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Why Don’t Korean Students Care About Verb Tense When They Write Paragraphs?

If you’re teaching English Writing to Korean students, you’ve probably come to the same conclusion that nearly every teacher eventually comes to:

Korean students just cannot seem to get a grip on using consistent verb tenses throughout sentences and paragraphs!

Why is that? Whenever you assign Writing, you receive their diaries or assignments back with present, past, and future tense verbs thrown in somewhat haphazardly. You think it must be only one of two things:

  1. Either they don’t really understand the difference in tenses
  2. Or they’re just being lazy and writing quickly to get it over with

Well, the real reason Korean students seem not to understand about the importance of consistent verb tenses in English writing has to do with a basic component of Korean grammar (which I just picked up on while studying Low Intermediate Korean grammar).

It turns out that mixed verb tenses are completely appropriate in Korean grammar:

Korean sentence tense is determined ONLY by the final verb in a sentence. All other verbs (and clauses) within the sentence are present tense, and ONLY the final verb decides whether the whole sentence should be past, present, or future tense.

Want to see an example of this? Consider the following grammar patterns I learned from this book:
Korean Grammar in Use: Beginner

  • Present tense verbs (red)
  • Past tense verbs (green)
  • Future tense verbs (blue)

1. V-아/어서 (and, “in order to”)

Past TenseFuture Tense
Korean어제 친구를 만나서 영화를봤어요.내일 친구를 만나서 영화를 볼거예요.
Word-for-word translationYesterday friend meet movie watched.Tomorrow friend meet movie will watch.
Proper English translationYesterday, I met my friend and watched a movie.Tomorrow I'll meet my friend and we'll watch a movie.

2. V-(으)면서 (while)

Past TenseFuture Tense
Korean어제 하영 씨는 노래를 면서 피아노를 쳤습니다.내일 하영 씨는 노래를 면서 피아노를 칠 겁니다.
Word-for-word translationYesterday HaYoung song sing while piano played.Tomorrow HaYoung song sing while piano will play.
Proper English translationYesterday, HaYoung sang a song while she played piano.Tomorrow HaYoung will sing a song while she plays piano.

3. V-자마자 (as soon as)

Past TenseFuture Tense
Korean집에 자마자 잤어요.집에 자마자 잘 거예요.
Word-for-word translationHouse go as soon as slept.House go as soon as will sleep.
Proper English translationAs soon as I got home, I slept.As soon as I get home, I'll sleep.

So that’s why it seems like Korean students writing in English can never quite figure out verb tenses in long papers.

If you’re a Writing teacher, try going back through some of their writing, and just look to see if all of the FINAL verbs in the sentences have a consistent verb tense. I’d be curious to see the results of that investigation. My guess is that there are probably lots of present tense verbs in their English papers, and that past tense and future tense verbs usually occur at the ends of sentences.

To learn more Korean grammar, check out our Low Intermediate class resources.

Have you ever noticed this in any of your Writing classes?

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