available to him only portions of it. That selection process is part of an internal programme, which is, they claim, essentially the same programme that drives mother tongue acquisition.

A quick look into both L1 children and L2 adults would reveal a number of differences between these two languages, differences that have to do, among other things, with the semantic, pragmatic and syntactic systems available to the L2 learner and the option of using their L1 as a starting point for building the L2 grammar. The availability of the L1 system gives L2 users an advantage over L1 acquirers in terms of communicative abilities because even when they do not build up new grammatical knowledge on the basis of old L1 knowledge, they can still, when actually trying to communicate in the L2, form utterances using the L2 words they know with the L1 grammar as a skeleton for those L2 words. The availability of L1 knowledge may also be a disadvantage that may lead them into delays or other complications with regard to actual grammatical development in L2 if they come to rely too much on it (Smith 1994). That is to say, the role of the L1 may turn from facilitative into inhibitor.

Despite the differences between L1 and L2 learners, the IL model involves what can be seen as links between interlanguage systems and the early grammars of children in the sense that researchers wanted to see developmental systems as grammars in their own right. In fact, Selinker’s process of overgeneralization can be related to the regularised forms produced by children. This had already been pointed out by, for example, Dusková (1969) in Czechoslovakia when she analysed her students’ written errors and found that more than half of them could not be ascribed as influence from Czech. Rather, they appeared to be based on an L2 rule, which the learners had not yet fully mastered.

Inspired by Chomsky’s review of Skinner’ book (verbal behaviour), published in 1959, researchers such as (Klima and Bellugi 1966, Slobbin, 1970 and Brown, 1973, in Mitchell and Myles 2004), set out to investigate the acquisition of language in young children. These investigators found that children all over the world, whatever the language they were learning go through similar stages, use similar constructions to express similar meanings, and make the same kind of errors.

Where the CCH is concerned, the most salient proof of the close relationship between L1 and L2 acquisition was the sequence of development, that is, the consistent order of acquisition in the emergence of a number of structures in English by children, which is not unlike the order found in L2 learners. Roger Brown’s findings (1973, cited in Mitchell and Myles 2004) on the acquisition of 14 grammatical morphemes in English by three children of different backgrounds not only provided a crucial notion of a fixed sequence of development but was also very influential for second language acquisition research because it prompted Corder (1981) to advance the idea of an internal syllabus for L2 learners and it was also this finding that lay at the heart of the CCH that came to dominate L2 research in the 1970’s.

It was the Creative Construction theorists that drew attention to the product/process problem (see Smith 1994: 35-40). They did this by questioning the constructivist approach and, at the same time, the current IL model as proposed by Selinker (1972). Marina Burt and Heidi Dulay (1974) drew attention to the fact that many errors that superficially represented constructions in the L1, and hence might be assumed to be L1 transfer errors, could also be interpreted as overgeneralisations. This was especially so where those constructions also appeared in data from children learning the same language as an L1. Dulay and Burt’s study (1974) pretended to equate L2 with L1 acquisition, which meant that both L1 and IL were downgraded. In addition, the Creative Construction Approach avoided the idea of an existing temporary grammar, that is, as a system in its own right.

The equation between L1 and L2 acquisition suggests that IL and child language (L1) will look alike. In fact, much of the research intended to demonstrate that the Creative Construction Model focus on this type of similarity in the product. Linguistic patterns studied in the L1 were used as a basis for L2 theorising. Smith (1994: 53, 54) presents two figures that show the morpho-syntactic patterns of development that form the research supporting the Creative Construction position. One of them shows the morpheme order, in which the patterns are not related linguistically in any obvious way except trivially, as they are all options in the morphological repertoire of English. The other figure shows transitional stages in the acquisition of negation.

What Brown’s longitudinal study shows, as expressed earlier, is that although the rate (speed) at which children learnt these morphemes varied, the order in which they acquired them remained the same for all children. That is to say, they all followed a common route. In other words, the differences in the rate of development through the stages were not accompanied by changes in the sequence. As Smith (1994) puts it:

“Despite the creative construction argument, one might nevertheless predict highly dissimilar deviations among learners with different language backgrounds while maintaining that the attainment of the target, i.e. the native-like norm with respect to a given structural area of the language would still follow the same basic sequence”

(p. 52)

Smith (1994) illustrates this idea better in a pair of hypothetical learning scenarios presented in two figures. In the first one, he presents different routes in L1 and L2 acquisition of target patterns. He concludes that given the same sequence of targets, which might be manifested in L1 and L2 acquisition of a given language, the routes up to these targets might still be different. In the second diagram, taking into account that the actual developmental pattern (DPat) that appears will be one thing for learners who are native speakers of a particular language but perhaps another thing for native speakers of some other language whose target patterns are quite different; that is to say, taking into account the supposition that learners of different types might have different delays en route, as he calls it. He captures the idea of three logical possibilities for IL development by showing relative delays and varying routes in L2 acquisition of question structures.

1- same developmental sequence, same routs, same rate

2- same developmental sequence, same routs, different rate

3- same developmental sequence, different routs

These three alternatives, he asserts, are compatible with the basic Creative Construction Approach, which focuses on the identity of the sequence rather than the rate aspects. The three logical possibilities for IL development were inspired by the difference in timing in the attainment of a given target when two developmental scenarios are compared.

IL in the creative construction view may contain developmental patterns or transitional forms as Dulay et al (1982, cited in Smith 1994: 56) put it. But in the strong version of the theory, this will be stable across learners with different L1s because the strong version of the CCH holds that the influence of the L1 on the L2 is merely a strategy that L2 learners use when the resources in the L2 are not enough to cope with the demand of what is intended or needed to say. In the words of Smith (1994: 56): “language transfer is not involved in the creation of new grammars and only manifests itself as a performance phenomenon”. The idea that the learner falls back on his L1 in moments of crises is compatible with Krashen (1982), who sees the use of the L1 as a learning strategy more than interference. He asserts that L1 does not pose any obstacle in the learning of a second language and that learners can make use of their L1s when they lack a rule in the L2.

Corder (1967) accorded the learner’s L1 plays an important role in the building of transitional systems. The learner in some sense has the job of restructuring the L1 system. This means that hypotheses are formed not simply on the basis of the input but also with reference to the native (L1) system; that is to say, the role of the mother tongue is recreating the L2 and not restructuring it using L1 as a basis. Corder (1978, in Ellis 1985: 37) further reframes the concept of interference as intercession. He does not view L1 as a feature of learning, but rather as a strategy of communication that learners make use of when they lack the necessary target language resources. In other words, when learners experience difficulty communicating an idea they will resort to their L1 to make up the insufficiency. Therefore, if SLA is viewed as a developmental process then, the L1 can be viewed as a contributing factor to this development, which in the course of time, as the learner’s proficiency grows, will become less powerful. This explains why traces of the L1 are found more on learners at the elementary level than at the intermediate or advanced level.

However, there is a problem with this apparently complete denial of the role of the L1 in IL development. It has been shown that where a structure in any transitional stage of the IL matches the structure of the L1 of any learner, he or she will show delays in the progression from that stage to another. This means that similarity could be a distracting factor. Recently, for example, Tang (1990, cited in Smith 1994: 56) studied Chinese learners of English learning interrogative structures and noted that although they followed the same universal pattern observed in many different L1 and L2 studies, there were delays in the acquisition at those points where a feature of their L1 had a very close counterpart in an L2 developmental pattern.

The studies mentioned show that the focus was never really on interlanguage as conceived by Selinker (1972), but on when and in what order learners attained particular target forms or constructions such as the case of the two hypothetical scenarios presented by Smith (1994). As he puts it:

“This relative lack of interest in the systematic transitional (IL) patterns that learners go through allowed us to characterise creative construction theory as target oriented; that is to say, it implies an incremental view of learning such that different parts of the native-speaker system are acquired in a particular order. Learners do not, in this view, radically restructure their intuitions about the target system; they just acquire it bit by bit in a predictable order” (Smith 1994: 58).


This study examines the leaner language of four Malaysian Chinese students studying Spanish as part of their Degree requirements. The students who participated in the study are all local female Chinese students with ages ranging from 20 to 22 years old who are currently taking their second semester in Spanish language. The fact that the group analyzed is limited in number may be seen as a limitation in the design. Therefore, this is mainly a case study that was conducted during their Spanish III course to determine the type of verb tenses errors that are most frequently made by these Chinese students of Spanish as a foreign language.

These students have to take 6 levels of Spanish in one and a half years; that is to say, 2 levels of Spanish in one semester (14 weeks) with an intensity of 16 hours a week. By the time the data was collected they had already completed level 3. The data comprises a midterm test the students sat for. It comprised a reading passage, followed by open-ended comprehension questions, gap filling, text completion, sentence construction and a composition-writing task. As the teacher’s ability to design exams was not the issue here, a closer look at whether any of the errors presented by these students were the result of any misunderstanding in these examinations’ directions or layout (exam design bias) was not verified, which might have led to another limitation in this study.

Data analysis and findings

First, all the errors were classified according to the different grammatical functions they serve. It is important to note, however, that only those syntactical errors that are directly related to verbs tenses were analysed; some other categories like article omission, preposition addition, complement of time and placement (ordering) and so on, though presented in the graph, were not discussed. When analysing the information gathered in the test, this is what was found in relation to verb tenses; here are some of the most significant examples:

The words in bold show when the verb conjugation error occurred and the words in parenthesis show the correct conjugation for each one of the sentences. The words in parenthesis show that the co-preterit (imperfect preterit) for sentences 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8 should have been used, as well as for the first clause in sentences 1, 5 and 9 and the antecopreterit (preterit pluscuamperfect) for sentence 10 as well as for the second clause in sentences 1 and 5 and the preterit (indefinite preterit) for sentence 11 and for the second clause in sentence 9.

Verb conjugation errors:

The sources of errors here are varied and sometimes it is difficult to group them in one or other category because some of the sentences fall under more than one classification of errors, but generally speaking, it can be said that there were errors that were the cause of overgeneralisation as in the case of sentences 3, 9 and 10; because of substitution as in the case of sentences 1, 4, 5 and 6 and because a local error took place as in 2, 7 and 8.

1- “Mi padre conduje (condujo) ayer”

2- ¿“Durmiste (dormiste), o estudiaste anoche?”

3- “Los estudiantes juegaron (jugaron) badminton el pasado domingo”

4- “Su esposa habian (habia) obtenido un ascenso en el trabajo”

5- “Me encontré con mi amiga y me dijiste (dijo) que viene mañana”

6- “Llamé a un amigo y me dijo que compria (compraria) un carro”

7- “Que sus padres habian viejado (viajado) en las vacaciones pasadas”

8- “Mi padre estuvo leíendo (leyendo) el periodico anoche”

9- “Yo estaba cocinando cuando sueno (sonó) la (el) teléfono”

According to Ellis (1997: 19) “errors are not only systematic, but many of them are also universal and some are common only to learners who share the same mother tongue or whose mother tongue manifest the same linguistic property”. Errors, then, can have different sources. Some errors seem to be universal, reflecting learners’ attempts to make the task of learning simpler. They also overgeneralize forms that they find easy to learn and process. The use of *durmiste* and *juegaron* in place of “dormiste” and “jugaron” is an example of an overgeneralization error.

Verb tenses:

1- “Está (estaba) enfadado con las ranas que le faltaron (habían faltado) al respeto”.

2- “cuando mi padre era joven, él estaba jugando (jugaba) futbol en su universidad”

3- “Cuando yo era pequeña, estaba viviendo (vivía) en Klang”

4- “Él le dijo que había comprado un coche nuevo y que ahora está (estaba) trabajando”.

5- “Misan me dijo que le duele (dolía) el estómago porque comió (había comido) mucho”

6- “Cuando mi hermano era bebe estaba llorando (lloraba) todos los días”

7- “Mientras esperamos (esperábamos) a Luisa, estaba leyendo (leíamos) la noticia”

8- “Nosotras estuvimos (estábamos) estudiando cuando empezó la película”

9- “Tu estuviste (estabas) durmiendo cuando te llamo (llamé)”

10- “Que sus padres viaja (habían viajado) en las vacaciones pasadas”

11- “No, porque Júpiter estuvo (estaba) enojado con las ranas”

Figure 1 shows this percentage in a diagram.

The figures are as follows: verb conjugation: 21, article: 15, preposition: 10, adjective-noun order: 2, object pronoun: 6, tenses: 16, gender: 1; the data gathered in this second test accords with the figures of the first test. All in all there were 52 errors in verb conjugation as opposed to 19 errors in articles, 14 errors in prepositions, 3 errors in word order, 1 error in gender and number, and 6 errors in object pronoun.

All these deviances in tenses may be explained by the fact that Chinese and Malay express the concept of time very differently from Spanish and English. “They do not conjugate the verb to express time relations; therefore, Chinese and Malay learners have serious difficulties in handling Spanish tenses and aspects” (Swan and Smith 1987: 228). In Spanish, the verb is the word that changes the most in its form. For example, the verb “cantar” (to sing), we can say: canto, cantamos, cantabas, cantaban, cantáis, cantaran, cantando, etc. According to Viera (1989: 277):

“Las variaciones de forma que sufren las palabras se llaman accidentes. El verbo es muy rico en accidentes porque es mucho lo que aporta al significado de la oración. Por ejemplo, la forma cantabas del verbo cantar, nos dice que se está hablando de la 2ª persona gramatical, que esta persona gramatical está en singular, que la actitud del que habla es enunciativa afirmativa y que la acción se está realizando antes de ahora. Los accidentes del verbo son el modo, tiempo, número, persona y aspecto. Es decir, son precisamente las distintas formas verbales las que nos indican el modo, tiempo, número, persona y aspecto, por medio de las DESINENCIAS o TERMINACIONES de los verbos”.

In retrospect, it can clearly be seen that the category of verb tenses in this test outnumbers the other categories (gender, article, preposition), with a total of 16 wrongly-conjugated tenses After having completed three semesters (about 42 weeks or 672 hours of instruction) it can be concluded that these learners have not understood the correct usage of tenses in Spanish. The reason may be because tenses in Spanish are 10 in total: 1 for the present, 5 for the past and 4 for the future.

“Pero hay en el verbo aun otra variación, que expresa cuál de estas actitudes toma el hablante ante el hecho del que habla. Modo real (indicativo), modo no real (subjuntivo) y el modo pro-real (imperativo). Cada uno de estos modos del verbo dispone de un conjunto de tiempos, cada uno de los cuales, a su vez, consta de seis personas (las tres del singular y las tres del plural). Es decir, todas estas formas de indicativo, subjuntivo e imperativo, poseen variación de persona” (Seco 1996).

Several studies and research have been carried out in which CA/EA has been the model to account for the deficiencies or failures in the students’ performance. In other words, the CA/EA theory has been used to account for the problems the subjects in those studies presented. However, I will only focus here on three of them because they are relevant to my study of verb tenses and aspect. First, the one conducted by Lim Sep Neo (2001), in which she contrasted and analyzed the use of the past tense in French (imparfait and passé compossé) by 35 Malay students in an undergraduate French proficiency class. The data in her study revealed that the subjects find it more difficult to form the passé compossé than to use it, since only 51.6% of the verbs conjugated in this tense were correct in form, as opposed to 67.7% of correct answers for the correct use. On the other hand, they make fewer errors forming the imparfait (88.6%), but more errors in its correct use (59.2%). She attributes her findings to the fact that the conjugation of the imparfait is not as complex as the passé compossé. That is, the grammatical complexity of the passé compossé might explain its lower score for form.

However, learners may find the imparfait more difficult to use, she claims, because of its subtle aspectual notion since it is used to describe, at least, three aspects; as opposed to the passé compossé which is used to relate discrete events and actions. That is, the imparfait is semantically more complex. In analyzing her findings, she concluded, as did Mohamed Said Salem Haded (1997), that students’ errors in SLL are not only due to mother tongue interference, but also, among other factors, to the form and functions of the tense systems of the target language.

Second, the one conducted by Mohamed Said Salem Haded (1997), in which he contrasted the verbal systems of Arabic and English of 40 third-year students (17 males and 23 females between the ages of 18 and 19) enrolled into secondary schools, whose mother tongue, Arabic, was the medium of instruction through their study. His main objective in conducting the said study was to pinpoint students’ areas of difficulty in using the English tenses.

He concluded that the fact that the subjects’ average performance for the whole test was below 50%, was evidence of the difficulty of the English tenses. He went on to conclude that the students’ high rate of erroneous responses in the use of progressive structures (62.9%) could be due to the fact that Arabic lack auxiliary and that its omission by Arabic speakers learning English was attributable to SL interference.

His investigation confirms that students’ deviations are attributable not only to mother tongue patterns, but also among other variables to confusion between structures and functions of the language being acquired. Furthermore, his findings support Duskova’s (1969: 21) opinion that confusion of the past participle and the base form of the verb is probably because in the perfect tenses the auxiliary is followed by the past participle whereas in the simple future and conditional tenses, it is followed by its base form, which may lead to doubt as to which form to use.

The past progressive construction tops the list (73.3%) with the simple past in second place (62.7%). His findings are consistent with N. Bailey’s (1989) account of the L2 learners’ acquisition of the simple past and past progressive, who notes that the progressive aspect combined with the meaning of the past presents an additional level of complexity for second language learners.

Thirdly, the one done by Atilio V. Alicio (1996), in which he contrasted the verbal systems of Malay and Spanish and analyzed the errors made by nine Malay students at the elementary level. In this study, he analyzed, among other things, the ability Malay learners of Spanish have to recognize the right verb and subsequently the use of the appropriate verbal form, which agrees with the subject in person and number; that is to say, subject- verb agreement.

In analyzing the written production of the nine Malay students taking up Spanish as an elective, Alicio (1996) found out that 32% of his respondents made errors in what Richards (1971) called ignorance of rules restrictions. Errors in subject-verb agreement were one of the criteria and 55% made errors in what he called wrong verbal form. He attributed his findings to the fact that whereas in Spanish almost all grammatical persons contrast with each other in most tenses, Malay takes the same zero verbal ending for all persons.

His study consisted of two tests. He divided the number of errors in the first test into 5 different categories (negative transfer, ignorance of rules restrictions, incomplete application of rules, overgeneralization, and lexical error). He found that the first category got the highest percentage of errors (97%). In the second test, he divided the errors into two categories (wrong choice of verb and wrong verbal form). He discovered that the respondents had more difficulties in getting the right verbal form (55%). He drew the general conclusion that these learners transfer to Spanish not only the structural patterns of Malay but also the structural patterns of English, which is the background language.

The conclusions in these three studies and the findings of the present study may well have to do with what has come to be known as markedness (a theory for determining directionality of difficulty). A number of hypothesis relating to markedness have been examined in SLA. One is that learners acquire less marked structures before more marked ones. Eckman (1981, cited in Brown 2000), for example, showed that marked items in a language will be more difficult to acquire than unmarked ones and that degrees of markedness will correspond to degrees of difficulty.

The significance of such linguistic information makes us conclude that verb tenses and aspects are more marked in some languages than in others. The explanation that UG offers in relation to markedness is a two-fold. First, it may be used as a source about what structures will cause learning difficulty. Secondly, it raises important questions about whether L2 and L1 acquisition are the same or different. In short, it comes down to whether L2 acquisition is to be explained in terms of a distinct and innate language faculty or in terms of general cognitive abilities, (White 1989 - 2003).

Chou and Wu (2007) stated: “tense locates an event or situation in time with respect to the moment of speaking (speech time) or a reference point (reference time); aspect manifests the temporal constituency (the internal temporal status) of a situation (p.32)”. In most recent approaches many scholars agree that in English there are three tenses: the present tense, the past tense and the future tense. Aspect further describes continuation, duration, repetition, and completion of events. For example: simple past tense, past perfect tense and past progressive tense manifest a distinction in aspect. Other scholars treat tense and aspect as an integrated whole. Based on this perspective, English consists of sixteen verb tenses; (the conditional included). However, the progressive tenses in grammar treatises are not usually considered as a special tense but just one of the periphrastic verbal constructions (in linguistics, periphrasis is a device by which grammatical meaning is expressed by one or more free morphemes - typically one or more function words accompanying a content word - instead of by inflectional affixes or derivation).

In other words, the modern Spanish verb system has sixteen distinct complete paradigms (i.e. sets of forms for each combination of tense and mood, plus one incomplete paradigm (the imperative), as well as three non-temporal forms (infinitive, gerund, and past participle); that is, Spanish verb conjugation is divided in four categories known as moods: indicative, subjunctive, imperative and the traditionally so-called infinite mood (newer grammars in Spanish call it formas no personales “non-personal forms”). It means that English only has 8 tenses; whereas Spanish 16 (10 for the indicative mood and 6 for the subjunctive); twice as many.

If the lack of tenses of the languages these students speak (Malay and Chinese) is the reason for their inability to master the verb-tenses in Spanish, then Spanish learners of English should not have any problems with verb tenses in the TL; however, this has been found not to be the case. In one study conducted by Bhela (1999), in which she analysed four bilingual participants whose mother tongues were: Cambodian, Vietnamese, Italian and Spanish, she discovered that while none made errors in tenses (present, past and past continuous tense) in their respective first languages, all of them made errors in these tenses in English. In the case of the Cambodian and Vietnamese languages the errors may be predicted on the basis that though these structures are present, their use is limited, but in the case of Spanish and Italian where the structures are similar and highly used; the errors cannot be predicted on the basis of interference.

The reason for which Chinese speaking students tend to have difficulties in understanding and applying tenses and aspects in Spanish, or for which Spanish Speaking students have the same troubles in tenses in English may lie in the intraference phenomenon, which is according to Scovel (2001), “the confusion a language learner experiences when confronting conflicting patterns within the structures of a newly acquired language, irrespective of how the target language patterns might contrast with the learner’s mother tongue” (Scovel 2001: 51). It is intraference more than interference that leads L2 learners to take a guess about what could be grammatically acceptable in their new language. These inferences are not always correct, but they are an indicator of the learners’ creativity in the Second or Foreign Language Acquisition process and show furthermore, that they are not just responding from the habits they acquired while picking up their L1s, as the behaviourists would claim. As defined by Corder (1967) errors are a way the learner has of testing his hypothesis about the nature of the language he is learning.

From a behaviourist’s perspective, “interference is based on old habits whereas intraference is based on new habits” (Scovel 2001: 53). Like children who acquire their L1 by creating new words and new rules, adult learners create new L2 or FoL constructions increasing in degrees of complexity from their overgeneralizations of what they have acquired in the target language. Dulay, Burt and Krashen (1982, cited in Scovel 2001: 54) coined the term “creative construction” to describe this innovative view of learner’s errors.

The first question that this study proposed to address was:

- To what extent do verb tenses errors present evidence of students’ misinterpretations of the Spanish verbal systems?

It can be observed, that students not only tend to carry over the changes a verb suffers to all the pronouns in one tense but also the change of certain verbs from one tense into another where it does not necessarily apply. The analysis indicated that, there is a misunderstanding or confusion of the syntactic rules of the Spanish tenses and aspect; in other words, these students are not applying the rules accurately and properly. Thus students’ errors are a direct reflection of their misinterpretations of the verbal system because of the complexity of suffixation that Spanish verbs present.

The second question was:

- To what extent do students’ errors in verb tenses reflect or confirm the complexity of time and aspect of Spanish verbs?

Spanish has a system of tenses much more inflected and complex than Chinese, English and Malay because Spanish is relatively synthetic language (a language with a high morpheme-per-word ratio, as opposed to a low morpheme-per-word ratio in what is described as an isolating language) with a moderate-to-high degree of inflection, which shows up mostly in Spanish verb conjugations with over fifty conjugated forms per verb.

Mandarin has no suffixes at all for the present tense and no tenses whatsoever. Instead, Chinese verbs can have suffixes (aspectual particles) such as: "guò" (¿) or "le" (¿) that expresses perfective. In the sentence “ta chi-le wan fan” (“he has eaten a bowl of rice” or “he had eaten a bowl of rice”), the verbal marker “le” indicates either present or past perfect tense. Another way of expressing the past is to use adverbs such as "yesterday." For example: "zuótian wo chi ji" (¿¿¿¿¿, yesterday I eat chicken). It can also make of use of adverbs of frequency like “I-Jin (already). Past tense in Chinese can also be emphasized by surrounding the verb and direct object with the words "shì"-"de" (¿-¿). For example: "wo shì zuótian chi ji de" (¿¿¿¿¿¿¿). To express future tense, Chinese uses temporal adverbials such as: “Hsia Li Pai” (next week) (Swan and Smith 1987).

On the other hand, in Malay, tenses are understood from the context. The same form of verb can be used for the present, past, future and even the continuous tense. When the sentence is ambiguous, appropriate words or phrases (aspectual auxiliaries) or adverbs of time are used. Examples of such words are: akan (will, shall) and esok (tomorrow), which indicate future; sedang/sekarang (now), which indicate continuous tense; sudah (already) and semalam (last nite), which indicates past tense, and telah, which indicates perfect tense (Sulaiman 2000; Lewis 1968).


Isteri saya pulang dari pejabat

(My wife comes back from the office)

Isteri saya sudah pulang dari pejabat

(My wife came back from the office)

Dia mula belajar Bahasa Melayu semalam.

(He studied Malay language last night)

Dia pergi ke sekolah esok dengan kawanny

(He will go to school with his friend tomorrow)

The third question that this study aimed at answering was:

- To what extent does the influence from the different languages they speak account for all the verb tenses errors?

The analysis revealed that the different languages these students know or speak do not play a significant part, in their understanding of the Spanish tenses; that is to say, neither English, Malay nor Chinese are likely to be the causes of the problems they are facing in understanding verb tenses and aspects. However, we cannot overlook the possibility of mother tongue interference or cross-linguistic influence because errors are a multi-factor phenomenon and interference is at least one of possibly three of them.


One of the reasons why Spanish tenses and aspect seem to be quite difficult to the speakers of other languages to grasp, is because in order to form tenses, Spanish does not use helping verbs or auxiliary verbs as tense indicators like English, Malay or Chinese; instead, in Spanish, it is the verb ending that changes in order to indicate the tense of the verb.

We cannot overlook the possibility of mother tongue interference or cross-linguistic influence because errors are a multi-factor phenomenon and interference is at least one of possibly three of them.

The learner’s L1 seems to be an important determinant of SLA but, it is not the only one and may not be the most important. But it is almost impossible here to determine its precise contribution because it has to do, among other things, with the linguistic factors on the one hand and the learner’s stage of development on the other.

A learner can perfectly, in a grammar lesson, understand an explicitly presented rule, but it is not the same when he or she has to use the language freely. Here is when errors are normally made, in speech and writing.

If we know how a language is learnt, we can know why certain errors are committed and establish therefore the means to avoid them; in this sense, there is a direct relation between error and acquisition.

An important aspect of this study is that it provides an interesting comparison of four languages, namely Malay, Mandarin-Chinese, Spanish and English. The combination of two Asian and two European languages is a move away from a previous research focus on mainly European languages and this is useful for the current local teaching context.


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