"In a Nutshell" provides brief, non-technical presentations of some aspect of Spanish and issues in its acquisition. Accompanied by references, the section is great for individual professional development and/or discussion starters with colleagues!
PRETERIT AND IMPERFECT - ACQUISITION
In the last “In a Nutshell” we explored why the use of preterit and imperfect is difficult, focusing largely on linguistic reasons. We saw that verbs and verb phrases can be categorized into four different types and that any of these can combine with preterit or imperfect to indicate different things about events in the past. In this “Nutshell”, we will review what we know about the actual acquisition of the preterit and imperfect by learners of Spanish. Note that descriptions here refer to largely spontaneous oral speech. Written language may be different as learners apply consciously learned “rules” when they have the time in writing, especially when that writing is something to be evaluated by a teacher. Also note that for the purposes of this Nutshell, we are reducing a field of research to its bare bones without nuance and without some of the debate as to the particulars of given stages.
First and foremost, the acquisition of the use of preterit and imperfect takes a very long time. Even very advanced speakers of Spanish as a second language often show differences from native speakers. With that said, let’s review the basics. The first stage in learning to talk about the past is for students not to use past tense markings at all. They may say things like Anoche yo uh habla-hablo con mi mamá. The let lexicals items (words) such as anoche, ayer, esta mañana and so on do the work of conveying pastness. At this stage, references to the past tend to occur in isolated sentences and not part of connected discourse. In short, learners tend to talk about isolated events; cases in which the preterit would normally be used. These events are largely those that have implied beginning and end points as discussed in the previous Nutshell (e.g., run a mile, close the door, go to the movies, eat breakfast). Learners tend not to use preterit with those events that are stative (don’t necessarily imply a beginning or ending) in nature (e.g., be, have, believe, know).
Following this, learners begin to incorporate preterit verb endings into their production. They may not always get them right (e.g., yo tuve/tuví/tuvó, yo hablé/habló/hablá) but they are clearly showing signs that preterit endings are different from present tense endings by shifting stress from the root of the verb to its ending. As in the first stage, the use of preterit tends to occur in isolated sentences or a string of several sentences describing discrete events (e.g,. Yo fui a la escuela. Yo almorcé en la cafetería. Yo volví a casa.) It can take some time for learners to get to this stage. At the same time, learners may be intuitively aware that there is such a thing as an action in progress in the past, which we would normally represent with the imperfect. However, they do not regularly use the imperfect if at all. Some research shows that learners use the present as an indicator of something that was in progress in the past. (e.g., Hace calor for Hacía calor as in: Yo fui a la playa. Y, uh, hace mucho calor). Other research suggests that learners, once the preterit is under control, overextend the preterit to all instances of the past. In short, there is a stage in which the learners begin to correctly mark instances with the preterit but don’t do so with the imperfect.
As the imperfect begins to enter the learner’s use in stage three, the majority of instances are with statives. This is where we see such things as era, sabía, quería, and similar verbs and verb phrases. At this stage, learners tend not to use imperfect yet with verbs that have implied beginnings and/or ends (e.g, run a mile, eat breakfast).
The final and most protracted stage of acquisition of the preterit and imperfect seems to involve extending preterit with use of verbs and verb phrases that are states (e.g., ser, querer) and extending imperfect with use of verbs and verb phrases that imply beginnings or ends (e.g., correr una milla, desyunar).
As in other cases, these stages in oral production are largely unaffected by instruction. Whether learners receive explicit instruction or not, these stages seem to exert themselves in spontaneous oral production. Some research has documented that explicit learning can impede the acquisition of preterit and imperfect constrasts, particularly with stative verbs such as saber, poder, and querer. Because learners often learn that these verbs in the preterit “change meaning” (which, of course, is not true, e.g., saber always means saber), they have difficulty understanding that quise means “I wanted” and supe means “I knew”, for example. They may misinterpret what natives are saying when using these verbs in the preterit and this misinterpretation can go undetected for some time.