This research project material is available: THE PROBLEM OF TENSES AMONG NIGERIAN SPEAKERS OF ENGLISH


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1.1              BACKGROUND OF THE STUDY

Tenses refer to the form of a verb in English Language that clearly indicates time. We use Tenses to show clear time specification. In this sense, it is seen that without verbs, there will not be Tenses as tense in grammar does not only refer to time but also the action of the verb or state of being at a given moment. Tense is a way of making us know that a thing has happened at ‘present’ (present tense), a thing happened some moments in the ‘past’ (past tense) and a thing will happen in ‘future’ (future tense).

Communication is the process or act of expressing ideas and feelings to one another or a process of giving out information to people.

Language as a medium of human communication, socialization, civilization and development has been given a full-length treatment by linguists. Language is quite complex and for this reason, linguists had to devise ways of making it easier to analyze and describe so as to present a true and full structure of any definition given. However, the attempt to describe and study language gave rise to a number of schools of linguists. All of them developed from the same root of traditional grammar.

Sidney Greenbaumdefines grammar as “a general theory of language description” In this sense, grammar refers to the properties and processes that underlies the use of language. By implication, the speakers are expected to be equipped with the knowledge of the rules of the language they intend to speak and apply them properly when using them.

            Traditional grammar precedes what is now regarded as a scientific approach to the study of language. Its approach is one that is normative, definition-oriented and prescriptive in nature. It represents an attempt to prescribe rules for language use. It prescribes rather than merely describe language. Emphasis is on correctly usage that is what speakers should say rather than what speakers actually say. Indeed, it is the attitude to correctness of the traditional grammar that has made it to always prescribe what sort of language ought to be used. Such terms as noun, verb, adverb, preposition, object, subject, etc. and of course, tenses are derived from the traditional grammar and are used to analyze sentences today.

            It is interesting to note that traces of these grammatical terms or features are still found in use in schools today. However, the traditional grammar which is normative, prescriptive and definition-oriented has provided us with clear explanations on the uses of tenses in English and going by this, one is able to detect errors made by students in using tenses.

In this research work, the researcher intend to draw attention to the problem with tenses in communication using the students of university of Abuja as a case study.


When Nigerians speak English, especially the students whom the scope of this research is limited to, they tend to make mistakes in their usage of English Language tenses. It is the level this problem has reached that prompted the researcher to investigate into the problem with the aim of highlighting the causes as well as the features and also the gateway of solving this problem.

1.3              AIMS AND OBJECTIVES

This study aims at discussing in some details the English tenses in order to examine the possible mother tongue interference on the speakers or learners of English as a second language and also to point out other factors responsible for the misuse of English tenses. This study seeks to explain at length the problems students encounter in the usage of tenses and tries to offer some ways with which to overcome these problems.


        The study is important first, because it will help students to be aware of their grammatical problems and have them conscious of their usages when they speak the target language (English) in order to improve on their problems.

        It also helps enlighten individuals as regards to the grammatical system of English so as to master and speak a form of English which is devoid of over bearing influence of their mother tongues, regional features, etc. similarly, thiswork also shows the path way to researchers who would want to take up the challenge for further studies in the field.


Our main focus here is the students; undergraduates of university of Abuja to be precise and it is within this scope that the researcher carried out this research.


        The research procedure entails the research methodology. That is the method the researcher used to gather data for the study and the method intended to be used for the analysis of data collected for this research work.


        The primary method of data collection as used by the researcher constitutes a nucleus of the research because it is through this method that the researcher actually got the materials to be used for the analysis this study. The method used in observations and written essays in the sense that some students were asked to write about their experiences on campus. Their essays were used to extract the data for analysis in this study.

        Most of the students who wrote the essay had the Igala language of Kogi State as their mother tongue while few had pidgin as their mother tongue. This choice of students made it easier for the researcher to analyze their errors since the researcher has spent a reasonable number of years with the Igala people and can confidently identify the causes of the errors made if attributed to mother tongue interference or not.


        The researcher embarked on an extensive analysis of her available data which is picking at least five essays from the ten scripts collected, selecting and analyzing the errors made as regards tenses and found the causes of these errors.


        The theory that is adopted for this study is the theory of error analysis alongside the inter language approach. This theory entails the study of the language of the learners with a view to identifying the mistakes learners make and to figure out the causes and significance of such errors in the learning process.



            The wrong use of English tenses is said to be predominant among grammatical errors of different kinds.This chapter addressees errors committed by students in the area of tenses in grammar. It looks into the misuse of English Language tenses as per different scholars Robert Palmer quoted in Alagbe:

Language as a means of communication among people has a sensitive aspect which is the verb. So learning to write or speak correctly and meaningfully is like trying to operate the verbal forms of the language involved.(91)

            The above clearly shows that in order to speak fluently and write correctly, it is important you make yourself familiar with the verbal forms of the language in use because the verbs cannot be left out if meaning is to be made, since English Language is what is being talked about here, one has to make himself familiar with English verbs so that if there is a mastery of the verbal forms of English, there will be consistency in the usage of English tenses.

2.2       TENSES

            The wrong usage of tenses are said to be prominent among the grammatical errors of different kinds committed by most learners or speakers of English Language in their written and spoken forms.

2.3       MISUSE OF TENSE: An Analytical Perspective

            The misuse of English tenses could be traced down to numerous reasons among which is the mother tongue interference (MT) on the target language (TL) and due to this reason, speakers of English Language tend to have so many problems, like the problem of overgeneralization, gravitational pull of the first language (LI), internal analogy and overgeneralization as earlier stated, pronunciation according to spelling, poor learning, exposure to non standard variety of English used outside the classroom, the attitudes of the community, those in power, the policy of the government and some other factors like failure to understand the nature of the second language, lack of adequate vocabulary and the culture gap between the two systems.

            Scholars all over the world have been theorizing on L1 interference on L2. Many of these researchers’ theories have subsumed under two basic models: positive and negative interference.

            However, much attention is being given to negative interference. This is so because it is the aspect which has negative impact on L2 learners of any language and the end is to improve such a situation.

            This study is not far from the aforementioned scholarly reviews, as it investigates the extent to which the Nigerian users of English as a second language misuse the English tenses due to interference and poor teaching background among other causes.

            The negative view of L1 interference on L2 is mainly represented by two theories contrastive analysis (CA) and constrastive rhetoric (CR). Carl James and Lado. R. CA hypothesis has both a psychological and linguist aspect. The psychological aspect is based on behaviourist learning theory and the linguist aspect, on structuralist linguistics. Behaviourist learning emphasizes on interfering elements of learning, claiming that interference entails difficulty in learning. Structuralist linguistics lays a strong emphasis on differences between languages.

            Carl James points out two important things in CA hypothesis. Firstly, in L2 learning, transfer from the native language to the target language occurs definitely and is often negative. Secondly, learning difficulties could be predicted by linguistic differences between two languages. The degree is believed to depend primarily on the extent to which L2 patterns are similar to or different from L1 pattern. To sum up, CA hypothesis attributes difficulty to differences/distance between the target language, which can be summarized as “difference/distance=difficulty” hypothesis.

            In short, negative L1 transfer on L2 is considered as the influence resulting from the differences between the target language and the L1. Such view of language transfer may be too simplistic and restrictive. Both empirical studies and teaching experiences have shown that teaching L1 and L2 differences do not necessarily imply learner’s difficulties. What is being said here implies that not all errors made or committed by learners are attributed to negative transfer of one form of L1 to L2 being acquired.

            Another reason for errors could be lack of mastery of the target language, which in turn affects adversely the effective use of tenses among students who acquires English as their second language. It is in this vein that David Jowitt rather than transfer, gives priority to the claim that the second language learner is just being monolingual and lacks competence to adapt to the appropriate usage of the grammatical features of the target language in his words.

The learner does not only affect a restructuring of the complex system of his mother tongue in order to learn the equally complex system of the target language nor are his “errors’ solely due to ‘transfer’ (or interference) of mother tongue features (35)

            Thus, once the first language is acquired its sounds system, grammar and structure become very tasking. Although the first language is easily acquired and of course not at birth as contained in Eka and Udofot, “No child inherits the ability to speak a particular language”. Unless one puts in his best to make an extra effort to study the grammatical structure or system of the target language (English), errors and incompetence would always manifest in ones sentences as regards the misuse of English tenses. (52)

            Furthermore, Carl James who has since opined the idea of ‘transfer’ of the L1 features into the L2 features ways:

Constrastive analysis predicts errors by comparing the linguistic systems of the mother tongue and the target language. It is found on the assumption that L2 learners will tend to transfer to the L2 utterances, the formal features of their L1.

Individual tends to transfer the forms and meanings of their native language and culture to the foreign language and culture.(22)

            David Jowitt does not believe that errors are made as a result of mother tongue interference alone and thus, he assets:

It is legitimate to speak of varieties as ‘errors’ where they are due to wrong learning and are generally regarded by educated people as errors. To be more specific, we might attribute some errors to be MT transfer (I hear the smell of gas) or to transfer from pidgin (I for tell you that......) others to false hypothesis or overgeneralization (I am go, or the articulation of –b in words ending in -mb) others to failure to learn the special phonic or syntactic features of certain words (she deals on cloth).(36)

David Jowittgoes further to make an important distinction between idiosyncratic errors and common errors and he subdivides common errors into what he calls “vulgar errors and institutionalized errors”. Idiosyncratic errors and those peculiar to an individual and characterizing idiosyncratic dialect. They are the ones most likely to be identified and corrected by teachers, peers, older children, parents etc and they are stigmatized by the educated Nigerian community in general because they impede communication, they tend to be eliminated at relatively early stages of the learning process and have less chance of being fossilized.

            In contrast, common errors, as one sense of the word ‘common’ suggests, are those occurring in the written and spoken English of large numbers of learners. The subset called vulgar errors are those which shows ignorance of fairly elementary rules and typical of them are syntactic, morphological and spelling errors.

            In contrast to vulgar errors, institutionalized errors are common errors which are not identified as errors except by native users or by the most highly educated and experience Nigerian users of English within the wider class of the educated. Such errors occurs with the breaking of the rule of more advanced syntax (e.g. the pluralisation of uncountable nouns, misuse of tenses) or of phonology. As indicated earlier, there are wide fluctuations in educated usage and the fact that some educated Nigerians regard institutionalized errors as errors means that or points out the fact that it is premature to classify them as ‘standard’.

            In the same view, Alan Cruttenden in his treatment of performance target sees the aged-learners speech (due to incompetence intenses or misuse of tenses) as being understood only in terms of the context of use. The result of which he calls “the level of RESTRICTED INTELLIGIBILITY” and he adds that the factors that obviously determines the learners aims are connected with his age and his natural ability to do so, he may succeed in speaking English with system of his own language (L1) in which case he is likely not to make meaning to listeners outside his own region.

Similarly, it is to set standards for such learning that Dunstan in Tiffer as quoted by David Jowitt, writes:

While expressing the fear that as a result of MT (mother tongue) interference, the English spoken by Nigerians might not be internationally intelligible maintained that ideally the standard of oral English for examination purposes should be internationally intelligible West African English.(40)

            Her views together with other scholars (who have presented the same view) have been upheld, which was followed by the introduction of the new national curriculum in English Language for Nigerians Secondary School in the 1980s. It also saw the adoption of the West African Examination Certificate (WAEC) as a standard of SSCE (O’ Level), which has in it a separate oral English of the standard British English otherwise called ‘received pronunciation’ (RP) David Jowittadds that official inter language norms determines usage.

            It follows therefore that the goal of learning over the years has been SBE (RP) while the outcome of learning is for most Nigerian learners an inter language or popular Nigerian English (PNE). This is because the norms of usage that have not had the greatest prominence for the learners have been those of inter language. So to what extent can it be said that the goal has been achieved since errors still manifest of course, it is legitimate and resulting in MT Transfer and are generally regarded by the educated people as errors David Jowitt

            No wonder Banjo in Bamgbose et al in his treatment on codifying Nigerian English believes that English Language in Nigeria:

Has been ‘localized’ or ‘nativized’ by adopting some language features on its own, such as....

Sentence structures, words, expressions....(70)

            It is discovered that errors are ‘corrected’ through comparison with standard forms of usages (which is what the researcher sets out to do) and the motive for correction comes from a variety of psychological sources. These are inabilities to communicate effectively (often in the form of mockery by peer groups and poor performance in examination (especially their test of grammar)

            However, there are few Nigerians like some judges, some university lecturers, some top civil servants etc who have attained a level of competence in their use of English after many years of learning. These sorts of people can conveniently be left with a responsibility of grounding the young Nigerians learners of English (undergraduates of university of Abuja inclusive) in the Standard English pronunciation. These few Nigerians have passed the level of being learners of English because they speak or use English with a degree of maturity to the “near-native” speakers of English in the same view, David Jowittin his recognition of such Nigerians says: 

It seems absurd to regard them as still ‘learners’ of English (except in the sense that any native speaker remains a learner of English throughout his life) and they constitute the most interesting exception to the generalization made above that Nigerians are in general learners of English. At the same time, although language learning and acquisition on the other are quite separate issues. Such users of English will be users of the standard or near standard variety.(44)

It is on this grounds, that this work uses the words ‘learners’ ‘users’ and ‘speakers’ of English on one hand and the use of the words ‘learning’ and ‘acquisition’ (which have been separately and distinctly) treated by George Yule on the others, inter-changeably.

            Kenneth Beare made the following observations on the misuse of tenses.

I’d definitely agree that tense use is one of the most common mistakes that learners make. However, that doesn’t impede communication. Often, listeners can fill in the clues contextually. Certainly, learners should strive to improve their tense usage but one of the best ways to do that is to communicate in English as often as possible. The tense eventually begins to sort themselves out after many, many mistakes are made.(33)

            Errors are common especially when it has to do with verb tenses and that is the reason why Robert Palmer says:

Language as a means of communication among people has a sensitive aspect which is the verb. So learning to speak or write correctly and meaningfully is like trying to operate the verbal form of the language involved. (12)

            The above assertion Implies that the most sensitive or important aspect of a sentence is the verb so in order to make meaning, it is important a speaker have the knowledge of the verbal forms of the language in use


            The theory thatis suitable for this study is the theory of ‘error analysis’ the field of error analysis was established in the 70s by Pit Corder and colleagues as an alternative to contrastive analysis, an approach influenced by behaviourism which sought to use formal distinction between the learners of second language to predict errors. It is believed in the contrastive analysis that individuals tends to transfer the forms and meaning of their native language and culture bothproductively when attempting to speak the language and receptively when trying to understand the language and culture as practiced by the natives.

            Error analysis as an approach is the study of language of the learners with a view to identifying the mistakes learners make and to figure out the causes and significance of such errors.

            A learner of a foreign language is progressively changing his language performance in order to link with that of the native speakers. In the process, if the learner’s language is examined at a point, it will look like a peculiar dialect of the target language differing in many crucial aspects from it and perhaps having characteristics of his mother tongue. This dialect is what PitCorder referred to as transitional dialect or idiolect. Therefore, learner’s sentence may be deviant, ill formed, incorrect or erroneous in the sense that they are superficially deviant or inappropriate in terms of target language grammar. It is inevitable that learners make errors. The point is whether the error is good or bad. On the surface, it is assumed that errors are bad since they signify a breakdown in teaching and learning process and this was the opinion in the academic circles of many years. But recent discoveries made by Noam Chomsky and his mentalist school have argued that since errors are inevitable in the teaching and learning process, they are visible proofs that learning  is taking place. Base on this argument, PitCorder as cited in Olasehinde, proposed that not only do language learners produce errors in a foreign language but that these errors if studied systematically can provide significant insight into how language are actually learned. (70)

            Error analysis therefore, has an important applied linguistics justification in that data from the classroom can both serve as input to theoretical discussions and after evaluation feed back to the design of remedial curricula. In otherwords, the study error permits the formulation of rules for learners Interlingua system thereby providing for the teachers confirmation of what remains to be learned and indicating progress and success. As such, studying learner’s error has immediate practical implication for language teachers. According to PitCorder in Olasehinde

Errors provide feedback; they tell the teacher something about the effectiveness of the teaching materials and his teaching techniques and show him what part of the syllabus has been inadequately learned or taught and need further attention. They enable him to decide whether he must devote more time to the day-to-day value of errors. But in terms of broader planning and with a new group of learners, they provide the information for designing a remedial syllabus or a programme on re-teaching (71).

            Therefore, error analysis can be used to help determine what a learner still needs to be taught, what he has not yet acquired: thus can provide the necessary information about what is lacking in his or her competence. The syllabus can be based on the result of the analysis. Errors in teaching and learning a foreign language when carefully analyzed and studied can enhance learning on the part of the teacher who makes the analysis and the learners who make the errors. The implication of this for the teaching of language especially the second language (L2) and foreign language (L3) situation as in the learning of English language in Nigeria is that there will always be a place for improvement.

            At this juncture, the approach of error analysis that will be adopted in this work is that of ‘inter language’. This approach was introduced according to its major prominent pit Corder, by Selinker in 1969 and has since been given an extensive treatment as a theory of L1 interference on L2. Even David Jowitt has deemed this theory reliable in his treatment of popular Nigeria English. The theory has been defined as a separate linguistic system whose existence we are compelled to hypothesize, based on the observed output which resulted from the (second language) learners’ attempted production of a target language norm Selinker in Pit Corder (1988).

            The approach posits that the L2 learner transfers some features and rules of his language (as we have English here). This is due to non-existence of some L2 features (grammatical features) in his L1 (which has already been acquired. This is also confirmedby David Jowitt when he says “ the presence of some TL forms may be due to fossilization”   whereby a learner will retain for use in his inter language certain terms and rules of his mother tongue (MT).

            It is also important to note that an inter language is not static but a ‘dynamic system’ (Selinker) and a ‘developmental continuum’ (Pit Corder), which shows increasing complexity. Hence, the learner undergoes a‘recreative’ process, whereby in his mind he ‘creates’ the language a fresh which initially did not exist in his vocabulary or lexicon. The grammar and all other feature of the target language are partially present in his mother tongue. This follows that the said ‘transfer’ does not just occur in vacuum but following the inability of the (second language) learner to ‘effect a restructuring of the complex system of his MT inorder to learn the equally complex system of the TL’ (David Jowitt).


            The above discussed theory is for the analysis of this study. This is because the researcher is dealing directly with the misuse of English tenses among students. The theory of error analysis has in all ramifications, accented for such, indicating the cause of the problems as well as highlighting its effects on the individual learners of L2 or group learners of L2. The workings of this theory applies to this study on the whole, whereby the researcher, right from the review of related literature has shown clearly the application of the theory to the work. Since error analysis in a way exposes the causes of these errors, the theory of inter language sets in.

            This follows therefore that in the researcher’s analysis which shall form the entirely of chapter three, the researcher will draw attention to the misuse of English tenses in communication as well as their causes.




This chapter presents the data collected and a critical analysis of the collected data. The sentences in the extracts presented are numbered for easy reference in the analysis.

Extract 1:        (Essay 1; sentence 1 and 2)

(1)   My experience on campus is characterized with a lot of hurdles and achievements, which can be trace from my first day on campus.

(2)   The registration exercise is a very tedious one which took me two weeks to complete because I have not experience anything of such before.

Extract 2:        (Essay2; sentence 3 and 4)

(3)   I cry for joy and sing all day long.

(4)   Nothing can be compare to that day and I recall it before.

Extract 3: (Essay 3; sentence 5 and 6)

(5)   Good things go to those who deserve it.

(6)    Good reputation is buildwith good character.

Extract 4: (Essay 4; sentence 7 and 8)

(7)   It was better to tried and fail than not trying at all.

(8)   It take persistence and hard work to succeed in life.

Extract 5: (Essay 5; sentence 9 and 10)

(9)    In my class you will found the good, the bad and  the ugly.

(10)           She get her position through hard work.

Extract 6: (Essay 6; sentence 11 and 12)

(11)           I manage to complete my education even in my moment of lack.

(12)           Two week to my final semester exams,  igo to church every day for special prayers. 

Extract 7:        (Essay 7; sentence 13)

(13)           The unpleasant dos and don’ts that is obtainable in the school poses a lot of fears, as it concerns the secret cult, had gang violence and riot makes me uncomfortable and regretted why ichoosed the institution in the first place.

Extract 8:          (Essay 8; sentence 14)

(14)           It was fun and at the same time, too many academic troubles like study, study, studycombine with other religious and social activities of course all work and no play made Jack a dull boy.

Extract 9: (Essay 9; sentence 15)

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All Project Materials Inc. (2020). THE PROBLEM OF TENSES AMONG NIGERIAN SPEAKERS OF ENGLISH . Available at: [Accessed: ].


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The theory thatis suitable for this study is the theory of ‘error analysis’ the field of error analysis was established in the 70s by Pit Corder and colleagues as an alternative to contrastive analysis, an approach influenced by behaviourism which sought to use formal distinction between the learners of second language to predict errors. It is believed in the contrastive analysis that individuals tends to transfer the forms and meaning of their native language and culture bothproductively when attempting to speak the language and receptively when trying to understand the language and culture as practiced by the natives... Click here for more


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