Learning the grammar of a language is usually one of the hardest things for non-native speakers, and French is no exception. I remember learning about French grammar when I was in school, and I used to find it almost impossible to understand! Conjugating verbs correctly was the most challenging part for me personally, especially when it came to the subjunctive. That being said, over the years I have been able to overcome these hurdles. Therefore, in this article, I will be sharing the major things that has helped me along the road. This article will discuss a few different points:
- Make comparisons with your native language
- Memorize a few key phrases
- Start with “I” and “You”
Make Comparisons With Your Native Language
In my opinion, this is often a good starting point. When you first encounter a new grammar tense, see if there is an equivalent that exists in your first language. Interestingly, this advice is exactly what helped me to learn the difference between the passé composé and l’imparfait.
Initially, I simply tried to memorize all of the rules that dictate its use. However, this didn’t work for me because I found the rules to be far too confusing. Eventually, one of my French friends told me that l’imparfait usually equates to “was doing” or “used to do” in English. As for passé compose, he told me that it equates to “did something”. For example:
- J’ai fait mes devoirs → I did my homework
- Je faisais mes devoirs → I was doing my homework OR I used to do my homework (depending on the context).
- J’ai pris le bus aujourd’hui → I took the bus today. In other words, the meaning would be similar, if not the same as, I did take the bus today.
- Je prenais le bus → I was taking the bus OR I used to take the bus (depending on the context).
In addition, often you will see a verb conjugated in the imparfait that is followed immediately by a second verb conjugated in the passé composé. For instance:
- Pendant que je marchais (imparfait), j’ai vu un chien (PC).
Memorize A Few Key Phrases
Unfortunately, comparing French grammar to your native language’s grammar doesn't always work. Furthermore, even if there are similarities, you still need to remember how to conjugate the verbs correctly. This is where it really helps to memorize a few key phrases.
Let me elaborate.
I was in high school when I was first introduced to the subjunctive in French. At first, I didn’t understand it at all, seeing as the subjunctive doesn’t exist in the same way in English. As a matter of fact, many would argue that it isn’t even used in English. This caused me to take a unique approach to solving my problem. Instead of finding an English equivalent for the subjunctive, all I did was memorize a few key phrases that I found to be important. The first few expressions that I learned were:
- Il faut que je fasse - I have to do
- Il faut que j’y aille - I have to leave / go
- …pour que je puisse… so that I can…
I continued to learn one common phrase at a time, and eventually, I was able to use the subjunctive without any difficulty.
Start with “I” and “You”
I have done this unconsciously with every language that I’ve ever studied, and I believe that it is the one of the most important pieces of advice in this article. The majority of people that I have met try to memorize ALL pronouns (I, you, we, etc.) in a specific grammar tense all at once. This is a huge mistake. In the early stages, I believe that your main focus should be on learning the “je” (“I”) form of verb conjugations (i.e je prends, je mange, je bois, etc).
I recommend this to my students because as a beginner, you are usually on the receiving end of conversations. In other words, you are not fluent enough to drive conversations. More often than not, you end up answering other people’s questions about yourself. As a result, most of the verbs that you’ll need to use will be conjugated in the “je” form. Once you have learned the “je” conjugations, you should move on to learning the “tu” (“you”) conjugations (i.e tu prends, tu manges, tu bois, etc). This will allow you to begin asking questions in the conversations that you are having. In addition, you’ll notice that in spoken French, the “je” and “tu” conjugations are often pronounced the same way, so it is not complicated to remember. Furthermore, sometimes they are also written the same way as well.
As a side-note, I should mention that if you are learning French for academic reasons, you should take the advice above with a grain of salt. This is because you will likely need to know conjugations for all pronouns when you take tests in your class. The advice above is for those of you who want to improve their conversation skills as quickly as possible.
We’ve now covered three tips to simplify French grammar. As a summary, the first thing you should try is to compare French grammar to your own native language. If this does not work, another effective strategy is to memorize a few phrases at a time that incorporate the tense with which you are struggling. For native English speakers, the French subjunctive is one instance where this comes in handy. Finally, I explored the importance of learning the “I” and “you” forms of verb conjugations first because they are the two that you will use the most often. It’s important to note that the more you put these strategies into practice, the faster you will see results.
Hero image by Jez Timms (CC0 1.0)