Macquarie University
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The temporal (re-)construal of experience: how native speakers of English and advanced Chinese learners select and interpret simple past/present tenses

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posted on 2022-03-28, 23:42 authored by Jiahuan Xu
This thesis is a pedagogically motivated investigation into problems faced by advanced Chinese EFL (English as a Foreign Language) learners in acquiring the English simple present/past tense distinction. The uses made of these two basic tenses by advanced Chinese learners of English frequently deviate from those of native-speakers, and their interpretations of tense usage also differ systematically from the understandings of native-speakers. Following an empirical investigation comparing advanced Chinese learner usage, acceptability judgements and interpretations with those of native-speakers I attempt to explicate the source(s) of attested differences based on a cross-linguistic comparison of English and Chinese, i.e. a tensed with a tenseless language, within the conceptual frameworks of Cognitive Linguistics and Linguistic Relativity. I argue that these differences hinge on two aspects of event construal: constitutive construal and perspectival construal (Croft and Cruse, 2004). The former entails differences in referential information while the latter is associated with differences in perspectives only. In an initial phase, the study surveyed naturally occurring native tense usage. In a second phase, I conducted an empirical investigation of a quasi-experimental design that compared advanced Chinese learner usage, acceptability judgements and interpretations with those of native-speakers. The second phase consisted of a survey targeting four aspects of tense usage that have proved problematic for Chinese learners, with follow-up interviews aiming to elicit introspective evidence as well as spontaneous responses. Data were collected from advanced Chinese EFL learners (N=22) and native speakers (N=22) and these were analysed both quantitatively and qualitatively. Statistical analyses revealed significant differences between the two groups in terms of tense choices, acceptability judgements and interpretations. In most cases Chinese learners preferred present tense (except for the historical present tense) whereas English speakers preferred past or both tenses. Qualitative analyses of introspective data also showed consistent differences both in terms of metalinguistic knowledge and the factors taken into account in the decision-making process, providing evidence for potential differences at the conceptual level in relation to grammatical categories of temporal domain. I argue that my findings support the case for the presence of distinct language-specific perspectives on event construal, suggesting typological influence on specific patterns of conceptualization in support of the linguistic relativity hypothesis. For example, it seems that what is actually being located in relation to the speech time is different for native-speakers and Chinese EFL learners. Certain native-speaker uses of the English past emerge from a language- or culture-specific tendency to focus on the past sphere of the events as they were subjectively experienced; this is associated with episodic memory as opposed to semantic memory, which seems more readily available to Chinese speakers. I argue that these differences are based on distinct conceptualisations of temporality, proposing that speakers of Chinese base their understandings and uses of the English tenses on a non-egocentric cognitive representation of temporal events which can be described as sequential perspective (Talmy, 2003). This perspective is in fact encoded in the grammar of the Chinese language, where the essentially deictic (or “grounded”) category of tense is absent, and where localized aspectual distinctions (i.e., perfective or imperfective relative to the context, see Halliday & McDonald, 2004) are paramount as the vantage point is in motion. The study thus provides new perspectives for analysing conceptual transfer in L2 tense acquisition as a promising way of investigating the diversity of human conceptualization. It is hoped that by clearly defining the nature and source(s) of the difficulties experienced by speakers of a tenseless language like Chinese, this research will help contribute to the development of a more effective and targeted approach to improve Chinese EFL learners’ control of English tenses.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction -- Chapter 2. Literature review -- Chapter 3. Conceptual and methodological framework -- Chapter 4. Methods -- Chapter 5. Results and discussions -- Chapter 6. Conclusions, implications and suggestions -- References -- Appendix.


Bibliography: pages 186-202

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Human Sciences, Department of Linguistics

Department, Centre or School

Department of Linguistics

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Alan Jones


Copyright disclaimer: Copyright Jiahuan Xu 2013.




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