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My wife, who is a native Spanish speaker, speaks pretty good English, but still struggles with mixing present and past tenses.

  1. Yesterday I buy a dress.

  2. I will ate lunch at 1:00.

It seems to be pretty consistent across all verbs. So it's not just that irregular verb conjugation confuses her or something.

I generally correct her when she makes an error, and she appreciates this, but I fear it may not be the most effective approach. It seems highly susceptible to interference.

What methods are most effective in teaching a language student to learn not to do this sort of concept swapping?

  • Two questions: (1) Is your wife motivated to learn to overcome this problem? (This will probably require deliberate practice, which in turn requires motivation.) (2) Should the answer focus only on English? – Christophe Strobbe Sep 22 '16 at 19:02
  • @ChristopheStrobbe 1) she is. 2) the answer needn't be limited to English, but should cover the English use case. – Flimzy Sep 23 '16 at 6:58
  • I wonder what you ended up doing and whether you could post an answer about that :-) – Christophe Strobbe Jan 10 '17 at 17:58
  • @ChristopheStrobbe: It's still an ongoing struggle :/ – Flimzy Jan 10 '17 at 18:06
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This is something that often happens to beginners, but since you say your wife is quite advanced, I'm surprised, as her mother tongue does have tense inflection. But this is something that can be used to her advantage.

I'd suggest creating flashcards from Spanish to English with the verbs most frequently occurring in the spoken language, separate for each distinct English verb form. For example:

compro -> I buy
compré -> I bought
compraré -> I will buy
como -> I eat
comí -> I ate
comeré -> I will eat

The idea is to learn to say out loud the answers to the flashcards as fast as possible, to make it automatic. I would start just with the 1st person, and see if that's enough. After all, apart from present simple, English verbs don't inflect for person.

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(Note: I am writing the response in an impersonal form only to make it generic across learners.)

I would break the problem down into three parts: awareness, learning the correct forms (conjugations) and using these forms in the appropriate context (the actual tenses).

Awareness here refers to what tenses are required most (i.e. not generally but by the learner). This information is useful in the interest of reducing the number of errors fast by tackling the most common errors first. In order to track the types of errors, you could use a type of journal, for example, with sentences containing errors and a note on the type of error (the time reference used, e.g. categorised as past, presence or future, and the tense that should have been used). After a while, it should become clear which area or tense needs to be tackled first.

(Journaling is not unusual in language learning—see for example Five Reasons You Should Write as Part of Your Language Learning—but the goal is usually not as specific as tracking errors in a specific area of usage.)

Learning the correct forms refers to the ability to build all the verb forms, not just the irregular forms, but also the regular ones and those that require auxiliary verbs. This is not a big deal in English, especially when compared with Spanish, French or even German. You can do this one tense at a time, based on the "importance" ranking of tenses that came out of the journaling activity.

Using the forms in the correct context obviously refers to using the tenses correctly. While this requires knowledge of the correct forms (see above), I don't consider this a separate step, but as something that should both reinforce and be reinforced by learning the correct forms. Of course, you need to know a few correct forms to start with, but this knowledge should be expanded by creating situations or dialogues where you need them.

For example, to practice the simple past, you can start conversations that require the simple past, e.g. talking about what someone did yesterday, on their honeymoon, during their last trip abroad, etc. When the learner makes an error, you can point out the correct form. To practice the simple future, you can start conversations about future plans, forecasts and predictions (the weather, stock prices, elections, ...), etc. (It gets trickier with more complex forms, such as those required by future progressive, but I am assuming that these tenses will come up less frequently.)

Of course, none of this excludes additional techniques, such as entering certain sentences as cloze tests into an SRS such as Anki, extensive reading, or a form of intensive reading where you underline or mark all instances of a specific tense in a piece of text (in order to collect examples and learn their patterns).

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