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Living Life in the Present Progressive

I’ve been teaching EFL for many years which has definitely made me a bit of a grammar junkie. There’s something very satisfying about being able to contrast the past simple and the present perfect in your sleep and knowing why a sentence like I will study economics sounds a little stiff and strange. Although I don’t do much actual teaching anymore, I have recently started working as a TEFL trainer. Most of my students are either in their early 20s or early 50s with not too much in between. I find it so endearing how motivated they are, how on fire they are to teach the English language. It reminds me of myself back in 2000 when I was earning my CELTA certificate. I try to give them a realistic idea of what to expect from teaching without completely extinguishing their enthusiasm, something which is not easy if they want to teach in Germany where conditions aren’t that great (this article about Kaiser Wilhelm’s Revenge still holds true today.)

This past weekend I taught a course with only 2 participants, an American in her mid-40s, who lived in Scotland for the past 5 years and moved to Berlin just one week before the course began, and a Korean Canadian violinist in his early 20s. Just the three of us for 9 hours on Saturday and 8 hours on Sunday.

On Sunday morning I gave them my 20 minute grammar crash course, but ran into some problems when I was contrasting the present simple with the present progressive:

Present Simple                                     Present Progressive

=give, take, eats, etc.                           =am/is/are + -ing

For facts, habits and                            To describe actions that

routinues                                                are currently in progress

Example:                                                Example:

I live in Berlin.                                       Right now he’s playing tennis

I often go swimming.                           I’m reading War and Peace at the moment.

In the second example, the speaker doesn’t mean they are reading War and Peace at that exact moment, it’s just an action in progress that hasn’t yet been completed. “Progressive tenses are often used to describe temporary situations,” I told them. I pulled out the classic example:

I live with my sister. (=a fact about where I live, sounds permanent.)

I’m living with my sister right now. (=sounds temporary, a logical end to the sentence would be “until I find my own place.”)

Neither one of them got the difference.

“You know, present simple is for permanent facts about your life. I live here, I work there, I drink coffee every morning.”

I look at my student, one an arty millenial international moving from place to place landing, like so many, in Berlin. My other student had brought two gigantic suitcases to class because she was still vacation rental hopping.

The 23-year-old started laughing, “I don’t have any present simple in my life. I’m living the present progressive.” The 40-something student nooded in agreement.

Berlin, a city where you can float around forever in a permanent state of impermanence. Maybe it’s one of the reasons why we now would say, “I’m reading War and Peace right now and I’m loving it.” Love is a state verb, which technically means we shouldn’t use it in a progressive form, the theory being English speakers prefer to think of love as a permanent state.

Who am I kidding? Everyone knows McDonald’s is to blame. McDonald’s making a grammar faux pas that inadvertently predicted the rise of things like Tinder….

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