I have been around French learners for most of my life, and I have always noticed that learners of French tend to find the subjunctive quite difficult. Recently, I have figured out why that is. Overall, there are two major causes:


  1. Lack of patience.
  2. Poor “plan of attack”.


In this article, I am going to break down the two causes listed above in more detail, and share my perspective on learning the subjunctive as quickly & painlessly as possible.



Lack of Patience


Let me be direct: it will take you some time to master the subjunctive. The subjunctive does not exist in English the same way that it does in French, meaning your brain will likely find it challenging to translate a French subjunctive sentence into a “subjunctive equivalent” in English. As a result, you will feel frustrated. This is absolutely normal.


I want to bring this to your attention because too many people expect results overnight. For some reason, many believe that you can study the subjunctive for a few nights, or a few hours, and magically understand it at a deep level. This could not be further from the truth.


Everyone needs to take a step back, and look at learning the subjunctive the same way that a pianist looks at learning a difficult piece of music. In order to master the piece they are working on, they practice for hours upon hours over a number of weeks, and sometimes longer. The process to understanding the subjunctive is identical. No matter what, expect it to take a long time. Hopefully, it doesn’t take you hours of study every single night for countless weeks, but I would rather you go in with that mindset than expect results right away and feel disappointed.



Poor “Plan of Attack”


I have always been a little surprised at how people choose to learn subjunctive. Due to the fact that there isn’t much of an English equivalent, it’s tough to justify studying it the same way you would study “l’imparfait”, “le passé compose”, or any other French verb tense. It doesn’t make any sense.


The standard approach for teaching subjunctive is to teach the rules behind when & how you are supposed to use it. However, using a memorization-based approach will only work for a select group of people because there are far too many rules to memorize. This is especially true when you consider how many other rules you need to remember for all of the other verb tenses.


So the question then becomes: what is the best approach? Well, there are a variety of ways to answer that question. First and foremost, it really helps if you possess a level of self-awareness and an understanding of your preferred learning style(s). For instance, I’ve met lots of people who would have learned the subjunctive simply by memorizing all of the circumstances where the subjunctive is to be used, and writing those on a piece of paper daily. That being said, I can already hear many of you thinking, “That sounds awful! That would never work for me”. This is exactly why there isn’t a “magic bullet” or a “one-size-fits-all” approach. However, I will share this: in my experience, a speaking oriented approach to learning this tense tends to be the most effective.


Let me elaborate further


When I was 15 years old, I went on a 3-month exchange trip to Blois, France. At this point in time, I had learned the subjunctive in class, but didn’t have the slightest idea on how to use it. Approximately 3 or 4 weeks into my trip, I remember a friend of mine who forgot that he hadn’t done his homework. He said something to the effect of, “oh, il faut que je fasse mes devoirs!”. After that moment, I learned that “il faut que je fasse” meant “I have to do”. Later, I heard someone say the phrase “pour que je puisse”, and I heard that phrase multiple times per day. Unconsciously, after hearing it so many times, I realized that it meant, “so that I can”.


There were countless other examples of situations like the ones listed above, and that was essentially how I learned to use the subjunctive. The ironic part was that it took me a while to understand that the phrases I was hearing, and later, using in my day-to-day speech, were in fact the subjunctive. The overall moral of the story is that I learned subjunctive not by memorizing rules out of a textbook. Instead, I was able to figure out how it works by hearing it used by native speakers.


I understand that the majority of you likely don’t live in a French speaking country. This, naturally, makes “learning by osmosis” a little bit challenging. If you don’t have this luxury, my recommendation is to take the following steps:


  1. Take 1-on-1 online lessons (i.e on italki).
  2. Tell your teacher that you’d like to learn 1-2 key phrases/situations where you are required to use the subjunctive. I would recommend that you learn phrases that are relevant to your life. In other words, you should learn sentences that you’re going to use the most frequently when speaking.
  3. Practice those key phrases in your lesson with your teacher in various situations until you feel like you really understand it.
  4. Practice those key phrases daily for 5-15 minutes on your own. A good idea is to record yourself on a video camera, or talk to yourself in a mirror. I know many people who have improved their language abilities this way.
  5. In your next lesson with your teacher, review what you learned in the previous lesson to reinforce your learning even further, and learn 1-2 new times where the subjunctive is used.
  6. Repeat over and over, until you feel comfortable using the subjunctive in a variety of circumstances.


If you follow this process, within a couple of months at most, you should have a firm grasp of how to use this seemingly complicated tense.


We’ve now gone through the major reasons as to why people struggle with learning subjunctive for French. As a refresher, these reasons were that people generally are too impatient or give up too quickly; and that people take all the wrong approaches to learning this verb tense. In addition, we covered a speaking oriented approach to simplify the process of mastering the subjunctive. The one point I want to stress is that, like I said earlier, the subjunctive will take you time to learn. It will not happen “overnight”. That being said, keep at it! I promise you that it does get easier the more you work at it. You just need to chip away little by little every single day, and eventually it will be as easy as counting to three.


Hero image by Agnieszka P (CC0 1.0)