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My Japanese teacher, who is a native speaker, once answered a student's question about the difference between:

(彼は)ドイツ語ができる。

(彼は)ドイツ語ができている

He said that a younger speaker might be more likely to use the second, in a context in which, for example, the third person said about himself that he couldn't speak German, but then goes on to fluently speak it, and another person remarks できてるよ! to say "Oh see, you can speak it! You can!"

But he said that in general, he would find the second sentence to be very condescending and rude, because it implies that the speaker thinks of himself as having a VERY high level of competence himself, and judges the other looking down from that level, where as he didn't feel the first version to have that connotation at all.

Can someone explain why this might be the case? How does the ている form which usually displays habitual, perfective or progressive aspect take on such a connotation?

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    Did your teacher not say anything about the 「が」 in 「彼が」? That is too important to ignore. – l'électeur Jan 2 at 0:47
  • That's an error on my part, it was probably either は or the part in parentheses was never written or said at all. I edited it. – JMC Jan 2 at 1:27
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Such overtones are not a direct function of ている but rather an indirect result of the situation you’d be using the form in. In particular, the ている emphasizes the currentness of the ability to do something, and is used on occasions where you are able to tell(/judge) from the situation at hand whether someone is able to do the thing or not (or reminiscing/referencing a memory where you were able to judge). That is to say, できている (and できていない) would only be used when a judgement is involved, while できる/できない tend to be used for more neutral statements of ability. And it is of course the fact that you are judging someone which can make it seem rude or 上から.

The fundamental purpose of 〜ている is to show being in a state as opposed to not being in it. That state could be the progressive (currently doing something) or the resultant (having done something) or even the progressive habitual (currently habitually doing something). Using it with できる results in emphasizing the fact the person is currently in the state being able to do the thing as opposed to not being in that state. It is from this that is born the requirement that the speaker is making a statement not just about their ability in general but rather something about the current situation.

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  • Admittedly not terribly clear but hopefully somewhat helpful... – Darius Jahandarie Jan 2 at 1:00

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