Going Back to the Future Tenses
I don’t know about you all, but I don’t much care for this time change nonsense. Last weekend in Italy and this past weekend in the US, we all were constrained to move our clocks back one hour, robbing us of sixty lovely minutes of precious sunlight every evening. Not only that, in theory, we traveled backwards in time and lived the same hour twice. It’s too much for me to really get my head around. Therefore in today’s post, I’m going back to the future—at least in the grammatical sense.
Keeping with the theme, I’d like to address a specific grammar issue, and that is teaching the difference between the various future tenses to our Italian friends. This would be an appropriate lesson for Intermediate Level learners. In a previous post, I named a few general challenges when teaching English to Italians. If you haven’t read that yet, you might want to check it out first.
For those of us from the United States who mostly slept through sixth grade grammar class (and still somehow managed a “B”), let’s review what we should have learned had we been awake. Basically, we can describe future actions in four ways: the present simple tense, the present simple continuous, the future simple, and the “going to” form. There are more, of course, but these are by far the most common.
The rules here are fairly easy to teach, but getting your students to incorporate them into daily usage is more difficult. A beginner Italian will usually try to use the present simple for everything, because in Italian this is often quite acceptable. “Vado in spiaggia domani,” literally means “I go to the beach tomorrow.” Do your ears hurt when you hear the phrase spoken in that way in English? Mine do.
On the other hand, an intermediate Italian will often fancy him/herself more clever by using the future simple, “I will go to the beach tomorrow.” But it’s not much better, is it?
In English we will usually employ either the present continuous, “I’m going to the beach tomorrow,” or the “going to” form, “I am going to go to the beach tomorrow.” Both of these are acceptable, however the former is usually preferred in this specific example. We use the present continuous when our plans are firm and the “going to” when we’ve made the decision, but not yet defined exactly when the action will be carried out.
We English speakers tend to reserve the future simple construction for promises or threats. For example, “I will kill you if you look at my wife again!” However, some English speakers might choose to use the “going to” in this case, to wit, “I’m going to kill you if you look at my wife again.”
However this second phrase sounds less menacing, no? In the first example, we’ve clearly stated our intention to end the life of the ogler and we also hint at when we plan to carry out the act (immediately, if not sooner). In the second example, we’ve sort of made the decision to murder the lecherous cretin, but haven’t yet figured when we’ll actually get around to it.
You can see why an Italian would have a problem with this verb form—it’s much too faltering for such an emotional deed. When they say that they’re “going to kill you,” what they really mean is that they WILL kill you! And I’d take that seriously if I were you. (Of course, by the time he figures out which tense to use, you could just run away.)
So then it should give you some degree of suspicion when your Italian mechanic says that he “will fix” your motorino tomorrow. What he should say is that he’s “going to fix” your motorino…when he gets around to it. If he needs to take his mother to the doctor or watch the Monday morning soccer debates with his pals at the bar, then rest assured that you won’t be riding your Vespa for quite some time.
You see, the future is relative. When an Italian says, “domani,” it doesn’t necessarily mean “tomorrow” literally; it just means NOT today!