An analysis of verbal aspect in native speaker and language learner narrative writings
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An Analysis of Verbal Aspect in Native Speaker and Language Learner Narrative Writings. Laura Nott. Definitions of Basic Concepts. Discourse Analysis. The study of spoken, written, and signed language.

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An Analysis of Verbal Aspect in Native Speaker and Language Learner Narrative Writings

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An Analysis of Verbal Aspect in Native Speaker and Language Learner Narrative Writings

Laura Nott

Definitions of Basic Concepts

Discourse Analysis

The study of spoken, written, and signed language.

TEFL instructors can analyze the discourse of their students, other language learners, or native speakers.

Narrative Genre

  • A narrative is a written or oral account of an event or series of events.

    • On the timeline - Foreground

    • Off the timeline - Background

Foregrounding and Backgrounding

  • Verb Tense

  • Verb Aspect

    • Simple – foreground

    • Progressive – background

    • Perfect – background

Previous Study

  • Eli Hinkel- 2004

    • Analyzed academic writings of native English speakers and English learners

    • Looked at usage of tense, aspect, and voice

Hinkel’s Results

The NNSs tended to use simple, active, and past tense verbs.

The NSs used more progressive, perfect, and passive verbs, and were less reliant on past tense.

“It seems that the conventions of academic writing and the attendant uses of tenses, aspects and voice need to be addressed in L2 writing instruction.” (25)

My Study

Analyzing the use of verbal aspects in

NS and NNS narrative writing


The NNSs narratives would rely more on the simple aspect than the NSs narratives

I anticipated the numbers to show the NSs narratives to have a greater number of progressive and perfect than that of the NNSs narratives.

Collecting the Data

  • Native speaker writing

    • End Your Sleep Deprivation – a website where anyone can write about their dreams

    • Unspecified age, education, and writing experience

  • Nonnative speaker writing

    • Asao Kojiro’s Learner Corpus - from UCL (Catholic University of Louvain)

    • Japanese student writings from July of 1997

    • English majors in a private university near Tokyo

    • Retelling the Japanese folktale of Momotaro

Searching the Data

  • I complied a corpus of:

    • 15 NS narratives

    • 15 NNS narratives

  • I searched the corpus for the three verbal aspects using AntConc.

AntConc Search “had”

Perfect Aspect Data (samples using “had”)

Percentage of the three aspects in theL1 and L2 narratives

Results:How were the NS and NSSs using the progressive aspect?

  • To describe the condition of something in order to create a background for the actions to come:

    • L1 narrative: “The house was sittingin a huge clearing.”

    • L2 narrative: “They cut the big peach, then a baby was standing up crying in it.”

  • To describe an action that is still in progress when a second action occurs:

    • L1 narrative: “I was losingspeed and my friends started leaving without me.”

    • L2 narrative: “When she is washingthere, the peach streams from the river.”

Results:How were the NS and NSSs using the perfect aspect?

  • The present perfect indicates that at the present moment something has already been done, while the past perfect indicates that during the referenced time, something had already been done.

    • L1 narratives:

      • “I’ve hadmany dreams about my son Jeff before.”

      • “I hadn'tmovedfrom my hiding spot until he came for me.”

    • L2 narratives:

      • “They hadgrownthe baby since the day.”

      • “Momotarohadgoneto there.”

Results:How were the NS and NSSs using the perfect-progressive aspect?

  • Perfect-progressives are a combination of the two aspects. This aspect indicates an action that began in the past and continued until the present or a specified past event.

    • L1 narratives:

      • “So I’ve been havingthis weird dream for almost a month.”

      • “I had been dreamingof sleeping in until at least 9 a.m.”


NNSs were using the aspects in the same ways as NSs, but not as often.

90% of the sentences in the NNSs narratives contained only simple aspects.

70% of the sentences in the NSs narratives contain only simple aspect.


In order to write more like native speakers, English language learners need to expand their proficiency in progressive and perfect aspects.

Instructors need to focus, not on the grammar, but on the communicative use of aspects within acontext.

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