The Use of English Tense by Thai University Students
The purposes of this research were to examine 1) the impact of the use of time markers in Thai give any impact on the use of English tense by Thai university students, 2) causes of errors in the use of English tense, and 3) factor from personal variation, in this case, proficiency. The subjects of this research were 75 first-year students studying in the Southeast Asian Studies program. Divided into 3 classes, all of them were taking EL 172 at the Language Institute of Thammasat University. The instrument was a translation test. The students were assigned to translate from Thai to English 8 sentences, 4 with time markers (TM) and 4 without time markers (s TM), and a short passage within one hour. The results of the study were as follows:
1. The use of time markers in Thai mostly resulted with a negative transfer to the use of English tense by Thai students. Students who got lower scores in TM translation (60.60%o) are of the largest amount, comparing with * TM (28.0%) and short passage (40.0%) translations which allowed students to find an appropriate tense by considering the time of a particular action.
2. After analyzing all errors occurred in the translation test, it was found that causes of these errors were: transfer, overgeneralization, ignorance of rule restrictions, incomplete application of rules, and false concept hypothesized.
3. Factor from personal variation, in this case, English proficiency, also give an impact in the use of English tense by the students. The three classes of students had a correlation with the overall scores (Sig.F. = 0.001, p < 0.05) and scores ins TM translation (Sig.F. = 0.000, p. < 0.05). Students in Class 1, who had the highest English proficiency, got highest scores in ?~ TM translation (X = 2.50). Comparing students in Class 2 to those in Class 3, students in Class 3, who had higher English proficiency, got higher scores in ¹ TM translation (X = 1.81 and X = 1.14, respectively). Consequently, students in Class 1 got the highest overall scores (X= 10.03). The runners up were students in Class 3 (X= 8.95) and students in Class 2 (X= 7.74), respectively.
In the current globalization era, English has become an international language and widely taught all over the world as either second or foreign language. Nonetheless, a standardized proficiency of those L2 learners is still unseen. In Thailand, since English is not the official language, it is taught as a foreign language both in schools and universities. Even though it plays a role of the international language in international communication, English learners in Thailand still have competence which is far beyond that of native speakers. In order to examine such linguistic phenomena, many researchers have been done to evaluate English proficiency of Thai students. It is interesting that results from certain researches indicate that tense is the most difficult element for Thai students to acquire.
In English tense is the most important part and one cannot deny that it is also the most difficult part in English which non-native learners have to spend much time to understand and use it correctly and properly. It is obvious that, like many other researches in SLA, most researches in SLA ever done in Thailand conclude that language transfer is a major cause of difficulties in the acquisition of English tense by Thai students.
In the respect of the performance, or production and comprehension of language, of these L2 learners, it is apparent that L2 learners many times perform in L2 relying on their L1. The reason is, L2 learners, unlike the child learning his first language, have their first language to turn to. This can be referred to as “transfer”. Transfer in SLA is the phenomena that the L2 learner transfers forms and meanings in his or her L1 to the target language (Lado 1957, quoted in Odlin, 1989). Transfer can be positive transfer, in which L1 supports the acquisition of L2, or negative transfer, in which the influence of L1 imposes a difficulty in the acquisition and, even worse, the misuse of L2 (Odlin, 1989). Negative transfer can be caused by underproduction, overproduction, production errors and misinterpretation. Underproduction is occurred due to inadequate competence in L2 of the learner which results with the avoidance of some grammatical performance. Avoidance, then, results with overproduction whenever the learner turns to use or perform other forms in L2 that they have a better competence. Similarities and differences between L1 and L2 can sometimes impose production errors, while the influence of linguistic structure in L1 as well as the misunderstanding in L2 linguistic structure can lead to misinterpretation.
Besides transfer, Odlin (1989) also suggests that non-structural factors, namely, variation, proficiency, literacy, age of acquisition, influence language acquisition. Moreover, Richards (1974) has found from the studies of English errors produced by speakers of many languages that these errors reflect some developmental errors which illustrate the learner attempting to build up hypotheses about the English language from his limited experience of it in the classroom or textbook. Such errors include: overgeneralization, or situations when the learner creates a deviant structure based on his or her experience of other structures in the target language; ignorance of rules restrictions, or the failure to observe the restrictions of existing structures or the application of rules to contexts where they do not apply; incomplete application, or the occurrence of structures whose deviancy represents the degree of development of the rules required to produce acceptable utterances; and false concept hypothesized.
Time attributes are expressed in the systems through which languages represent these divisions (Levinson, 1983). In all languages time is referred to some way. Nevertheless, time attributes or, in other words, perceptual, conceptual, and cultural divisions of time, differ from society to society (Hinkel, 1997).
English is a time-oriented language which requires the overt marking of time in its sentences. This time orientation is generally shown in the use of tense or the set of verbs which are inflected in different forms, thus indicating when an event occurs, occurred, or will occur. However, sometimes time is referred by the use of auxiliaries and/or adverbial time expressions (Noochoochai, 1978). The notion of time, not tense, has been recognized by linguists as a universal concept. Nevertheless, according to Jespersen (1931, quoted in Noochoochai, 1978), time and tense do not always correspond. Tense serves not only for time relations, but also for other purposes, and they are often inextricably confused with marks for person, mood, etc. Not only does time often fail to have a one-to-one correspondence to the time of a sentence, it is often intertwined with other grammatical features such as aspect and mood (Scovel, 1970).
Unlike English, Thai has neither verb inflections nor auxiliaries to convey the time concepts. It is the combination of time phrase, time markers, aspect markers, and certain types of verbs that serve as a clue to signal either present, past or future time (Kanchanawan, 1978). Time in Thai is morphologically marked only optionally. Generally, and sentence in Thai, without the attached specific time markers, is capable of being understood in any tense (Chaiyaratana, 1961). According to its time reference, it is ambiguous when translated into a tense language like English. Noochoochai (1978) believes that in the Thai language there are many contexts that do not require any expression of temporal aspect. It differs from the English language where most of the time the temporal aspect is marked overtly. And this characteristic of the Thai language implies that the use of the temporal expression is necessary for time reference in Thai because the verb itself does not convey any notion of time.
As time attributes and linguistic references of L1 and L2 can be different, learners may find themselves in a situation where they cannot select or recognize the temporal attribute to which tense is a grammatical reference (Donnellan, 1991). Also, as mentioned earlier that L2 learners have their L1 to turn to, they rely on tense meaning in their L1 when trying to comprehend the meaning of L2 tense.
Statement of the Problem
According to the above background of English learning in Thailand, this study is purposed to examine the acquisition of English tense which is found in many researches on English language acquisition in Thailand as the most problematic element to Thai students. In this study, the use of time markers in Thai (L1) is to be tested to find out whether it has any impact on such use of English tense. Furthermore, this study is to examine the causes of errors found in the use of English tense by Thai students. It is also purposed to examine whether there are other factors that play a major role in the use of English tense and whether English proficiency, a personal variation, gives any impact on it. This study is aimed to provide a better understanding of the acquisition and the use of English tense by Thai students.
Methodology of study
The subjects are comprised of 3 classes of total 75 Thai university students of the Southeast Asian Studies program who are taking EL 172 in second semester of the academic year 2001 at the Language Institute, Thammasat University. The students of this program are selected as subjects because in order to study in this international program they must have good proficiency of English. This means that they somehow understand how to use English tense. The proficiency or the grades in EL 171 of students in Class 1, 2 and 3 are 3.69, 2.81 and 3.18, respectively.
The instrument used is translation test. The students are assigned to translation from Thai to English 8 sentences: 4 with time markers and 4 without time markers, and a short passage. All of them are originally derived from the information written in English. The eight sentences are updated news published in the Bangkok Post. The short passage is adapted from the passage about earthquake in Azar (1999)’s Understanding and Using English Grammar (pp. 63). Both the sentences and the short passage contain activities which happen at different points of time. These activities cover only tenses which are often used and considered, according to the study done by Lukanavanich (1988), problematic to Thai university students. These tenses are present simple, present perfect, present perfect progressive, past simple, past progressive, past perfect progressive, and future simple. Time markers are added in sentences NO. 4, 6, 7, and 8, while in sentences No. 1, 2, 3 and 5 time markers are not provided. As for the short passage, time markers are provided only where considered necessary.
The researcher distributes the translation tests to all subjects. The subjects are given one hour to translate from Thai to English 8 sentences as well as a short passage, which contains 9 slots, using appropriate English tense. Marks are given to the items where correct tenses are provided. The correctness means the use of correct tense, both in form and meaning, for each particular item or context.
The results of this research are presented in the following tables:
Table 1: Number of Students in Each Type of Translations Comparing to the Rates of Scores
Table 1 compares rates of scores in each type of translation. It is found that in TM most students (60.60%) got low scores whereas in ¹TM and short passage translation most students got middle scores. This is equivalent to 53.3% and 42.7%, respectively.
Table 2: Mean Differences Between Scores and Classes
* p. < 0.05
Using ANOVA, Table 2 provides the mean differences between scores and the three classes. It is found that the three classes have significant difference with overall scores, Sig.F = 0.001, p. < 0.05 as well as with ¹TM translation, Sig. F = 0.000, p. < 0.05.
Table 3: Comparison of the Overall Scores of the Students in the Three Classes
* p. < 0.05
According to the post-hoc analysis using LSD Test, it is found in Table 3 that students in Class 1 got higher scores (= 10.03) than students in Class 2 (= 7.74).
Table 4: Comparison of Scores in ¹TM Translation of the Students in the Three Classes
* p. < 0.05
The post-hoc analysis also shows in Table 4 that scores in TM translation of the students in Class 1 (= 2.50) are higher than those of the students in Class 2 (= 1.14) and Class 3 (= 1.81).
Conclusions and Discussions
Conclusions and discussions of this research are as the followings:
1. The Impacts of the use of Time Markers (TM) in Thai on the Use of English Tense
There are both positive and negative impacts. This is in accordance with what Lado (1957) says about positive and negative transfer. It also in accordance with what Guiora (1983), Smith (1988) and Hinkel (1997) found in their research. Those elements that are similar to the learner’s native language will result in positive transfer, while those that are different will result in negative transfer. In sentence No. 8, “สถานที่การประชุมเศรษฐกิจโลกจะถูกประกาศให้ทราบเร็ว ๆ นี้”, every student (100%) uses the correct tense since the time marker “จะ” indicates the same time reference as “will” does, that is, the future time. However, in sentence No. 4, “ขณะอายุ 16 ปี ทักษิณ ชินวัตร ได้บริหารโรงภาพยนตร์ซึ่งเป็นธุรกิจหนึ่งของที่บ้าน”, there are only two students, or equivalent to only 2.67% that use the correct tense, the past progressive. Even though students use the time marker, “ขณะอายุ 16 ปี” or “at the age of 16”, as the guide, they do not get the idea or the concept of the past progressive which implies that the action was going on around a particular past time.
Unlike TM translation, ¹TM translation does not provide any time marker in the Thai sentences. Instead, it allows the students to think about the time concept in English by themselves. Without any hint, they can freely decide which tense is appropriate for each sentence according to the time each action takes place. It can lead the students to the correct concept of time, while time markers in TM translation many times lead to the wrong concept of time in English. In sentence No. 3, “กีฬาโอลิมปิกฤดูหนาวครั้งต่อไปจัดขึ้นที่เมืองซอลท์เลค ประเทศสหรัฐอเมริกา”, the students can infer the time when the action occurs very well. The students can get the concept of the future time by inferring from the adjectival phrase “ครั้งต่อไป” or “the next”. This is why up to 73.33% of students can use the correct tense, the future simple. In sentence No. 5, “นายกรัฐมนตรีทักษิณ ชินวัตร ประสบความสำเร็จก่อนที่พรรคไทยรักไทยจะได้รับชัยชนะ”, 37.33% of students can supply the correct tense, the past perfect. They can infer that the winning of Thai Rak Thai Party was the result of the last election which was in the past. Therefore, Thaksin Shinawatra’s being successful which had happened before in the past, should be referred to with the past perfect tense. Despite its good points, ¹TM translation can have some weak points in some cases. Besides the transfer from the Thai language as said before, getting a wrong concept can happen to the students. This is the most obvious in sentence No. 2, “ยอดการส่งออกของไทยตกต่ำเรื่อยมาเนื่องจากภาวะเศรษฐกิจตกต่ำทั่วโลก”, where the least students got the correct answer. In spite of the adverbial clause “เรื่อยมา” which implies the present perfect progressive concept, only 6 students or 8.00% can see this concept.
Like ¹TM translation, short passage translation allows the students to think about the appropriate time concept or tense for each slot. The students do not have any time markers to rely on. In addition, with strings of sentences connected to one another, the students have a starting point that helps them go further to other directions. In other words, it helps them consider at what time the preceding or the following action could happen. If the students get into the right track, they can use the tense correctly, especially where the sentences consist continual actions or actions that have the same concept of time. Nonetheless, students did not perform well in the slots which contain the actions that have the perfect concept.
2. Causes of Errors in the Use of English Tense
The dependence on time markers and the non-existence of verb inflections in the Thai language are transferred to the use of English tense. This has been discussed earlier.
Some errors found indicate that the students extend the use of grammatical rule of linguistic items beyond its accepted uses. It covers instances where the students create a deviant structure on the basis of their experience of other structures in the target language. For example, the students add a verb to be before a verb when using the present simple:
- They are expect that….
- ……when the next earthquakes is strikes…..
2.3 Ignorance of Rule Restrictions
Sometimes the students failed to observe the restrictions of existing structures. They apply the rules to the contexts they do not apply. As a result, they use a wrong tense in a wrong context. Some examples are as the followings:
- One of the most severe quakes is at Anchorage, Alaska. (was)
Thailand’s export is decreasing because of the world’s economic
recession. (has been decreasing)
2.4 Incomplete Application of Rules
There are many errors which indicate the incomplete application of rules. The miss the verb inflections. Examples are as follows :
- The venue of the World Economic Forum will be announce soon. (announced)
- the next Winter Olympic will be hold in Salt Lake City, U.S.A. (held)
2.5 False Concepts Hypothesized
Some errors are caused by false concepts hypothesized. These errors are developmental errors which derive from faulty comprehension of distinctions in the target language. Below are some examples.
the use of past simple instead of past progressive to say that something was going on around a particular past time.
Ex. At the age of 16, Thaksin Shinawatra managed a cinema which is one of his family’s businesses. (was managing)
the use of past simple instead of past perfect to talk about something that had already happened at the time the speaker is talking about in the past.
Ex. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was successful before the winning of the Thai Rak Thai Party. (had been successful)
3. Factor from Personal Variation: Proficiency
The results in Table 2 indicate that the level of English proficiency affects the students’ use of English tenses in the context where no time markers are provided. That is, the more proficient they are, the more they understand the concept of English tenses and the more they can use it properly.
Looking back at Table 1 and Table 2, the results show that proficiency does not interact with transfer. This is not in accordance with what Taylor (1975) has found in his study which says that less proficient learners rely more on their transfer and such reliance reflects the different levels of background knowledge of less advanced and more advanced learners. Instead, it is in accordance with what Odlin (1989) has argued saying that the positive transfer with the facilitating effects of some cross-linguistic similarities will occur at the advanced stages as much as at the beginning stages of second language acquisition. The similarity of Thai and English time markers in some cases gives a positive transfer to all levels of students, while depending too much upon Thai time markers gives them a negative transfer, leading them to the wrong time concepts.
According to the conclusions and discussions, some recommendations are given as the following:
1. Implications for Teaching
As it is found in this study that transfer or the use of time markers in Thai influences the use of English tenses, knowing in advance the differences between the native language and the target language helps teachers predict what part can be difficult to their students. Nevertheless, some contrastive information is still incomplete. Consequently, teachers should use such information with a certain wariness. In addition, since comparisons of languages focus more on static forms and functions in two languages than on the way the students learn their second language, according to Odlin (1989), teachers must be concerned with the learning process. Finally, as sometimes time markers in Thai do not enhance a better use of English tense, the teachers should be aware that their traditional teaching methods which reinforce their students to memorize and to use the time markers as the guide to a proper use of tenses should be revolved. They should, instead, explain the concept of each tense and teach their students to consider what time each particular action is taken place.
2. Implications for Further Research
Besides tense, it would be advantageous if there is further research on the use of other grammatical parts such as articles and discourse markers. Moreover, further study should focus on a particular factor in learning English as a foreign or second language. In order to gain a better understanding on the students’ mistakes and what learning strategies they are using, further research should also be done on learning process as well as on other personal variations such as age, sex, and major fields of study.
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Sentences and Short Passage Used in the Translation Test
3. กีฬาโอลิมปิกฤดูหนาวครั้งต่อไปจัดขึ้นที่เมืองซอลท์เลค ประเทศสหรัฐอเมริกา
4. ขณะอายุ 16 ปี ทักษิณ ชินวัตร ได้บริหารโรงภาพยนตร์ซึ่งเป็นธุรกิจหนึ่งของที่บ้าน
5. นายกรัฐมนตรี ทักษิณ ชินวัตร ประสบความสำเร็จก่อนที่พรรคไทยรักไทยจะได้รับชัยชนะ
6. รัฐบาลไทยและมาเลเซียได้ลงนามในบันทึกความเข้าใจร่วมในการร่วมกันพัฒนาแหล่งก๊าซในอ่าวไทยเมื่อปี ค.ศ. 1979
7. เมื่อเร็ว ๆ นี้ วิดีโอเทปของสมาชิดอัลเคดา 5 คน ถูกค้นพบที่เมืองหลวงของอัฟกานิสถาน
8. สถานที่การประชุมเศรษฐกิจโลกจะถูกประกาศให้ทราบเร็ว ๆ นี้
“พื้นที่เกือบทุกส่วนของโลกต่างก็ประสบแผ่นดินไหวมาแล้ว โดยตลอดระยะเวลา 1,000 ปี มีแผ่นดินไหวเกิดขึ้นทั้งสิ้นมากกว่า 13 ล้านครั้ง การไหวครั้งร้ายแรงที่สุดครั้งหนึ่งเกิดขึ้นที่เมืองแองเคอร์เรจ (Anchorage) รัฐอลาสกา (Alaska) ซึ่งเมืองถูกทำลายและมีผู้คนเสียชีวิตเป็นจำนวนมาก นักวิทยาศาสตร์ได้พยายามพัฒนาเครื่องมือที่มีความไวต่อแผ่นดินไหวมาโดยตลอด ซึ่งพวกเขาคาดว่าเมื่อเกิดแผ่นดินไหวครั้งต่อไป เครื่องมือดังกล่าวก็สามารถส่งสัญญาณเตือนได้ทันการณ์”