English Past Simple & Present Perfect in Relation to Thai Learners

 by Will Baker, January 2002



Past simple and present perfect are two areas of English grammar that are often introduced to Thai learners at an early stage of any language programme in English.  However many Thai learners seem to have repeated difficulties using and distinguishing between the two even at an advanced level.  I will try to illustrate a variety of the problems that lead to such difficulties.  Not the least of these is that Thai is a ‘tenseless’ language. This is in common with other Southeast Asian languages such as Vietnamese, Malaysian and Laos, and as has been noted by various writers (Svalberg and Chuchu 1998; Hinkel 1997, 1992), speakers of such languages rarely become proficient at using tense and aspect in English.  I will begin my discussion with an examination of past simple and present perfect in English and then contrast this with Thai, showing in particular how the same functions can be expressed in Thai.   This will lead into an assessment of what Thai learners do, and some suggestions as to why.  Finally, I hope to look briefly at the pedagogic implications of this.

Past Simple and Present Perfect in English

English has been characterised as containing two tenses; present tense and past tense (Huddleston 1984; Quirk et al. 1972).  Tense is used to locate an event or state to a point of time.  The present tense usually refers to the present time and general time.  The past tense usually refers to past time (Quirk et al. 1972). 

Past Tense

The past tense is usually used in reference to some definite time in the past that took place before the present moment and excludes the present (Leech, 1971), hence it can be referred to as the ‘exclusive past’ (Huddleston, 1984: 158).  The past tense is often found with time adverbials indicating a definite past time, e.g. yesterday, last week, two years ago.

The above, exclusive past illustrates what could be called the ‘prototypical’ use of past tense.  However, there are other uses.  Some other uses of past simple would include ‘backshifting’ (Huddleston 1984), where a verb in a subordinate clause, within a larger clause that contains a past tensed verb, will also be in past tense.  The most common example of this is in indirect speech. 

1.You have some interesting books.   --->        

2. He said you had some interesting books. (Still true in the present.) 

Although, as Huddleston notes, this is optional and the verb in the subordinate clause could remain in present tense. 

Another less ‘prototypical’ use of past tense is attitudinal past (Quirk et al. 1972: 86).  This is a use of past simple to indicate the attitude of the speakers rather than a past time and it denotes a polite request. 

3. Did you want to see me? 

Past tense can also be used to express a hypothetical situation or what Huddleston refers to as ‘factual remoteness’ (1984).  This includes ‘If’ and ‘Wish’ clauses (Conditionals).  Another use of past tense identified by Leech is in narratives even if the narrative takes place in an imagined future (1971)e.g. The year was 2020

Further uses of past tense, in particular in academic writing but also in spoken English, are identified by Riddle (1986) and Hinkel (1997).  They examine uses of past tense in various writing conventions in English such as giving background information or referring to events with past associations.  For example, in giving background information:  

4. “The school was an all girls school and there were around a thousand students.”  

However, it may still be true that the school is an all girls school and there are a thousand students. In describing past associations:  

5. “My first teacher was a great teacher.” 

Your first teacher may well still be a great teacher, however the event is associated with a past temporal reference and so ‘was’ is more appropriate than ‘is’.   This use of past tense is associated as much with conventions as with a temporal reference to past time.     

Present perfect 

In addition to tense English also contains aspect.  Aspect does not relate an event or situation to a point in time like a tense, but is rather concerned with “the internal temporal constituency of one situation” (Comrie 1976: 5).  That is, aspect is related to the time structure of the event itself rather than its ‘external’ temporal location.  English can be said to have three aspects: simple, progressive and perfect (Svalberg and Chu Chu 1998).    Given the interests of this paper it will obviously be the perfect aspect that is examined here. 

Comrie (1976) observes that the perfect aspect in English is different to other aspects, in that it doesn’t tell us so much about the internal temporal situation of an event or state, but relates it to a preceeding time. Therefore, the present perfect expresses a relationship between a present state and a past situation. This makes perfect very close to a tense when compared to other aspects (Huddleston, 1984:164).  Nevertheless, it is still classified as an aspect.   

As previously said present perfect relates the past to the present, however this needs to be clarified further. Four main types of ‘perfect’ have been identified (see Comrie 1976, Leech 1971, Leech and Svartvik 1979). 

A. The perfect can be used with a state which began in the past and continues up to the present time and can continue into the future. 

6. The house has been empty for ages. (Leech and Svartvik 1979: 66)

An adverb of duration is usually required for this use (Leech 1971: 31). 

B. The perfect can be used with a habit in a period of time from the past to the present. 

7. I have lived in Thailand for four years. 

Again an adverb of duration is required for this use (Leech 1971: 34). 

C. The perfect can also be used for the indefinite past, at some time between the present and past. 

8. I have been to Australia twice.

In this use the exact time is considered unnecessary or irrelevant to the speaker.

D. The perfect is used for a past event with a present relevance.

            9. Your friend has arrived.

To this Huddleston (1984) also adds that the use of perfect is required with certain time adverbials e.g. since last week, for a month, and yet.  In addition it is used with recent events.

            10. I’ve just been to the cinema.

However Leech and Svartvik (1979) include this as part of use C, indefinite past time.

Past simple versus present perfect


Tense in English is marked on the first verb in a tensed verb group (Svalberg and Chu Chu 1998). Past simple can be identified as; past tense with simple aspect and present perfect as; present tense with a perfect aspect.  Past simple is formed with a finite verb + ‘ed’ for regular verbs and in a number of different ways for irregular verbs.  Present perfect is formed with have/has + en form (past participle) of the verb.


Huddleston has defined present perfect as the ‘inclusive past’, as opposed to past tense as the ‘exclusive past’ (1984).  Thus we can think of past tense as having some fixed point in a time previous to now and ‘excluding’ the present, and the present perfect as expressing a relationship between some past time and now, therefore ‘including’ the present time.  

However, it is very important to note that the choice of past simple or present perfect often resides with the speaker, rather than any temporal location of an event or situation.  For example if asked, “Have you ever been abroad?” it would be perfectly acceptable to reply, “Yes, I went to Mexico last year.” or, “Yes, I’ve been to Mexico.”   The selection relies on the speaker’s perception of the situation, and whether they think it necessary to give a definite time or an indefinite time.   It should also be noted that in conversation we tend to move from the general to the specific (Leech, 1971), in the above example, from the indefinite time of present perfect to the definite time of past simple.

Nevertheless, as already noted, certain time adverbials such as yet, since, and for require the use of perfect aspect, whereas others such as last week and a month ago, demand the use of past tense.  In addition if we contrast various sentences in present perfect with past simple we will see some clear distinctions.

            11. He has lived in London all his life. 

            12. He lived in London all his life.

In sentence 11 we understand that he is alive and still living in London at the present time.  In sentence 12 we understand that the person is now dead.  So in expressing an event that started in the past and continues up to the present we must use present perfect.

            13. Your taxi has arrived.

            14. Your taxi arrived.

For sentence 13 we understand that the taxi arrived some time in the past and is now waiting.  Sentence 14 is very unlikely and the speaker would probably have to clarify whether the taxi had arrived and then left, or whether it was still waiting.  So to express a past action with a present result we must use present perfect.

            15. Have you seen the new teacher?

            16.  Did you see the new teacher?

In this example, we can see the difference between indefinite (present perfect) and definite (past simple) time.  In sentence 15 the question is asking if you have ever seen this teacher, at some time in your life.  In contrast, sentence 16 refers to a specific time in the past, perhaps the new teacher has just walked past, or you had an appointment with them.


From the above analysis it can be seen that to have a good understanding of past simple and present perfect in English, learners must be aware of the temporal references and distinctions associated with each of them.  Learners also need to be aware of various conventions regarding the choice of either form, which may not be related to temporal meaning, but rather personal perspectives or discourse conventions.  In addition learners need to understand the various morphological features, particularly in terms of inflection for past tense or past participle (en) forms of English verbs.   

Hopefully, by now looking at Thai it will be possible to get some indication of what features of tense and aspect Thai learners need to learn, to be able to use past simple and present perfect successfully. 

Contrasts with Thai

There is no system of tenses to mark temporal relationships in Thai (see Sindhvananda 1970).  Thai verbs do not inflect for number, tense or aspect (Haas 1964)as they do in English.  Of course, this does not mean the Thai language has no way to express time.  Temporal placement of a situation or event is shown predominantly through context, in common with other SE Asian languages (Hinkel 1992).  Where specific reference to a time is needed, and not available through context, time adverbials are generally used.  In addition, it has been claimed that there is a system of auxiliary verbs which function as ‘tense and aspect markers’ (Noochoochai 1978),.  However, these are predominantly used in written Thai, and even then not very frequently (Marketing Media Associates). Furthermore, I hope to show, they are not equivalent to English tense and aspect. 

To express a temporal reference in Thai analogous to past simple in English it would be necessary to use a time adverbial such as yesterday, last week, before.

17. Pom pai Krungthep muer wan nee

      (I go Bangkok yesterday)

      (I went to Bangkok yesterday)


18. Muer gone nee pom yoo tee angkrit

      (Before this I live in England)

      (I lived in England before.)  

For a statement such as:

19. Chan mai roo tam aria

      (I no know do what)

      (I don’t know what to do/ I didn’t know what to do)  

The only way to distinguish between a past time reference and a present time reference would be through context. 

There are various auxiliary verbs such as ‘dai, ‘laew and ‘pen which can also indicate a past time reference and generally indicate that the action is completed (Noochoochai 1978).


20. Chan dai arn nang suer

      (I past read book.) 

      (I read a book)


21. Fon tok laew

      (Rain fall past)

      (It rained, or It has rained, or It has started raining)         


With the exception of ‘laew, which is not exclusively used in this sense of completed past, these are mainly restricted to writing and rarely used. 

For narrative past tense there are again various time adverbials that can indicate a temporal reference to the past for example, ‘nai adit (in the past), and ‘su mai gone’ (a long time ago).  

Although Thai has something comparable to indirect speech in English, the verb form and auxillary verb are not exclusively used for past reference.


22. Chao bok wa kuhn tong pai talad

      (They say you must go market)

      (They said you must go to the market)


23. Chan ja bok wa kuhn tong tam dee dee

      (I will say you must do good good)

      (I will tell you, you have to do it well)         


As regards other uses of past simple tense in English identified earlier such as attitudinal past, factual remoteness and discourse functions, these are expressed outside the verb group in Thai, with no temporal reference. 

In relation to present perfect, it is sometimes claimed that Thai has perfective markers (Marketing Media Associates).  However, these are not really an equivalent to English verb inflections for aspect and they can often be used for different aspectual functions depending on the context (Kanchanawan 1978).   Nevertheless the auxiliary verb ‘keuy has a function similar to the present perfect in English used for indefinite time, and ‘pung is used in a similar way to present perfect for recent events.


            24. Chan keuy pai pra-ted Jeen

                  (I ever go country China)

      (I’ve been to China)


            25. Row mai keuy tam aharn angkrit

                  (We no ever make food English)

      (We’ve never cooked English food)


            26. Pom pung glap maa

                  (I just back come)

      (I’ve just got back)

Unlike English present perfect though, it is possible to use ‘kuay with a specific time reference.


            27. Pom kuay yoo tee pra-ted India muer sam bee tee laew

                  (I ever live in country India before three year in past)

                  (*I have lived in India three years ago.)

It should be stressed that, although temporal references can be made in Thai through time adverbials and auxiliary verbs these are usually only used when the context is not sufficient.  The context is by far the most important component of temporal reference in Thai.


It can be seen from the above analysis that there are a variety of contrasts between Thai and English.  Firstly, there is no tense system in Thai and although there are obviously ways to make explicit temporal references, they are often not analogous to all the uses of past simple or present perfect in English.  Secondly, there are no obligatory inflections on verb forms in Thai for either tense or aspect. Thirdly, temporal references in Thai are made through; most commonly context, and then either optionally or where necessary through time adverbials, or auxiliary verb ‘tense markers’.  This latter group is used much less frequently than English verbs marked for tense or aspect, and although their functions at times coincide with English tense and aspect functions, none of them are exact equivalents.  For many of the non-temporal functions, of past tense in particular, there are no analogous forms involving the verb group in Thai.  Now that an analysis of past simple and present perfect in English has been completed and this has been contrasted with the Thai language, it will be necessary to examine how Thai learners make use of the present perfect and past simple, and some of the difficulties that arise.

Thai learners’ use of past simple and present perfect

Firstly, Thai learners make much less use of past simple and present perfect than native speakers would in both written and spoken English.  This is consistent with studies on tense and aspect use of speakers from tenseless languages (Hinkel, 1992 and Svalberg and Chu Chu, 1998).  When Thai students are asked about what they did at the weekend or last week they will frequently, even at advanced levels, reply using uninflected verb forms.  This may be for a variety of reasons.  As previously noted, Thai verbs do not have obligatory tense and aspect inflections and so at lower levels learners may simply not have fully recognized the importance of this in English, particularly if the temporal reference is clear from the context.  However, this is unlikely to be the case for more advanced learners.   Indeed, if asked to correct their own speech or writing, Thai learners are often able to immediately identify problems with tense or aspect.  It may well be, as Svalberg and Chu Chu, (1998) have observed, that this awareness of the difficulties and uncertainty in tense and aspect rules causes learners to avoid using them.

In addition, in Thai there are also problems related to the pronunciation of verb inflections.  Thai syllables always end with either a vowel sound or a single consonant (Haas 1964).  Hence consonant clusters associated with verb inflections such as ‘watched’ cause difficulties for Thais.  This is further compounded by the tendency in Thai for elision of the final sound from a word or syllable.  Therefore, even if Thai learners are aware of the grammatical constructions needed, they may not be able to physically produce them, especially when attempting fluent conversation.  It is worth noting that the above problems are frequently associated not with L1 transfer but with ‘L1 expectations’ (Svalberg and Chu Chu 1998).  That is, although the learners may often know that uninflected verb forms are incorrect, they feel like a cumbersome and unneeded grammatical and pronunciation requirement and are avoided.

Looking now at Thai learners’ actual use of past simple and present perfect there are various problems that arise.  The examples below are taken from an informal writing assignment given to a class of fourth year English minors at a Thai university.  The task was to, ‘Write a brief profile of yourself including major events or achievements in your life so far’. A very common error can be seen from the following two examples.

Describing looking after some stray cats: 

28. Although I was so tired, I kept going on for only one reason, that I love them. 

Discussing a summer job: 

29. Unbelievably that is the most exciting experience for me.  I am very impressed. 

In both of these examples, the students have used present tense to describe feelings that would more usually be expressed in past tense by a native speaker.   This is perhaps a result of the writers feeling that the emotions associated with the event are still true at the time of writing, and so should be described in present tense, even though both the events were discussed in past tense.  This I would suggest results from a failure to properly understand the discourse conventions used in English.  The importance of this as an area of difficulty for non-native speakers has been highlighted by Riddle (1986) and Hinkel (1997) and has been discussed above. 

Further problems arise for Thai learners in selecting either past simple or present perfect and with L1 interference.  The following examples are frequently encountered in Thai students writing and speech.

            30. I have ever been to Singapore. 

In the above example, the use of ever is a translation of the Thai word ‘kuay and as noted above frequently occurs in Thai with an indefinite time reference. The situation becomes further complicated when we look at the next example: 

            31. I have ever studied it in Rajini School for 3 years. 

In this example the writer has both formed the present perfect incorrectly, and used it in a context where past simple is necessary due to the definite past time reference of a completed event (the student is now at university). This is most likely a result of the use of ‘kuey in Thai being possible with a definite time reference.  In this second example, the mistake is not so much one of L1 interference, as of L1 influences leading Thai learners to make false hypothesis about English temporal reference, based on what they know of Thai grammar. Similar conclusions about the effect of L1 grammar on hypotheses for English grammar in NNS have been made by Hinkel (1992), and Svalberg and Chu Chu, (1998).     

A final problem that can often be observed is the use of a time adverbial for temporal reference when tense or aspect would be more common, as the following example illustrates: 

            32. On studying French; I did not like it … I don’t know why until now

Here the student has used the time adverbial ‘until now to refer to a state which began in the past and continues to the present.   As already shown, this is a function more commonly performed by the perfect aspect in English (it is worth noting in the above example it would be possible to use the adverbial ‘still rather than present perfect), yet in Thai there is no analogous use of a perfective aspect to do this.  Again this is could be viewed as an example of a false hypothesis about English based on L1 expectations.  

Pedagogic implications  

There are a number of important teaching issues that arise from the above discussion.  Firstly, the grammatical analysis of past simple and present perfect is in contrast to more traditional classifications of English tense and aspect.  Many grammar books make a distinction between twelve tenses in English (Sinclair 1990: 455-456) and assign each tense a temporal reference.  This has certainly been the case in my experience of Thai learners' perceptions of tense in English.  Meziani (1998) has highlighted the limitations of this approach to teaching.  It should be clear from this analysis that English tense and aspect have a variety of functions, and it is perhaps as Meziani suggests more useful to look at the functions and how we use different constructions for this.  

It therefore follows that it would be beneficial for students to look at the different functions and temporal relations between the different uses of present perfect, in a variety of contexts, rather than the more general rule that present perfect refers to the past with a present relevance.  Four main uses of present perfect were identified above and learners should be given the opportunity to see and practice their uses in contexts, such as describing past events with current relevance: e.g. Your car has broken down again!, talking about past experiences e.g. I’ve sung on stage before., describing habits e.g. Hes been a teacher for 20 years., discussing states that began in the past and continue now (and possibly into the future)e.g. Bangkok has been the capital of Thailand for 200 years., or additionally, describing recent past events e.g. I’ve just met the new girl.  It would also be helpful for learners to observe the way native speakers can change between present perfect and past simple: e.g. in the context of a conversation talking about a previous holiday, where the speaker moves from an indefinite time I’ve been to Thailand, to a definite time I was there last year. 

Past simple as we have seen, particularly involving the discourse function, does not only refer to completed events in the past.  The teacher needs to highlight the conventions regarding its use, give students opportunities to see its use in context e.g. in academic texts and narratives, and present tasks that lead to students own production of it (see Riddle 1986). 

None of the above implies that the teacher should not explain the temporal relationship between aspect and tense, but rather that the teacher needs to explain the different possible uses and relationships, within given contexts as highlighted above.   In the case of Thai learners, where they may not have the same temporal concepts as native English speakers, it will be necessary to draw explicit attention to the temporal reference associated with tense or aspect in a given context.  As previously seen, Thai learners do not have the same strict distinction between past simple completed time and present perfect indefinite time.  The perfect in English also contains a wider range of usages than any Thai aspectual equivalent.   Therefore overt explanations of temporal reference through, for example time-lines, perhaps also supported by time adverbials such as before or after (Hinkel 1992: 568) may help learners’ understanding.   In addition, the teacher needs to highlight that for past simple and present perfect, the choice between the two often depends on the speaker’s subjective perspective of the temporal reference of an event or state.  

The teacher also needs to be aware of the morphological and phonological problems verb inflection causes Thai learners.  Due to the lack of inflection in Thai, English tense and aspect marking on verbs can seem cumbersome and complicated for Thai learners.  A number of pronunciation problems have also been raised regarding final consonant clusters.  The teacher needs to give Thai students plenty of opportunities to practice using verb inflections in English. 


In this paper, I have shown some of the important uses of past simple and present perfect and distinctions between them. I have also tried to emphasize in particular the variety of uses which are not always related to temporal reference, and also, at times, the subjective distinction between past simple and present perfect.  Additionally, I have attempted to draw attention to some of the important contrasts with Thai, so that it may be possible to decide what a Thai learner will need to know to be able to use past simple and present perfect proficiently.  From my own experience, I would agree with writers who have concluded that SE Asian learners find temporal and aspectual reference in English hard to grasp, despite years of studying English (Hinkel 1992; Svalberg and Chu Chu 1998).  Nonetheless, I feel that if teachers are aware of the many different uses of past simple and present perfect in English and the distinctions between them, and also of where they differ from the Thai language, teachers can become more conscious of what areas will need special emphasis for their students, and can prepare materials and lessons accordingly. 


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