The Present isn’t always so Perfect

teaching english in RomeI remember seeing a movie once about an auto race or road rally or something where one of the drivers was an Italian.  When he got into his car the first thing he did was to rip the rearview mirror from the windshield and throw it in the back seat.  His comment was, “The first rule of Italian driving: what’s-a behind me, it’s-a not important.”

This might be helpful to keep in mind when teaching the past tenses to Italians.  To them—it seems to me—the past isn’t all that important.  Or rather, their scale of time is so much grander than ours that it makes precise timekeeping superfluous.  In America, we think of history in terms of years or decades, whereas in Italy it is thought of in terms of centuries and millennia—so maybe that’s the difference.

Indeed, as I study the Italian language myself, I’m often confounded by the apparent subjectivity of their past tenses.  They use the passato prossimo for things that happened (more or less) recently, and the passato remoto for things that happened a (relatively) long time ago.  The choice of which tense to use appears to be at the total discretion of the speaker and the accepted conventions vary from region to region. 

Again, I think it’s more a question of the timescale.  I almost thought that I had this figured out until I once asked a Sicilian man if he’d care to have a coffee with me, to which he replied, in Sicilian, “No, grazie, mi nni bbivìa unu uora,”—No thanks, I had one (in the passato remoto tense). Now granted, he was an older man, but I doubt he was referring to a cup of coffee that he had consumed during the Fascist era.  In fact, I know for sure that not more than an hour could have “passato” since his last coffee; not really very “remoto,” even by my American standards.

teaching the present perfect tense

Does this come in an XL?

But I digress.  For Italians learning English, one of the main challenges is in understanding the difference between the simple past and the present perfect.  The simple past is (almost) equivalent to their passato prossimo, but the present perfect is something that simply doesn’t exist in the Italian language.  Even Italians who speak excellent English can still make this particular mistake sometimes.  Perhaps the difficulty lies not only in the understanding the grammar rules, but also in the cultural context.

Let’s look at a few examples.  If I say, “John lived at home until he was eighteen,” we see that I’ve used the simple past to indicate an event that started in the past and finished in the past.

But if I say, “Giovanni has lived with his parents his whole life,” it’s clear that I’ve chosen the present perfect tense because this is something that started in the past, but is still true at the present moment (much to the chagrin of Giovanni’s fidanzata).

present perfect diagramThe Italians also have the imperfetto form, which is (almost) similar to the “used to” form in English.  We say “used to” when we want to imply that a past action was either repeated often or occurred over a long period of time.  Instead, the simple past is normally employed for a one-off event.

Going back our good friend Giovanni, I could say, “Giovanni watched the soccer match last night.”  One time, in the past, finished.  Fine.  But this is very different than saying, “Giovanni used to watch soccer only once a week, but now that his mother bought him a Sky Sport subscription for his onomastico day, he watches it all day long and does little else with his time.”  (Again, I think it’s safe to say that the girlfriend is probably weighing her options at this point).


Teaching the Present Perfect Tense

So then the beginning student might ask you: what’s the difference between “I used to live in Rome,” and “I’m used to living in Rome?”  For native English speakers, the difference is clear, even if you can’t quite explain it in grammatical terms.  The first sentence states an action that happened over a long period of time in the past (as in the above example with Giovanni and his soccer obsession), whereas the second sentence refers to habits, tolerances and such.  (The Italian word is abituarsi.)  “I’m used to living in Rome,” implies that I’m accustomed to the things that make living in Rome unique.

For example, I’m “used to” (accustomed /adapted/ habituated to) the weather in Rome.  I’m used to the food in Rome.  I’m used to the gridlocked traffic; I’m used to businesses being closed in the middle of the day for no apparent reason; I’m used to the public service employees who regard my presence merely as an obstacle to their next cigarette break; I’m used to Berlusconi avoiding prosecution and making a mockery of the justice system while continuing to run for public office; and so on.  So you see, while the two sentences appear to be similar structurally, they are really quite separate in meaning.

Finally, I should point out one additional fact that comes up from time to time when teaching this specific grammar point.  The verb “to go” is the only verb in English with which we can use two different past participles to mean two slightly different things.  These two forms are “been” and “gone.”  Let’s return to our example one last time to illustrate this important distinction regarding the present perfect tense.

playing soccer in the present perfect

Roma, Roma, Roma…

Giovanni’s girlfriend has been to London several times.

Giovanni’s girlfriend has gone to London and she has no intention of returning to Rome anytime soon to resume her so-called “relationship” with a 35 year-old man who still lives with his mother and watches soccer all day.

To be clear, when we say that someone “has been” someplace, we mean to say that they went and then returned.  But if we say someone “has gone,” we imply that they haven’t come back yet.  (And in the case of Giovanni’s girlfriend, it seems unlikely that she ever will.)

I sympathize with our Italian friends when it comes to learning this particular verb tense.  It seems logical that the term “present perfect” would specify a present tense; but instead it’s actually a past tense.  Strange, no?  But for us (Americans, anyway), the present and the past are so close to one another that they are almost indistinguishable.  Not so for an Italian.  The Roman Republic was founded 2,500 years ago, so the Renaissance was practically last year and World War II was yesterday.

Given that perspective, “only” 35 years of living at home with your mother doesn’t seem like such a long time.  Makes sense to me…but I’m not sure that Giovanni’s girlfriend would agree. In fact, she tweeted this from London yesterday (in perfect English, I might add):

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Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

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