When we think of the future we automatically think of will. But this is really only part of the story. In reality, will is just the first step in our thought process about our future plans.
Obviously we do not know the future. The recent past is clear in our memory like a series of short films playing in our heads. We replay those memories and remember those things which happened. The present is what we see now. What is currently happening all around us or what happens in our present routine. The future for us however is not events we see but rather plans we have for events to happen. We see them in different ways, and different shades of clarity, depending on the level of planning that we have already made.
The first step is will:
The lowest and first level of a future plan is will. Will is the big bang! When you say I will do something you have not thought about it before. It is the birth of an idea and is a decision you are making here and now at the time of saying it. It is unplanned and spontaneous. It is the first step in your decision-making process. For this reason, it is often preceded with I think or I reckon. It is not a firm decision. It is not arranged or planned. It is simply you deciding at that given moment that this action will play a part in your future life.
Will only expresses your desire and nothing more.
In English, your last testament is called your will. Your will is also what you wish to happen. It is his will – it is what he wants. It is a desire for the future, a desire for something to occur. When you say I will do something you are simply saying that this is your desire and nothing more. It is your first step in creating your future plan. But like the big bang, it is a fleeting moment. From the point of will it instantly changes from being a desire to something more focused.
The second step is going to. This describes your intention.
This more focused thought is expressed with going to. The desire you expressed when you said that you will do something is now transformed into an intention. From I will do something you are now going to do something. The image in your head for the future becomes clearer. You see yourself on the path to that action. Future actions will drive it towards your goal. You are consciously open to achieving it. Young single people can say that they are going to get married one day and they are going to have children. The words express the path they will now take towards that future goal although in this case the when and with who is not at all clear.
The third step is the present continuous I am doing. This is when arrangements have been made.
The final step in future planning is to make solid arrangements. For example I begin my plan with a desire such as I’ll meet my friends this weekend. The will signals that this is what I want to happen. From that moment it becomes I’m going to meet my friends this weekend. I see the path which is in this case to contact people and arrange where and when to meet. This done, I’m meeting my friends this weekend – the present continuous tense. When you use the present continuous, there is the idea now that it is set in stone. My image has now shifted into something much more solid. I can see the place and the people in my minds eye. I may have hopes or fears for the event but the image is solid in my mind. It is happening.
Long term future and short term future:
One thing to mention is that for the short-term future, this week for example, there is little difference between I’m going to go to the cinema and I’m going to the cinema. We do not differentiate the two (in the short term) and native speakers will not think twice about whether the action is arranged or not. However, when we talk about plans further into the future we are much more likely to use going to as the plan probably has not been arranged. For example Next week I’m going to America sounds correct because it is likely that I have bought my ticket, reserved my hotel and got my visa as the action will happen soon.
However, Next year I’m going to go to America sounds much more plausible as this is probably just in the intention phase where it’s what I intend to do but without arrangements having been made, because the time is next year.
The difference could suggest a bribe!
Another example to illustrate the difference between going to and the present continuous is I’m going to get an A in my exam and I’m getting an A in my exam. I’m going to get an A in my exam sounds correct. This is because I’m simply expressing an intention or perhaps it is based on the evidence that I have studied really hard (going to can also express an observation that something will happen based on evidence seen in the present.
If you see a dark sky you say It’s going to rain). To say I’m getting an A in my exam would imply that somehow it has been arranged. Perhaps I bribed the examiner? If not that, then it sounds arrogant at the least.
To sum up, there are three basic stages in how we think about the future.
We say we will do something at the outset. This is the moment the decision is made. From there it immediately goes to I’m going to do something which signals that my mind has been made up and I am going to follow my intentions towards making that action a reality. During this phase of the journey I make external arrangements and the moment they become confirmed now I’m doing it.
I’ll have lunch with Teresa on Saturday – my first initial thought
I’m going to have lunch with Teresa on Saturday – It is now my intention
I’m having lunch with Teresa on Saturday – I asked Teresa to have lunch and (perhaps) booked a table. The arrangement is made.
An interesting thing about the short term future is that we generally know what we are doing, particularly if we live a life of routine (which most of us do). Therefore thinking about the next week or so we use going to and the present continuous a lot more than we use will. Will is only the birth of a new idea. Learners of English generally have the idea that will signifies the future, and it does. But only at the first step.
Learning a language can be frustrating
It is exciting to be able to speak another language. It can of course be frustrating too. Not being able to articulate what you want or how you feel or what your opinion is on something can feel terrible. Being with a group of native speakers and not being able to follow the group conversation can leave you feeling alone.
Many years ago, when I arrived in Spain for a year of teaching English, this was exactly how I felt. When I arrived, my Spanish was nil. I didn’t even know the word for ‘hello’. I had a little Spanish/English dictionary and a notebook, and I started to learn words and phrases, as I needed them. If I were going food shopping, for example, I would pre-learn the words which I anticipated I would need for my shopping expedition. Leaving my house, I would be repeating the words for ‘bread’ and tomato’ and ‘pork chop’ as I wandered down the foreign street surrounded by signs and people I didn’t understand.
New friends can appear in surprising places
I lived in a small flat with two Spanish guys who didn’t speak a word of English. It was perfect for me to immerse myself in Spanish. For the first couple of months we were like three mime artists in the kitchen, acting out what we were going to cook, flapping our arms to show the rent was due and whatever other messages they needed to pass to me or I to them. At that time, I used to go home for lunch every day and sitting opposite Miguel, I would have conversations with him in my broken language but I was only half sure what we were talking about. But every one seeped in somehow and slowly my brain was accepting this new form of communication.
Then I got really lucky. One evening (still early in my time there) while waiting for a friend outside her school (she was teaching an English class) I was watching a television match in a shop window. There was another guy there also watching the match, and it turned out that he was waiting for his girlfriend who was inside and was one of my friend’s students. We started talking in the usual mime/stone age man-type language, and when they came out we all went for a beer together. This marked the beginning of my friendship with Emilio and Maria Jose.
Every Friday they invited me out with their large group of friends. I remember the first ten minutes always going well, everybody sober, talking slowly to me and me listening intently, trying to follow the conversation. Then the beers kept coming and the conversation got faster, the lights got brighter and everything became more garbled. People would look at me and see that I didn’t understand and would stop the group to bring me up to date but I hated that as I felt that I was ruining the dynamic of the group. I didn’t want them to stop just to keep me up to date.
Learning a language can be lonely
I felt lonely. I was surrounded by friends, but they were friends who I couldn’t really communicate with apart from smiles and a nodding of my head.
I returned to Ireland for Christmas and when I went back in early January and something strange happened to me. I started to understand! It was if my absence for a couple of weeks had given my brain the time to digest all the backlog of new language I had, and it was now able to run past my lips with a degree of fluidity. Words I heard or read began to have meaning and I felt that I was no longer a beginner, but someone on a (slightly) higher rung of the language ladder.
Breaking through this barrier felt so good! I still had many problems understanding and expressing myself of course, but this was peppered with the joy of catching a word, or a difficult expression which I actually understood! I began to feel that their language was now also becoming my language. It was something we shared rather than something that separated us.
Speaking another language feels wonderful
This experience informs what I do today in my English classes. I feel that the job of the English teacher is to empower the learner. To give the learner ‘bullets’ for their ‘language gun’. I know the joy of being able to express oneself beautifully in another language (or at least thinking I do) and to be able to understand subtlety coming from someone else’s lips. When that happens, all the frustration and loneliness suffered at the beginning becomes worth it.
Often students say that they feel that they have stopped learning. That they have reached a plateau or even worse have regressed and are now understanding less. This, unfortunately, is the game of learning a language. It’s swings and roundabouts, highs and lows. But like all the great things in life you have to work. You have to suffer before the good stuff comes. And it does come… just ask anyone who has done it!
By John Ryan
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