She is speaking five languages!

Present simple vs present continuous

I keep hearing confusion between the present simple and the present continuous recently so I thought I’d dedicate a post to it.  The most obvious misuse I heard was when someone said to me;

“My friend is a genius, she is speaking five languages”

Her friend truly is a genius if she can speak five languages at the same time!  You see the key difference between the present simple and the present continuous is that the continuous refers to things that are happening right now, whereas the simple talks about things that are always true.  So if her friend knows five languages, then she always knows them, not just at the moment when she speaks, right?  What she should say is:

“My friend is a genius, she speaks five languages”

It’s easy when you think about it that way, because for example, right now as I am typing, it is raining outside.  If I say ‘it rains’ then I mean generally, it rains a lot or all the time.

There are a couple of other ways of using both of these tenses.  Here’s a summary:

• The present simple is used for actions that happen over and over (e.g. I drink 2 cups of coffee per day) or for things that are always true (e.g. I am an English female)

• The present continuous is used for actions that are happening right now (e.g. you are reading this post) and for actions that are temporarily true but not necessarily happening right now (e.g. I’m living with friends at the moment, I’m doing three exams this year).
NB present continuous is also used to talk about the future but that’s not my focus for this post.

A great way to separate the two is to use time references.  When we talk about the continuous we say things like:

1. At the moment I’m working on the translation of a book.
(this could be happening right now or be something temporarily happening)
2. Right now I am typing a post for the VSL blog.
(true at this moment in time)
3. I am studying Spanish this month.
(true temporarily across the course of this month)

For present simple we often use adverbs of frequency:

0% ————————————————- 50% ——————————————– 100%
never         rarely        not often       sometimes           often       usually       always

1. I usually get up at 07:30 and I often go to bed at 23:00.
2. Lucia never eats meet but Grace often does.
3. I rarely see Frank these days.

If you can’t decide which to use, think about WHEN the action you’re talking about is happening.  Is it right now or is it a habit / always true?  There’s your answer.  Good luck!

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