Present tense as a neutral form in the L2 French of Chinese L1 speakers

TitrePresent tense as a neutral form in the L2 French of Chinese L1 speakers
Publication TypeChapitre d'ouvrage
Année de publication2015
AuthorsSaillard, Claire
Book TitleThe Acquisition of the Present
EditionD. Ayoun
PublisherJohn Benjamins

This chapter illustrates the claim that, while acquiring French as a second language, Chinese L1 speakers may face a double challenge stemming from their previous experience of a language without grammatical tense. For these learners, the process of ascertaining the temporal value of French tenses as well as their aspectual values may be hindered by negative transfer from the L1. Taking the French present tense as an illustration, we evidence that Chinese L1 speakers view this tense as a temporally and aspectually neutral form. In order to support this claim, this chapter starts with a brief description of the tense-aspect system of French and Mandarin Chinese is given, highlighting the main differences between them. This contrastive description is followed by analyses and results from of a study based on data collected from blogs written in French by Chinese university students in China. Narrative stretches relating to past situations are extracted from the blogs and analyzed for verbal tense and other temporal marks. We claim that in many cases, French present tense is used as a neutral form by Chinese L1 speakers, rather than being a default or ‘base’ form typical of lower L2 proficiency. First, state verbs are typically incompatible with aspectual marking in Chinese, and Chinese learners prefer using the present tense when referring to past states in L2 French, instead of the canonical but aspectually marked imparfait tense form. Second, use of the present tense to describe a past situation in L2 French can be triggered when the translation equivalent in L1 Chinese is not a verb and involves no aspectual or temporal specification. Third, in the case of process verbs (verbs encompassing a Source Phase and a Target Phase), use of the present tense is intended to focus on the stative resultative Target Phase only, this phase being prominent in the L1. This phenomenon further shows that Chinese learners fail to grasp the aspectual peculiarities of the French deictic present tense. The chapter ends with a discussion of the results weighing the explicative power of the transfer hypothesis as opposed to universalist hypotheses.