The paper will present a research study which investigates the patterns of variability in the use of past tense in the written narratives of primary five and secondary three school students in Singapore. The acquisition of the past tense is a much studied area, and there have been, especially in the 1970's to early 2000's, a great number of scholarly papers and books about this with regard to a variety of languages, including English (Bardovi-Harlig, 1998; 2000; Kumpf, 1984;), Japanese (Shirai, 1995; Shirai & Kurono, 1998), Mandarin (Li & Bowerman, 1998; Tai, 1984), Spanish (Andersen,1991; Salaberry, 1999), Catalan (Comajoan, 1998), Dutch (Housen, 1993;2002),Italian (Giacalone Ramat & Banfi, 1990), Russian (Leary, 1999) and French (Kaplan, 1987). In general, these studies have assumed a universalist approach and investigated the order of acquisition of the past tense in relation to the aspectual meaning and category of the verb (Andersen, 2002). Studies have covered both first language (L1) as well as second language (L2) acquisition but mostly focused on the spoken discourse in terms of natural interaction, oral narrative and conversational interview (Bardovi-Harlig, 1999; 2000).
In contrast to the abundance of the research on verb acquisition in the international research literature, there has been very little work done in investigating the acquisition of grammatical structures in Singapore. Much of this work, where present, has been in the field of sociolinguistics and has focused not on the learner but on the ways in which the substratum of the L1 languages spoken in Singapore affect the variety of English spoken in Singapore (Alsagoff, 2001; Bao, 1995; Bao and Wee, 1998, 1999; Deterding, 2003; Deterding and Low, 2005, Deterding, Low and Brown, 2003; Fong, 2004; Ho & Platt, 1993). The present study aims to fill this gap in the research literature, and offers an insight into the ways variation in the use of the past tense can be attributed to universalist tendencies in the written discourse from the perspectives of the Aspect Hypothesis and Discourse Hypothesis formulated in interlanguage research.