My mother language doesn't have any verb forms. So if I'm going say

"This morning I ate my breakfast, then I took the bus and went to school." 

In Cantonese, I would simply say

"This morning I eat my breakfast, then I take the bus and go to school." 

The past tense is all indicated by "This morning", no changing verb forms needed.

When I am writing, I can handle tense easily, but when it comes to speaking, tense is my biggest pain.

I always use present tense for everything I say, even it's in the past. And I always forget to add "s" for the third person singular in present tense. I have to think and change the verb form in my head before I really speak. I have to go through the process like

"I take a bath"->"change take to took"->"I took a bath", or

"She get mad at me"->"change get to gets"->"She gets mad at me"

Therefore, I hesitate a lot when I speak, I know practice makes perfect, but I genuinely don't think it's all about practice, it may be about the way of how I think.

It may sound stupid, but my jaw drops a lot when I hear people speak out four or five past tense verbs in a row without hesitation. Or they always remember to conjugate for the third person singular in present tense. Let alone when they use past participle, which is even harder.

So, I hope you can really think about that, when you are speaking, what's really going on in your mind. Do you think about the infinitive form first and then change it, or the past tense verb just pops out? Or can you explain how it works when you remember to add an "s" for present tense third person? How do you think about the act of using different verb forms? Will you instinctively sense something wrong if I use present tense to talk about something happened in the past to you?

closed as off-topic by michael_timofeev, sumelic, Hellion, user140086, ab2 Jan 30 '16 at 21:26

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    I'm sure native English speakers who learn Cantonese would also have their jaws drop when they listen to you talk normally. – GEdgar Jan 30 '16 at 1:10
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    It just pops out. And we will instinctively sense something wrong if you use the wrong tense. Isn't it the same, conversely, if I use the wrong word or the wrong tonal accent in Cantonese in a conversation with you? – Cerberus Jan 30 '16 at 1:47
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    When a person is conscious of the rules in any activity they can't perform it well in real time. We have to internalize the rules through practice until they are unconscious. It's especially difficult when studying a language that divides the world into different categories than the one's you learned as a child. But keep at it, I've studied pu tong hua and my Chinese is much worse than your English. – Al Maki Jan 30 '16 at 1:54
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    Children go through a few phases learning verb forms. For example, they learn that "told" is the past tense of "tell", and use it correctly. Then they learn that the past tense is formed by adding "ed" such as "learn, learned". So they generalize and say "telled", where formerly they said "told". Finally they get it all straight -- "walk, walked" but "teach, taught". I hope someone else here can give you a reference for this...this is just something I read somewhere. – ab2 Jan 30 '16 at 1:55
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    English speakers have similar troubles when learning languages with greater verb conjugation, or with grammatical gender. – sumelic Jan 30 '16 at 1:56

I'm a native American English speaker who still sometimes struggles with real-time conversation. At the same time, I have a really good grasp on which words should be used when and where, and it comes second nature to select the right tense most of the time if I can think of the right set of words. From my observations, if you already understand basic language structure, as you obviously do, then being familiar with words is the next step towards fluency. However, actually speaking what you do know is super important.

I wouldn't get too hung up on whether you always select the correct tense at first; you will meet a lot of native speakers who don't have a handle on their tenses. I typically do catch it when people use the wrong tense, but I know people who don't seem to know there's a difference. Using the wrong tense will eventually lead to some confusion and taunting, but a hesitance to communicate can result in misunderstandings too. Once you are confident in your ability to convey meaning, then really crack down on which words you are using wrong. If you need some clarification on what to use when, "Woe is I" by Patricia T. O'Conner is an excellent, but simple read.

Finding a few critical friends who use proper English can be good for pointing out what you struggle with. Remember to keep a positive outlook, though. If you have the opportunity to converse with such people, flowing conversation will eventually become second-nature to you, and you'll only pause when you're really tired or you've heard some politician say that he "should have ran[sic] for office sooner." (ouch!) or something like that.

And remember, if somebody says your English is pretty good, it probably is.

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