If you know me, you know that I talk about my 5-year old daughter a lot. As you can tell from the picture, she loves to be silly! It has been fun watching her personality develop.
Moreover, as a person who is genuinely interested in language and language learning, it has been fascinating for me to watch my daughter acquire her speaking skills over these last few years.
To give you some background information, my daughter has been raised by two native English speakers (my husband and I), so she hears English all day long.
Yet, despite being constantly surrounded by the English language, I notice that the past tense forms of the irregular verbs can be hard for her—like they can be for most ESL learners at the beginning.
Regular Verbs and Irregular Verbs
As you might know, irregular English verb forms are the ones that your teacher always made you memorize when you were a kid (was, flew, bought, taught, drank, etc.).
On the other hand, the regular verb forms in the past tense are the ones that you usually just add -ed to at the end (talked, walked, etc.).
But that’s enough textbook talk for now; I want to talk about the practical side of things.
My Daughter’s Little Trick
There’s a little trick that my daughter uses that might be of use to other English learners. I think it’s a great strategy, and she doesn’t even know she is doing it.
When she doesn’t know an irregular form, she just makes the verb a regular verb by adding -ed.
Go becomes goed (instead of went)
Buy becomes buyed (instead of bought)
Teach becomes teached (instead of taught)
For example, yesterday when I picked her up from her summer school program, she immediately said, "Guess what I drawed today?" (Instead of drew)
And, later on she told me about about a dress her friend weared that day. (Instead of wore)
It’s brilliant. Why? Because I completely understand her, and by making this change, I know that she is talking about an event in the past.
In actuality, it’s probably less of a strategy and more of a natural development of her language learning.
For Adult ESL Learners
So why can’t adult English learners use this idea, too?
I think they can!
Now, I’m not advocating that you stop memorizing your irregular past tense verb forms. However, if you are in a situation in which you can’t remember the past tense form of the verb, in my opinion, it’s better to make it regular by adding -ed than it is to use the present tense.
I say this because it can be very confusing to a listener if you are only using the present tense, when you are describing an activity that you did in the past.
If you find yourself avoiding the past tense sometimes because you aren’t sure what the past tense form is, why not take a risk? Like my daughter, you can just make the verb regular by adding -ed. It might not be grammatically correct all the time, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Your listener might even gently correct you by offering the correct form. Plus, they will understand your story better because they know when it happened, and that’s important information.
This strategy might sound a little strange, coming from an ESL teacher. Teachers want you to learn perfect grammar, right? Not necessarily. I would rather you make mistakes if they lead you to develop your language and to be better understood by others.
Using this Trick with Past Participles
Now, my daughter’s speaking skills are becoming increasingly advanced. There is little that she can’t describe, and she doesn’t make as many mistakes with the past tense these days.
However, I have noticed her using this same trick on past participles (the third form of the verb that we use with the present perfect tense). She creates a form even if it might not be correct.
I love seeing her play with these more advanced grammar structures. Like all students, I know that one day she’ll get it! It just takes practice and a little “trial and error.”
And, as a side note, several of the irregular past tense forms have fallen out of use in American English (burnt, dreamt, etc.), so maybe my daughter is on to something!
The Bigger Message
You might be thinking, “But I mastered the past tense and the present perfect a long time ago. What does this have to do with me?" I think that there is a message for every level of language learner here, and the message is this:
In order to make your speaking more advanced, you will have to make some mistakes first.
Instead of avoiding more challenging grammar structures, perhaps it is worth “taking a leap of faith” and trying out something new. It might just take you to the next level of your language development.