I can remember how much focus we put on tense and aspect when learning English: endless lessons on when to use which tense and which aspect (mainly progressive/continuous of course).

There is a term called TMA in linguistics, which stands for tense-modus-aspect as main properties in languages. Now English is certainly strong on TA, while German is weak*. However, I think that German is strong on M, with large verbal complexes a plethora of combination of modals, and, as boaten showed recently, even the possibility to have a modal governing itself, which is just not possible in English. Add in modal particles and it becomes a total mess of subtle differences in meaning conveyed by modality.

On the other hand, we see a lot of recurring questions here about modal constructions, even from foreign speakers which I see as being quite proficient in the language.
I'd expect that students would be drilled on German modal system in a way we're drilled on tense/aspect. Is this actually done or not? Or is it just difficult and even proficient speakers have trouble grasping it thoroughly, much in a way proficient speakers of English keep to get tense/aspect "not quite right"?

*Aspect is that weak that it is not even taught, as many aspect related questions prove.

  • The answers might be different for teaching German to Germans (in school) and teaching German as a foreign language. – npst Dec 30 '14 at 15:34
  • I honestly don't understand the question? I mean who is "we" in "a way we're drilled on tense/aspect"? Is it native English speakers? If so, who would native German speakers know how intense that is. Secondly, as @npst who is being taught? Native Germans in school or language students? And last but not least, I don't think the modal system in German is very special. It's rather the English system that has all these limitations. French and Italian seem to have no problem with a double modal (veut vouloir, voglio volere). – Emanuel Dec 30 '14 at 20:07
  • And it's also English that lacks clarity with regards to a bunch for tense-aspect combinations. Konnte gut sein vs. könnte gut sein. This is not possible in English because English chose not to distinguish between "konnte" and "könnte". But it's not a special feature of German. Again, Italian even has 3 forms there... "poteva essere", "abbia potuto essere" "potesse essere" – Emanuel Dec 30 '14 at 20:12
  • Finally, what I remember from my time in school is that we talked about modality ... pretty much not at all. It doesn't matter that much. Time is spent on constituent analysis and such. – Emanuel Dec 30 '14 at 20:14
  • @Emanuel I think when OP is using the first person, he means himself or German native speakers in general. As to who is being taught, (since he used English as an example for German speakers), I would assume he's talking about language learners, not German natives. I really don't think the question is that unclear. – clinch Dec 30 '14 at 20:39

The only thing remarkable about the German modal verbs is their capacity to be used as full verbs, too. Other than that they are not much different than modals from the Romance language which do allow "double-modals", as well as all kinds of tense-aspect combinations that English can't rebuild due to a lack of forms.
English is the odd man out here, so if anywhere special focus should be placed on modals in English.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.