I’ve discovered something interesting recently, through the process of taking a Spanish class: You never think about the mechanics of your native language. (Well, I think about the mechanics of my native language, but I could hardly be a very good editor — or soap-box grammarian — without doing so.)
Your brain knows how English works. You picked up its oddities as a child, and trying to explain what you are doing when you’re conjugating a verb, or choosing a tense, or putting a sentence together is just about impossible.
In a foreign language, you have to struggle to understand what a reflexive verb is, what the indirect pronoun is, and what on earth you would do with the present subjunctive. You know all this stuff in English; you just don’t know what it’s called. And this means you should be very careful when trying to explain the use of English to a non-native speaker.
At the end of my Spanish class last night, there was some confusion because the teacher (a native Spanish speaker who speaks English as a second language) was trying to differentiate between what we had covered last class (the one the week before) and what we would cover in the last class (the final one). He asked us how he could indicate which he meant, and the other students all told him it was just based on context.
But this isn’t true. It just seems true to a native speaker because you don’t think about how you’re using the language.
Sure, context helps. Talking about the past helps to indicate that you mean the class from the week before, and talking about the future clearly indicates you mean a class that is still to come. But context is not the only difference:
- Last class is the previous class.
- The last class is the final class.
The things that rattle around in an editor’s brain!