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Scholar Studies Time Concepts in Language

Fei Ren head shot Fei Ren is an assistant professor and the Chinese language coordinator in the East Asian Languages and Culture department. (Photo by Yovcho Yovchev)

July 5, 2011 – The concept of time in different languages is the focus of research by Fei Ren, an assistant professor in the East Asian languages and cultures department.

Ren compares how her native Chinese versus English treats temporal situations.

“One major difference between English and Chinese in terms of conveying time is that Chinese doesn’t have the grammatical category of tense,” Ren, the Chinese language coordinator in her department, explains. “That means Chinese cannot use the device like ‘was’ vs. ‘is’ or ‘am’ to signal the temporal location of a situation.”

Different Strategies

Chinese language depends instead on other means such as aspect markers and temporal phrases, but she says it is normal in the language to have a sentence that doesn’t contain these means.

A literal translation of “He works for Georgetown University,” for example, would be “He at Georgetown University work” in Chinese, she says. One of the means is to add the perfective aspect marker – guo after the verb, which can express “past experience.”

“World languages adopt different strategies to express time,” she adds. “Lacking one device, like tense, does not prevent speakers of a language to fully express those concepts because the language always has other means to make up for what it doesn’t have.”

Fei arrived at Georgetown in August 2010 from the University of Texas at Austin.

“Georgetown [is famous] in the world of linguistics and language education,” she explained. “The department I graduated from heard about this news and they were all excited.”

Early Struggles

Ren traces her academic interest in linguistics to the early struggles she had learning English as an elementary and middle school student in China.

After moving to the United States, Ren realized that there is a distinct method to mastering every language – grammar provides a framework and learners ideally build on that through frequent contact with a language.

“I think the best way to learn a language is to get immersed in that language,” says Ren, who hopes to learn Japanese and Korean. “You’re kind of forced to speak and you have to understand.”

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