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My good friend Antonello 0

Dear Bradshaw,

Fourteen-year-old Antonello is failing English. His class is studying the Present Perfect, which is higher than a cloud over his head, so his parents have hired me to move mountains. Five minutes into our first lesson, I realized that if I could teach Antonello the Present Perfect, I could also teach a turkey to knit sweaters.

Nevertheless, I began with a comprehensive but simple printout, which I covered point by point, and which, with most students, does the trick. While explaining, I repeated several times that we do not use the Present Perfect with time expressions like five minutes ago, at 8 o’clock, last night, yesterday, two weeks ago, in 1999, etc. I even indicated the same information on the printout, and then, using a time expression on purpose, I asked him to translate a sentence from Italian to English.

Though he should have used the Past Simple, saying, “My mother OPENED the window five minutes ago”, what he said was, “My mother HAS OPENED the window five minutes ago.”

“Remember,” I said, pressing my hands together as if in prayer. “You cannot use the Present Perfect with time expressions. What’s a time expression? Let’s look at some examples again on the printout: five minutes ago, at 8 o’clock, last night, yesterday, two weeks ago, in 1999.”

I gave Antonello a second sentence with another time expression, which he should have translated as, “My dad PLAYED golf yesterday.” Instead, he said, “My dad HAS PLAYED golf yesterday.”

“Listen,” I said, waving my hands as if warding off a fly. “If you say ‘yesterday’ then you absolutely cannot use the Present Perfect. Understand? Cannot! If you say ‘yesterday’, you must use the Past Simple. Why? Because ‘yesterday’ is yesterday. It’s finished. Over. Done. The Present Perfect is a present tense verb, so there’s a connection to the present.”

I asked Antonello to translate a third sentence and, hoping to hammer the point home, I again used a time expression. His translation should have been: “I CLOSED the door five minutes ago.” His translation was: “I HAVE CLOSED the door five minutes ago.”

I was silent as I stared into his eyes in search of what was missing. Everything seemed to be there, except for some upper teeth in his mouth.

“Antonello,” I said, placing my elbows on the table and clasping my fingers under my chin. “Let me ask you a question. If I say ‘five minutes ago’, in your opinion, am I referring to the past, the present, or the future?”

“Five minutes ago,” he said, staring up at the ceiling, glancing out the window, and then surveying the tabletop, “is the… um, uh… the, umm… present?”

“Really?” I said, paring down the cuticle of my left thumb. ‘Five minutes ago’ is the present? ‘Five minutes ago’ is now?”

“No? It’s… the… past?”

“Yes, my good friend Antonello, yes. ‘Five minutes ago’ is the past.”

Anyway, Shaw, I apologize. I know I shouldn’t disparage students, especially in writing. After all, they’re trying, right? But with students like Antonello, what hope do I have? So wish me luck, please. Twice.

 

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