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We use the present simple to talk about permanent facts and general truths. In this example we don’t expect the situation to change.

She lives with her parents.

We use the present continuous to talk about something temporary. In this example we do expect the situation to change.

She’s living with her parents.

For me it is not always clear when I should consider situation as permanent. Let's say for example that I want to ask Ellie a question about school.

What foreign language do you learn at school?

or

What foreign language are you learning at school?

On the one hand, I do not expect the situation to change in the near future. On the other hand, I understand that sooner or later Ellie will finish school, so the situation is clearly not permanent. Moreover, the question of what is the near future is quite philosophical. Is it a month, six months, a year or ten years? This also makes it difficult to make the right choice.

I understand that native speakers make a choice without really thinking about such things. I'm wondering what rule of thumb they use.

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  • I don't think "temporary" or "expected to change" are really good ways to think about the present continuous. I would say the present continuous is about something happening now. You still have to interpret now in context, but at least you don't have to ask "How long is this expected to continue?"
    – stangdon
    Feb 7, 2023 at 19:43
  • @stangdon thank you for your answer. So, did I understand you correctly that your rule of thumb is the use of the word "now"? But anyway it is still not clear for me how to use this for my last example with question about school. Should I try to explicitly use word "now" in my sentence and then analyze if my sentence have some sense with this word in context of our conversation?
    – user341
    Feb 7, 2023 at 20:16
  • Yes, I mean that you should ask "Is this happening now?" For example, you could ask, "What language are you learning at school now?" and it makes sense, so the present continuous is a good choice.
    – stangdon
    Feb 7, 2023 at 20:22
  • @stangdon But there are exceptions, right? For example: "Are you able to see me now?" "Yes, I'm able see you now." I don't think that the present progressive would work well there. Feb 7, 2023 at 20:56

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The difference is "forever" or "indefinitely" versus "for some defined period of time".

Like, "Newton's Laws describe the motion of objects." I expect those laws to be true forever.

Sure, in practice, most things don't really last "forever". But some things will continue for an undefined period of time. There is no plan or expectation that they will change.

So for example, "My school teaches French and Spanish" versus "I am studying French and Spanish". In the first case, the school teaches these subjects and it will continue to teach them indefinitely. In the second case, I expect to graduate within a few years and so I will no longer be studying these languages.

Of course one could say that the school won't remain in operation literally forever. Sooner or later the school will be closed for one reason or another. Or even if it stays in operation, it may change what classes it teaches. But the point is that we expect it to keep teaching these same classes indefinitely.

Yes, there are debatable cases. Like, "Fred lives in Chicago." There is no guarantee that Fred won't move to another city some day. Even if he doesn't, he's going to die sooner or later so will no longer "live" anywhere. But if Fred has no plans to move any time soon, we'd use the simple present. If he's just living in Chicago temporarily until he gets a job or graduates from school or some other expected event, then we'd say, "Fred is living in Chicago."

So it's not a matter of 1 years versus 2 years or any specific numbers. It's more like, There's no reason to expect a change versus There is a reason to expect a change. Whether the "reason" here is the laws of nature, a human being's intentions, or something else, depends on context. Likewise, in context "indefinitely" could mean "for at least a few hours" or "for thousands of years".

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  • Thank you very much for such a great answer! It is a pity that there are no textbooks that would explain such things in such detail. At least I haven't come across any.
    – user341
    Feb 7, 2023 at 21:53
  • Note that it wouldn't sound obviously wrong to say "What foreign language do you learn at school?", though the continuous tense might be preferable. Feb 8, 2023 at 9:16
  • @KateBunting Hmm. I would say, "What foreign language are you learning at school?" "... do you learn ..." sounds decidedly odd to me. But "sounds wrong" is a very subjective standard.
    – Jay
    Feb 9, 2023 at 5:43
  • Evidently I'm in the minority, since Ngrams didn't find any results for "What language do you learn". Feb 9, 2023 at 9:37

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