Professor Renate Pajusalu, University of Tartu
Senior Lecturer Raili Pool, University of Tartu
Dr Helka Riionheimo, University of Eastern Finland
The tense system is one of the riches of the Estonian language. There are three past tenses distinguished in it: imperfect (I went to the cinema), perfect (I have been to the cinema), and pluperfect (I had been to the cinema). Imperfect (past simple) is simple because only one verb is required to tell something about an action which took place in the past. Perfect and pluperfect are more complex since the idea expressed only becomes apparent in a longer sentence or passage. For instance, perfect shows experience (I have been to the cinema, but not the theatre), or an action over a long period of time (I have been to the same cinema over several years). Perfect has an attribute to express not only the past but also the present as shown in these example sentences. Pluperfect is required to speak of two actions in the past (before I went to the theatre for the first time, I had only been to the cinema). Pluperfect demonstrates which action took place first - going to the cinema or the theatre.
Such a tense system is complicated for learners with Russian as their mother tongue because Russian only has the imperfect tense. However, the largest number of people learning Estonian as a second language in Estonia, are native Russian speakers.
The aim of the research was to identify patterns of acquisition of past tense forms of Estonian as the second language. Interviews with Russian students, analysis of their written and oral texts and comparison of tasks completed by Estonians and Russians revealed that the number of correct sentences exceeded that of sentences with incorrect tenses. Analysis of mistakes demonstrated, though, that imperfect is frequently preferred over perfect, learners cannot distinguish between perfect and pluperfect, and pluperfect is used instead of imperfect in an impersonal mode. Neither can learners use clues suggesting which tense to use in a sentence. If a sentence consists of two parts, present and perfect are used together (I have already eaten and now I go to bed) and pluperfect is used with imperfect (I had eaten before I went to bed). Negative and interrogative sentences are particularly complicated, a correct past compound tense was used in only half of the cases. The thesis contains information and concrete examples on what to focus on when teaching Estonian tenses and compiling teaching materials.