Skip to content ↓

August 2018 - Year 20 - Issue 4

ISSN 1755-9715

Errors of Bulgarian Learners Studying English Present Tenses

Kornelia Choroleeva is a senior lecturer at the University of Food Technologies – Plovdiv who teaches English to Bulgarian students. Her main research interests include teaching English for Specific Purposes, English word formation, lexicology, and translation theory. Email:


The paper discusses the difficulties Bulgarian students face when studying English present tenses. Their grammar mistakes have to do with the construction of the verb form itself and the usage of the tenses. The paper tries to give a tentative explanation of these mistakes from the point of view of the typological differences between the two languages which rest on different conceptualizations of the notions of present and past time.


The present paper is devoted to the grammar mistakes of freshmen and sophomores studying English at university and, more specifically, to the difficulties they face when mastering the English present tenses. Having in mind the fact that young Bulgarians study English both at school and at universities, it is a startling observation that they somehow fail to understand how English present tenses are formed as well as when they are used. From the point of view of the typological differences between English and Bulgarian, however, this is explainable to some extent. That is why the paper will try to outline the main errors concerning the English present tenses by means of pointing out some grammar differences between the two languages in question. Some examples that will be used in the paper are taken from the tests on the basis of which students are examined during their first and second years of study at the university as well as from other authors discussing the topic.

Grammar mistakes concerning English Present Tenses

Present Simple Tense

It is surprising that Bulgarian students find it difficult to learn when the –S/ES verb ending is used in positive sentences although the present verb forms of Bulgarian are much more difficult for non-native speakers to learn. In Bulgarian, the verb forms of the present tense are constructed with the help of singular and plural endings for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person. The inflections are attached to the present stem of verbs which are grouped in three conjugations. Some verb endings are common for all three conjugations, one of the common endings being that of the 3rd person singular (Georgiev 1999: 308 – 309). Most often than not, Bulgarian students omit the –S/ES ending when forming positive sentences in the Present Simple tense.

When constructing negative sentences in the Present Simple, they sometimes omit the auxiliary verb, e.g.: I no speak English, “imitating” Bulgarian where the negative verb form in the present tense is formed with a negative particle (ne) and a conjugated verb form.

As regards the Present Simple Tense, however, Bulgarian students make most mistakes when constructing special questions. The omission of the auxiliary verb DO/DOES in special questions is understandable because in Bulgarian there are no auxiliaries in special questions in the present tense, Active Voice, due to the fact that the verb is conjugated as was mentioned above. The mistakes can be outlined as follows:

  1. Omission of the auxiliary verb DO/DOES (which may be accompanied by a verb form in the 3rd person singular), e.g.: Where lives Maggie?; How many exams they have to take?. This type of mistake mirrors the word order of Bulgarian special questions in the present tense.
  2. Omission of the auxiliary verb DO/DOES and insertion of a wrong auxiliary (BE), e.g.: Where is Maggie lives?, although the word order itself is correct.
  3. Omission of the auxiliary verb DO/DOES, insertion of a wrong auxiliary (BE) accompanied by a verb in the infinitive, e.g.: Where is Maggie live?. Kostadinova also reports errors regarding overuse of the verb BE in examples such as I am agree and It is happen explaining them with the fact that “learners tend to transfer and overuse what is first learned” (Kostadinova 2013: 124), namely the verb BE. She points out that her examples show interference with the corresponding Bulgarian verbs which are reflexive.
  4. Correct usage of the auxiliary verb DO/DOES but an incorrect form of the main verb, e.g.: Where does Maggie lives?
  5. Usage of the auxiliary DO instead of DOES coupled by an incorrect word order, e.g.: Where do live Maggie?
  6. Concerning special subject questions, students usually omit the –S/ES ending, e.g.: Who come from Varna?, or insert the auxiliary DO/DOES, e.g.: Who does comes from Varna?; Who does come from Varna?, Who do come from Varna?. The latter examples probably show that students tend to have in mind the DO/DOES auxiliary although they are uncertain as to when they are supposed to use it.
  7. As regards questions featuring prepositions, Bulgarian students usually place the prepositions at the beginning of the question, e.g.: With who does he live?; With who he lives?; With who he live?. Here the interference with Bulgarian is obvious as well because Bulgarian special questions can start with prepositions.

As far as YES/NO questions are concerned, the omission of the auxiliary verb in English, e.g.: (You) Speak English?, is common, too. In Bulgarian, such questions are formed with the help of a particle (li) inserted after the conjugated verb form.

Kostadinova discusses how students use Past Simple Tense instead of Present Simple, e.g.: And when this happened – this reflect on the other. Everything lost very fast. The author thinks that such errors are typical of learners mainly at A1, A2 and B1 levels. Her explanation is that such examples manifest “overuse of what has been recently learned” (Kostadinova 2013: 132). There are also examples of usage of Present Simple Tense instead of Past Simple, a typical one being I am born, He is born, etc. because the corresponding Bulgarian equivalent is always in the present tense.

Present Continuous Tense

The Present Continuous Tense is difficult for Bulgarian students in two major respects. Firstly, students sometimes cannot understand the differences in usage of Present Simple and Present Continuous because in Bulgarian there is only one present tense which encompasses the following usages: general truths and characteristic features, habitual and recurrent activities, activities cutting through the present moment, activities coinciding with the present moment (after Spasov 2001). In Bulgarian, the verb forms for present tense are unmarked and do not contain a temporal morpheme (Boyadzhiev et al. 1999: 387). The difference between habitual/ recurrent activities and activities cutting through the present moment is expressed in Bulgarian via the presence of adverbs of time.

Secondly, Bulgarian students find it difficult to make a difference between the complex verb form of the Present Continuous Tense (featuring the auxiliary verb BE and the –ING participle) and the simple –ING participle as a non-finite verb form. That is why, they tend to omit the auxiliary BE in statements, e.g.: I writing a letter.

Present Simple is often used instead of Present Continuous and vice versa as Kostadinova points out, e.g.: I seeing the red roses and they are costing 25 euros (Kostadinova 2013: 131). We agree with the author that this is due to the fact that Bulgarian embodies a different perception of time in which there is no difference between now meaning at the moment and now meaning our life.

Both Leech and Jespersen emphasize that English progressive tenses form a time-frame round events: “The Progressive Aspect generally has the effect of surrounding a particular event or moment by a ‘temporal frame’ […]. That is, within the flow of time, there is some point of reference from which the temporary eventuality indicated by the verb can be seen as stretching into the future and into the past. With the Progressive Present, the point of orientation is normally identical with ‘now’, the present moment of real time” (Leech, in Molhova et al. 1991: 93; see also Jespersen, ibid.: 77-78). According to Leech, the temporal frame follows from the notion of limited duration. In English, the progressive form manifests limited duration and that the action need not necessarily be complete. In this respect, the progressive form stands in opposition to the simple form. In Bulgarian, however, such a distinction is not made by the present tense. The contrast between completed and incomplete activities shows in the usage of verbs with or without prefixes. Verbs with given prefixes indicate that the activity starts or approaches its end while the same verbs without a prefix point to the activity as such.

Present Perfect Tense

Present Perfect Simple and Present Perfect Continuous indicate “[u]ninterrupted activities spreading over a (usually specified) period of time including the present moment”, the difference between them being that the former concerns longer periods of time whereas the latter has to do with “shorter periods or when the activity is felt by the speaker to be temporary” (Spasov 2001: 104), e.g.: I’ve spoken English for forty years.; I’ve been speaking English for two hours (now). Bulgarian verb forms in the present do not distinguish between these two usages, which is why it is difficult for Bulgarian students to make a difference between Present Perfect Simple Tense and Present Perfect Continuous Tense. Both meanings are expressed in Bulgarian by the present tense. Moreover, in Bulgarian, statements of the type of I have (never) been to the USA and Have you (ever) been abroad? are constructed with the help of another tense, i.e. the Past Indefinite Tense, also called Perfect Tense and Resultative Present Tense (Boyadzhiev at al. 1999: 391). Like the English Present Perfect Tense, the Bulgarian Past Indefinite Tense emphasizes the result of the activity. As its names suggest, the Bulgarian Past Indefinite/ Resultative Present Tense embodies the notions of present and past time viewed as a totality. These grammar differences between the two languages confuse Bulgarian students with respect to the notions of present and past time. When studying Present Perfect tenses, they are uncertain as to when to use Present Perfect Simple or Continuous, Past Simple Tense or Present Simple Tense. Here are some examples:

  1. Past Simple instead of Present Perfect Simple, e.g.: Nowadays people became bad, cold… (Kostadinova 2013: 133);
  2. Present Simple instead of Present Perfect Simple, e.g.: All my life I search the perfect relationship (ibid.: 134).

Jespersen considers Present Perfect Tense to be a retrospective variety of the present because the adverb “now” can be used with it. He points out that sometimes people speak of something belonging both to the past and to the present time. This “composite idea”, as he calls it, is expressed in some languages by the Perfect, e.g.: I have known him for two years, whereas other languages use the Present, as is the case with Bulgarian and French, e.g.: Je le connais depuis deux ans (in Molhova et al. 1991: 67). Obviously, Bulgarian students find it difficult to separate the idea of the present result of past events from that of past events themselves.

Suggestions for Teaching the Present Simple, Present Continuous and Present Perfect

Present Simple Tense vs. Present Continuous Tense

Some textbooks introduce Past Simple Tense before Present Continuous Tense but it seems that with Bulgarian students it might be better to teach Present Continuous immediately after Present Simple Tense in order to compare these two tenses at an earlier stage.

The usage of the 3rd person singular ending –S/ES in Present Simple positive sentences can be taught with the help of exercises where students are asked to choose the correct subject of the sentence, in the singular or plural, e.g.: You/ John always drives too fast; Mary and Peter/ My mom like parties, or the correct verb, e.g.: John always drive/ drives too fast.  

Students are often uncertain as to when to use the –ES ending which is probably not sufficiently well explained at school. Therefore, it is appropriate to point out the phonetic reasons behind its usage. We can drill the usage of the –ES ending by means of the following exercise, for instance:

Match the verbs on the left to the appropriate ending in the 3rd person singular, Present Simple Tense, and complete the sentences.

Concerning the formation of negative sentences and questions in the Present Simple Tense, it may be useful to drill the insertion of the auxiliary DO/DOES visualizing sentences in tables. Each position in the sentence can be explained in terms of what it should contain, i.e. subject, main or auxiliary verb, negative particle, adverb of time, question word/ phrase, etc. We may ask students to fill in the table with the auxiliary verb in the first or second position having in mind the subject of the sentence, for example:

1 - Subject

2 - Auxuliary

3 – Negative Particle

4 – Main Verb

5 - Object









a car.


1 – Question Word/ Phrase

2 - Auxiliary

3 - Subject

4 – Main Verb

5 – Adverb of Time

What kind of music








get up

so early?


1 - Auxiliary

2 - Subject

3 – Main Verb

4 - Object

5 – Adverb of Time










every week?


When explaining the differences between Present Simple and Present Continuous, it seems preferable to illustrate them visually using a time scale exemplifying the notions of past time and present time. We can make the point that with Present Simple the state/ event has no beginning or an end because there is no moment in time as a reference point. We think of past, present, and future time together which is why we do not use expressions such as now or at the moment with Present Simple Tense. The state/ event is regarded as a sequence of recurring states/ events in the past, present, and future. That is why adverbs of definite or indefinite frequency are used with Present Simple Tense which show how persistent is the characteristic or activity we are interested in.

With Present Continuous, on the other hand, the reference point is the moment of speaking and the state/ event is concentrated in or around the reference point, which shows that the state/ event is temporary, e.g.: The professor is writing on the board (the event coincides with the reference point), I am playing tennis a lot these days (the event is concentrated around the reference point). In this way, we show that when we use Present Continuous the state/ event has a beginning and an end (see Diagram 1).

Diagram 1. Present Simple vs. Present Continuous Tense

We may show students a set of sentences and ask them to position the state/ event referred to on the time scale, as is shown in the example in Diagram 1. If students identify a reference point in time, they will have to position the state/ event in or around the moment of speaking, which means that they should use the Present Continuous Tense.

Past Simple Tense vs. Present Perfect Tense

Present Perfect Tense should be compared with Past Simple Tense, which can be done again with the help of a time scale in order to make it clear that Past Simple refers to a definite time period in the past, whereas Present Perfect expresses an indefinite time period between past and present. With Past Simple, the reference point in the past presupposes that the state/ event has a beginning and an end. With Present Perfect, where there is no reference point in time, the speaker has in mind the link between past time and present time, e.g.: I have read this book, or the result of past activities, e.g.: He has written three novels. The completed action expressed by the Past Simple verb form finishes before the effects of the past action appear. If we manage to explain that to students, they will understand the difference between past state/ event and the result of past states/ events (see Diagram 2).

The usage of SINCE and FOR with Present Perfect Tense can be explained in terms of the fact that SINCE is used when we indicate the beginning of the indefinite time period between past and present, e.g.: I have known Mary since 2005, whereas FOR refers to the duration of this indefinite time period, e.g.: I have known Mary for thirteen years. It should also be pointed out that when FOR is used with Past Simple Tense the reference point in the past still remains, which means that the state/event belongs to the past, e.g.: I knew Mary for thirteen years (Mary has probably died).

To illustrate the differences between the two tenses, we may again ask students to position the states/ events expressed in sentences on the time scale. If students identify a reference point in time, they will have to position the state/ event in the past and use the Past Simple Tense.


Diagram 2. Past Simple Tense vs. Present Perfect Tense.


In order to summarize the main points in the paper and illustrate the differences between English and Bulgarian in terms of the notions of present and past time, we will provide a table showing the correspondences between the two languages. The notion of past time is included because in some cases it bears upon that of present time. The examples are found in Spasov 2001 and Leech in Molhova et al. 1991.

English Tense

Notion of Present or Past Time

Bulgarian Tense

Present Simple

general truths and characteristic features, e.g.:   Water boils at 100˚C.


















                     Present Tense


Present Simple, Present Continuous, Present Perfect Simple, Present Perfect Continuous

habitual and recurrent activities (temporary or persistent habit), e.g.: We go to work every day.; Peter is always coming late.; Bob has called on us for many years now.; We’ve been visiting him often lately.

Present Continuous

repetition of events of limited duration, the notion of limited duration being applied to the events of which the habit is composed (Leech, in Molhova et al. 1991: 109), e.g.: Whenever I visit him, he is mowing his lawn.

Present Perfect Simple and Continuous

activities extending down to the present moment (unfinished time), e.g.: I’ve spoken English for forty years.

Present Continuous

activities cutting through the present moment,  e.g.: I’m writing a letter.

Present Simple

activities coinciding with the present moment, e.g.: I declare the meeting closed.

Present Continuous

persistent or continuous activity (idiomatic meaning), e.g.: Day by day we are getting nearer to death.

Present Perfect Simple and Continuous

temporally unspecified past events which are relevant in the present (present result of past activities), e.g.: The government has increased the minimum salary.

Past Indefinite/ Perfect/ Resultative Present Tense


The table shows that the English language is much more concrete with respect to the notions of present and past time in comparison with Bulgarian. That is why Bulgarian students face such difficulties when studying English grammar. In most cases, students fail to establish correspondences between the two languages, which they try to do subconsciously, and this has a negative effect on their English. The way time is conceptualized in English as compared to Bulgarian (or another language) can serve as an interesting focus of study for cognitive linguists.


Boyadzhiev, I., Kutsarov, I., Penchev, Y. (1999). Contemporary Bulgarian: Phonetics, Lexicology, Word Formation, Morphology, Syntax. Sofia: “Petar Beron” Publishing House.

Georgiev, St. (1999). Morphology of Bulgarian Literary Language. Veliko Tarnovo.

Kostadinova, D. (2013). Typical Errors of Bulgarian Speakers of English within the Verb Phrase. IN: Grozeva-Minkova, M. Foreign Language Education Today. New Bulgarian University Publishing House, 123-136.

Molhova, J., Stamenov, Ch., Stoevsky, A. (1991). Readings in Theoretical Grammar: The English Verb. Sofia.

Spasov, D. (2001). The Verb in the Structure of English. Sofia: “St. Kliment Ohridski” University Press.

Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary course at Pilgrims website

  • Errors of Bulgarian Learners Studying English Present Tenses
    Kornelia Choroleeva, Bulgaria