An Important Difference Between German and English

Many people say that English is a very easy language and German is so difficult. I do agree that the gender and case system in German makes the language more difficult than English, but when it comes to verb tenses, I think German is pretty simple. Let’s take a look at the verb “to go”:

I went
I have gone
I have been going
I go
I am going
I will go

In German you need only 2 verb tenses in order to cover all of these scenarios – past and present:

Ich bin gegangen (I went)
Ich gehe (I go)

The future can be expressed by using the present tense and a word that indicates future time, so in German it’s perfectly fine to say ‘Tomorrow I buy a book’.

But in this article I’d like to focus on the fact that in German there is no verb tense that can imply that something started in the past and is still going on in the present, like the present perfect in English.

“I have worked at the bank for 25 years.” What this means is that you started to work for the bank 25 years ago and you are still working there. In German, you would use the present tense in this situation. Ich arbeite seit 25 Jahren bei der Bank.

If you say I habe gearbeitet (I have worked, as you do in English) I would understand that you’re not working there any more, because you use the past tense.

Here are some more examples:

“I have learned German for 3 years.” Many German learners say: Ich habe für 3 Jahre Deutsch gelernt. It’s pretty much a word for word translation. Have learned / habe gelernt. However, this is wrong, because you are still learning German so you need to use the present tense:

Ich lerne seit 3 Jahren Deutsch. And you see that we say „seit 3 Jahren“ (since three years) and not für 3 Jahre (for 3 years – as you would say in English).

“I have lived in Berlin for 3 weeks.” As you might guess, many German students would say:
Ich habe für 3 Wochen in Berlin gewohnt. But now you already know that this is wrong and that you should say: Ich wohne seit drei Wochen in Berlin.

A short recap: In German, the most important verb tenses are present tense and past tense. When something happened in the past, you use past tense, and when something happens now, you use present tense. There is no verb tense in between.

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