Overfamiliarity 1


What do the following have in common?

In the event of an emergency, please assume the bracing position. A life vest is located in a pouch under your seat or between the armrests. When instructed to do so, open the plastic pouch and remove the vest. Slip it over your head. Pass the straps around your waist and adjust at the front. To inflate the vest, pull firmly on the red cord, only when leaving the aircraft. If you need to refill the vest, blow into the mouthpieces. Use the whistle and light to attract attention.”
(retrieved from http://airodyssey.net/reference/inflight/#safety)

Attention shoppers: We are celebrating Take Your Child to the Supermarket Day on the 15th November. Stop in between 3pm and 8pm to pick up your games and activities packet at the service desk. This packet will be your guide to special activities and games throughout the store. Watch as your child has fun learning more about fruits and veggies! In addition, there will be balloons, sampling stations with different types of fruit and vegetable items, and other surprises. We’ll also be having story time in the produce department at 3pm. Join us and have some fun while your children learn about the supermarket and how much fruits and veggies really matter!”
(retrieved from:

The past simple is used when the action is finished and the time is finished. The action is seen as a completed event which finished in the past and has no connection to the present. The present perfect is used when the action is finished but the time is not finished. This means that if it’s an action, then it may be finished but might have consequences in the present, and if it’s a state, it might continue into the present.

Whether on an airplane, in a supermarket or in a language classroom, the three speakers above may have reeled off their respective spiels quickly in the voice of someone that has stopped thinking about the meaning behind the words they are repeating probably for the 100th time.

It is also likely that these three speakers are forgetting that their listeners are not as familiar with what they are saying and might need more time to process and make sense of what is being said. 

Overfamiliarity 2

In the case of the airplane announcement, the flight attendant is also faced with the challenge of having to give safety instructions to passengers who may be showing signs of disinterest, and may even be ignoring what is being said. Airlines might choose not to bother with such passengers, as the mere reeling off of the safety announcements is sufficient to fulfill air safety requirements.

Perhaps this is not too unlike teachers who only strive to tick the boxes and cover what is on a syllabus because it’s there.

Other airlines might choose to use innovative ways to capture their passengers’ attention, and get them listening intently. Here’s an excellent example from Thomson Holidays’ chartered airline.   

Overfamiliarity 3

Unlike the monotone and often very fast and unclear voices of many airplane announcements, supermarket announcers sometimes have the habit of putting on a chirpy and enthusiastic voice coupled with dubious rises and falls in intonation of someone supposedly interested in what they are saying. But the fact that it is the umpteenth time they have made the announcement only means that they have stopped thinking about what they are saying and how much of it their shoppers are able to take in.

We, as teachers, often have our favourite lessons that we do enthusiastically, like that desert island one on the 2nd conditional or that ‘guided discovery’ travel lesson on future forms. We have done those lessons so many times that we perhaps have stopped thinking about how much the lessons might or might not suit our learners’ interests, learning styles or abilities, and when the lessons fail to achieve their desired effect, we scratch our heads, wonder why, and decide that it must just be a difficult class – a case of ‘it’s not me, it’s you’.

Overfamiliarity 4

It is just so easy to assume that what is obvious to us is also obvious to others… and this of course is not always the case.

So, the next time you find yourself thinking, “We’ve been doing the present perfect for the last three weeks! Why haven’t they got it yet?”, remember that you had been using the present perfect for the past 30-odd years of your life (assuming you are in your thirties) and that you didn't learn to use it by simply memorizing those rules.

Perhaps a more imaginative approach like the Thomson advert above, a slower pace, or a fresh look at an old topic might better achieve your desired classroom outcomes.

About English Teaching professional’s regular blogger:

Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.

A self-confessed conference addict, she spends a lot of her time tweeting (@chiasuan/@ETprofessional), Skyping, and writing. You can find out more about her on her blogsite: http://chiasuanchong.com