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The German language has six tenses: Präsens, Präteritum, Perfekt, Plusquamperfekt, Futur I, and Futur II. Unlike English, there aren’t any special continuous forms in German. For starters, let’s have a closer look to the Präsens, which is basically equivalent to the English tenses Simple Present and Present Progressive.
You can use the Präsens under four different circumstances.
1. The ‘current’ Präsens
First of all, the Präsens is used to point to current events, which means that the time of speech coincides with the action. Thereby, the beginning and period of the action are neither determined nor important. The action could have begun in the past and may still be in progress at the moment of speech, and can also outlast the moment of speaking.
Mein Mann arbeitet am Computer. = My husband works on the computer. / My husband is working on the computer.
As you can see this German sentence has two possible English translations. It can either mean that someone’s husband ‘does generally work on a computer’ or that someone’s husband ‘is working on a computer’ at the moment of speaking. Thus, there is no particular simple and/or progressive form of the German Präsens tense.
Of course, there can arise misunderstandings in German when you utter a sentence like the one above, as you can never tell whether someone is talking about an action that is taking place at the moment of speaking. In order to avoid such misunderstandings Germans can simply insert adverbs of time like: gerade (just) or im Moment (at the moment). This results in the sentences:
Mein Mann arbeitet gerade am Computer. = My husband is just working on the computer.
Mein Mann arbeitet im Moment am Computer. = My husband is working on the computer at the moment.
Another example of using the Präsens in German displays the following sentence:
Mein Mann arbeitet (jetzt) seit zwei Stunden am Computer.
In order to express this situation you would use the English Present Perfect Progressive tense: My husband has been working for two hours on the computer (now). But in German you use the Präsens and just insert a particular time designation, for example, seit zwei Stunden (which is here translated as: for two hours).
3. The ‘general’ Präsens
Just like the English Simple Present, the German Präsens is also used to refer universally valied circumstances:
Berlin ist die Hauptstadt von Deutschland. (Berlin is the capital of Germany.)
Die Sonne geht im Osten auf. (The sun rises in the east.)
2. The ‘future’ Präsens
You can also use the German Präsens to point to the future. Germans commonly choose this tense in their everyday speech. But you have to make sure that you point to the future by inserting adverbs of time (bald – soon; gleich – immediately; morgen – tomorrow; übermorgen – the day after tomorrow) or phrases that have an adverbial function (in der nächsten Woche – in the next week; im nächsten Jahr – in the next year).
Meine Freundin kommt gleich. (My friend comes/is coming soon.)
Das neue Schuljahr beginnt übermorgen. (The new school year starts/is starting the day after tomorrow.)
Ich gehe nächsten Dienstag zum Arzt. (I see/am seeing the doctor next Tuesday.)
Of course, you can also use Futur I to point to the future. This would result in the sentences:
Meine Freundin wird gleich kommen. (My friend will come soon.)
Das neue Schuljahr wird übermorgen beginnen. (The new school year will start the day after tomorrow.)
Ich werde nächsten Dienstag zum Arzt gehen. (I will see the doctor next Tuesday.)
4. The ‘narrative’ Präsens
This type of the Präsens is not a grammatical rule, but a stylistic means of expression to illustrate an action of the past more vividly. The ‘narrative’ Präsens is used in narrations and novels rather than in reports or discussions.
“Neulich ruft Sabine unerwartet an.” (lit. Recently, Sabine calls unexpectedly.) instead of “Neulich rief Sabine unerwartet an.” (Recently, Sabine called unexpectedly.)
In conclusion, you can apply the German Präsens to refer to current events, the future and the past. The Präsens is also used when English requests Present Perfect Progressive.