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Faulty use of past tense in English translations

Some of the English translations use past tense when it really should be present perfect.

Example: "I ate a lot of ramen this year" sounds awkward and really should be "I have eaten a lot of ramen this year". Another example: "Was the baby born?"

Or: "I learned this now" which sounds so wrong that I thought they wanted "I remember this now".

This is something I'd like to see corrected.

June 18, 2017



I guess it depends on where you're from. I'm used to hearing "I ate a lot of ramen this year", so it sounds natural to me. "Was the baby born?" also sounds pretty normal to me as well.


The problem is that "I ate" and "I've eaten" mean two different things. In standardized Englishes (both AmE and BrE at the least, in this case) "I've eaten a lot of ramen this year" means that during the currently ongoing year, the speaker has eaten a lot of ramen. "I ate a lot of ramen this year" is more situational. I could imagine using this sentence when reminiscing about old times. Say that I'm going through a book of old school photos, stop at one page and say: "Ooh, I remember this: I ate a lot of ramen this year!" Here, "this year" does not refer to an ongoing year, but another separate, specified year. Sure, the content is a bit silly, but it's a completely grammatical sentence. (This same distinction can btw be applied to the baby sentence as well, to an extent. However, "I learned this now", for the record, is simply grammatically wrong, as far as I know anything anyway.)

The point is, that if your specific variety of English (and there are a lot of those) does not have this distinction, that's fine, but when teaching through standardized language, a mistake like this can end up being detrimental to the learner, and therefore should be fixed. It also doesn't help the trustworthy image of the course, but that is a secondary issue in my opinion.


I thnk in the example you give people might say "oh yeah, I ate a lot of ramen that year". English is probably somewhat more loose with the this/that distinction than Japanese (a lot of my Duolingo Japanese mistakes are of the この、その、あの variety) but in this context, I'd prefer "that".


You are correct, that year would also be acceptable. The reason why I had to give such an overly elaborate example in the first place was precisely because this year can only be used when reminiscing through an object (a photo book, in this case) that refers to that specific year. That year, being broader, can be used both with and without such an object.


Agreed. Although simple past with "this year" also works well enough for end of year reflections in the run-up to midnight any given Dec. 31 (i.e. after one's last forecast eating of ramen for the year)


Quite right, quite right.


"I ate a lot of ramen last year."
"I have eaten a lot of ramen this year."

At 23:59 on the 31st of December: "I ate a lot of ramen this year."

"Was the baby born?" sounds odd to me.

"Has the baby been born?" (present perfect) would be more normal. However, I guess that sentence can't mean this, because "was" clearly seems to be referring to a past time rather than the present situation...

"Had the baby been born?" (past perfect) ? o.O

"Was the baby born in a hospital?"
"Was the baby born on a Sunday?"
"Was the baby born with that mark on its nose?"

As part of a longer sentence it's fine, but "Was the baby born?" as a sentence on its own isn't so easy for me to imagine.


I know; I also imagined the New Year's Eve scenario. Still, highly contrived, no?


Well..technically as long as you're not eating while speaking, you could consider the ramen eating as a finished habit, that you incidentally just pick up again, the next time you do. :)

The thing is though, that in english past vs. perfect tense is usually depending on context. So as a general rule, I appreciate if both tenses are accepted in an answer, unless it's an idiomatic expression, that's really only ever used in one tense.


I can imagine using the "Was the baby born?" alone if there is a certain conceptual distance between the possible birth and the circumstances of the asking of the question. Say you're married to an OBGYN, one of whose pending cases you're aware of, your spouse returns home from his/her shift at the hospital. Were I such a spouse, I might well ask, "Was the baby born?"


idk "I ate a lot of ramen this year" sounds a lot more natural to me. I'm a native US speaker.


I know that especially in the US the rule of "present perfect if it's an ongoing thing" is weakening. However, there are certain markers, like "yet", "ever", or, yes, "this year" that still require present perfect. Certainly if you were an ESL student taking a test, "I ate a lot of ramen this year" would be marked wrong.


Can't say I agree. "did you eat yet?" sounds fine to me, as does "have you eaten yet?" Both appear on Google NGrams and in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. The one with present perfect is more common.

"did you ever eat?" and "have you ever eaten?" both sound fine but are asking about very different things, and only the first makes any sense to use if not engaging in rhetorical hyperbole.


But that would indicate you are not going to have any more ramen this year, right?


It's tricky because Japanese doesn't really translate one to one into English.

Duolingo is trying to teach you Japanese, not English, and since nothing really translates one to one, and due to the way Duolingo teaches things, it needs to make decisions about how literally to do translations. Duolingo doesn't sit down and tell you, "This is the て form. It expresses a progressive aspect in Japanese. However in Japanese we use the progressive aspect to also express a completed task that has continuing effects." Instead, Duolingo tries to give you equivalent grammar in your own language and hope that you intuitively pick up on what is going on. This works great with a more similar language like Spanish, but with Japanese, once you get past the absolute basics, things start to fall apart.

Japanese doesn't really have a perfect aspect like English does (I had studied, I have studied, I will have studied).

Often in Japanese, what we express using the perfect aspect of a verb in English is expressed using some other part of Japanese grammar or vocabulary. For "I have eaten already," you would say もう食べた, but it would be really inaccurate to call this the present perfect tense.

Often the て form of the verb with いる is used to express something similar to the perfect aspect in English. If you say, 三ヶ月勉強している it would most properly translate to English as, "I have studied for three months," but you won't find the perfect aspect anywhere in there. You're using て and いる to express a continued state of being.

If you heard もう、家に帰っている you would be forgiven as an English speaker if you assumed that meant "He is already going home," but the ている here is actually expressing a continued state of being resulting from an action, very similar to the perfect aspect. A natural English translation might be, "He has already returned home," with the implication that he still is there now.


Thank you for explaining the Japanese angle to this! Sometimes Duolingo sentences in the target language really do only equate to the provided English translation, even if its use is quite circumscribed. Could that be happening in any of the OP's examples?

Japanese certainly isn't the only language on Duolingo with a very different tense/aspect system than English. Generally, the practice is to simply equate all applicable tense structures as appropriate. Being in beta, I'm sure there are lapses in the Japanese tree that will gradually be ironed out.


You know, I was just using the app and realize that more often than not, Duolingo seems to be erring on the side of accurate English sentences even when they don't convey the literal sense of the Japanese.

ラーメンがおいしいです is being translated as "Ramen tastes good," whereas a more literal (but less natural in English) translation would be "Ramen is delicious," or something like that.

So that kind of goes against anything I was saying about a natural English translation obscuring what is really going on in the Japanese.


Actually, I wasn't concerned with the translation aspect so much as with the grammatical correctness of the English sentences per se. As I said before, there are certain markers that (almost) demand the use of present perfect; "already" is one. Yet Duolingo uses past tense - I think this morning I even had "I already ate".

This I find jarring, and so I would like to see it changed.


One must always be concerned with the translation aspect. Sometimes Duolingo presents things that just mean what they mean even if to employ them in practice something additional would ordinarily be required: units on future and past perfect come to mind where these tenses are introduced with single clauses, as well as things like "We eat an apple" without any notion of iteration like "every day" (and where "We are eating" is explicitly not an option owing to the target language's also having a progressive aspect and its not being used).

As to the English matter at hand, perhaps it is a matter of language change. Google NGrams shows "I already ate" beating "I have already eaten" by significant margins in both British and American English, but this preeminence dates back only 30-40 years, and "I already ate" shows essentially no observations before about 1940.


I keep forgetting that Google can do that - how interesting! Next we could debate the virtues of prescriptive versus descriptive grammar...

Let's just say that the ESL teachers & textbooks I've encountered are pretty firmly in the "I have already eaten" camp.


Wikiing this question happened to lead me to this blog post, which begins with an interesting case study in the perils of relying on ESL materials as conveyors of common usage:

In the beginning it was easy. No one had to worry about the choice between teaching Have you got… ? or Do you have …? for possession. When I started teaching, the textbooks avoided the question by teaching plain Have you…? OK, it was stilted, but at least it united British and American usage: neither used it in conversation.

Incidentally, that Wikiing did lead me to the statement:

With already or yet, traditional usage calls for the present perfect: Have you eaten yet? Yes, I've already eaten. However, current informal American speech tends to use the simple past: Did you eat yet? Yes, I ate already.

(given one of your comments above, it looks like this won't come as a surprise to you, but it's interesting to me to see it explicitly written out somewhere; this general issue had entirely evaded my notice until seeing this thread — and I'm one of the relatively few native English speakers who actually had at least some English grammar in school)

Given that Google NGrams is based on analysis of published, hence presumably copyedited works, there would seem to be reason to qualify the restriction to "informal... speech" as outmoded.


This is all very interesting to me; plus that Google analysis has me floored. Just goes to show that language really is evolving (if that's the appropriate word here...)


Re difference in subjunctive use between GB and US: I had no idea! The examples given in the English Subjunctive wikipedia article are astonishing (et tu, Medical Society of London?!). So thanks for that, too.


I see you've found my primary source :)

I've read that section a bunch of times, but each time I'm shocked again by just how strange some of those sentences are! I have seen such use crop up a couple times I think on Duolingo. Once, regarding Afrikaans: "It was suggested that it was added years ago." Thankfully, having discovered this matter, I recalled that I didn't need to go check the Incubator for a long-awaited Afrikaans course I'd somehow missed!


I am an ESL teacher, and some of the English used on Duolingo makes me want to cry. The problem is that English is changing. American English, in particular, seems to be changing very quickly. For example, I have noticed that in American English present perfect, conditionals, and adverbs are often being used "incorrectly". And don't get me started on the use of "few" and "little". Nowadays I find myself telling students that they will hear native speakers using language that our grammar books say is not correct. I then tell them that I am marking the exam and they should use the language that I have taught!


Nowadays I find myself telling students that they will hear native speakers using language that our grammar books say is not correct.

(Stepping away from the ESL case for a moment,) were this not the case, there wouldn't be much call for grammar books :)

I'm not British, but I think British English is changing plenty fast, too: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-11642588 (not to mention how they've largely killed off the subjunctive, leading to great new potentials for cross-Atlantic misunderstandings).

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