Learn French Verbs – Step 1: Listen
Listen to the French verb conjugation. If you are learning French to speak / understand French, you first need to know how the verb is pronounced.
Watch out, there are many silent letters, liaisons and glidings in French! Even in verb conjugations: for example,
- the “ent” at the end of a verb in the “ils” form is silent…
- “Je suis” is actually pronounced “shui” in modern spoken French.
- There are strong liaisons in Z after nous, vous, ils and elles. If for “ils ont” you say “eel on”, the French are not going to understand you. They expect “eel zon”.
- There are glidings after il and elle – “elle est” is pronounced “el-lay”
- Even when you are OK with French pronunciation, all the letters used in French to spell a word can be confusing: are you sure you know how to pronounced “ils ont eu” or “nous nous asseyions*”…
This is why you absolutely need to learn your French verb conjugations with audio. Not just with books. Unfortunately, most French learners use only written sources to learn their French verb conjugations. And it’s a real mistake.
* Nous nous asseyions = we sat down, using s’asseoir in the imparfait: noo noo za say ion(nasal)
Ils ont eu = they had, using the passé composé of avoir: eel zon(nasal) u
Learn French Verbs – Step 2: Repeat
Repeat out loud. And out loud is the key here. Mimic the pronunciation of the speaker so you don’t butcher your French verb and say it like the French do.
It’s important you get the right pronunciation both to understand the French when they speak and to be understood by them.
Learn French Verbs – Step 3: Read
This time read the French verb forms as you are listening to the pronunciation. Pay attention to what letters are pronounced and which ones are silent: if necessary, take pronunciation notes so the written form doesn’t fool you into a wrong pronunciation.
Above all, do not pronounce the silent letters to remember how the verb is spelled.
Repeat steps 2 and 3 until the verb pronunciation comes easily to you.
Learn French Verbs – Step 4: Drill With ALL The Pronouns
Typically, French verb conjugations are going to be presented in a list or a chart, with the subject pronouns, in that order: je, tu, il, nous, vous, ils.
What about “elle”, “on” and “elles”? Don’t you think you should drill with them as well?
Always drill your verb form WITH the subject pronoun (not just “avons” but “nous avons”: otherwise, you’ll be missing on a ton of liaisons…
Learn French Verbs – Step 5: Drill In the Affirmative & Negative
Same logic here: in conversation, you don’t have time to add “ne”…”pas” around your verb… And modify your pronunciation to apply the modern French pronunciation etc…
You should really have already drilled on your verb negative forms so they come fast and easily to you.
Learn French Verbs – Step 6: You Have To Drill Out Of Order
Now here is the key to really memorizing your French verbs efficiently: learn the French forms out-0f-order.
As you know, French verb conjugations are almost always presented in a list or a chart, with the subject pronouns, in that order: je, tu, il, nous, vous, ils.
So that’s how students memorize the verbs. In that order. From “je” to “ils”. And by doing so, your super smart and efficient brain adds code: it learns the order and prioritizes the data. “Je” is very important, “ils” not as much.
- You do remember a lot of your irregular verbs in the “je”form, and then struggle for “ils”, don’t you? That’s the reason why.
- Do you have to go through “je, tu, il, nous” before you can find the correct “vous” form? That’s also why.
However, in conversation, this order doesn’t help you. When you are talking to someone using “vous”, you cannot go through the “je”, “tu”, “il”, “nous” forms before you get to the “vous”! You don’t have enough time.
So when you memorize your French verb forms, when you drill on them, do it out of order. Let your pen drop at random on a subject pronoun (don’t forget the elle, elles and on!), and then say the subject pronoun followed by the verb out-loud.
Now that you know how to drill correctly your French verbs, spend some time drilling out-of-order. This is really the key and how you’ll gain speed coming up with the correct verb form in conversation.
Learn French Verbs – Step 7: Before You Do All That, Understand Your French Tenses
Unless you are learning your French verb conjugations to pass a written test (in which case you should really learn all your verb conjugations because you’ll be tested on them) you need to stop and think what tenses you are really going to use. Knowing the verb form is not the same thing as understanding when to use the tense.
I’ve seen many students spend hours upon hours studying verb conjugations, and studiously go from present to plus-que-parfait, and the different moods. Yet, they didn’t know when they should use passé-composé, imparfait or the dreaded French subjunctive. I think studying French verbs this way is a waste of time. Furthermore, memorizing French verb forms is not super fascinating nor fun and will end up disgusting you French studying French!
My advice: pick the French verbs and tenses you understand and are most likely to use, and drill on these. Only on these.
For example, unless you are going to write a novel in French (or pass written exams) you don’t need to know “passé-simple”. You may need to understand it if you read a lot of French novels in French, but you won’t need to use it yourself. And believe me, one can survive without knowing the subjunctive! Or rather, I should say it shouldn’t be your priority as a beginner or intermediate student…
So, yes, when learning French, you will need to spend some time drilling on your French verbs. But before, it’s worth asking yourself whether this is the best use of your time. Is knowing your verb forms inside out a priority, or can you afford to make a mistake? Isn’t it more important that you know how to talk about yourself, your interests, your family, or be able to order in a restaurant?
The answer depends on your French level, but also on your goals in French.
Good luck with your drilling!