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French is a beautiful language. Regardless of how useful it may be to speak French, you may have chosen to learn it for its beauty. In fact, a lot of grammar and pronunciation rules in French are made just to make it sound nice.
If you’re a complete beginner in French, perhaps you could first take a look at this article about the best way to learn French, step by step.
So, here you are, now that you’ve taken a leap of faith and decided to add French to your arsenal. You’ve been dreading French verb conjugation for quite a while. But deep inside, you know it’s something that you’ll need to face. Fear no more, as I come with wonderful tips on how to learn French conjugation.
What Is Conjugation?
La conjugaison (conjugation) is the act of changing a verb depending on its subject (the one who is doing the action). Let me show you an example with the verb “être” (to be):
- Je suis (I am)
- Tu es (you are)
Here, the verb that is being conjugated is the verb “être”. This is the concept of verb conjugation: the verb will change according to the subject and the tense used.
The Basics: French Personal Pronouns
First things first, learning French conjugation comes with learning personal pronouns. We use them to refer to a certain subject. In French, they are:
- Je (I)
- Tu (you)
- Il (he) elle (she)
- Nous (we)
- Vous (you plural)
- Ils (them masculine) elles (them feminine)
There is an extra pronoun that doesn’t exist in English : “on“.
- The first major use of “on” would be the equivalent of “nous”, but in the informal way.
- It can also be used to talk about people in general, or an unknown subject (somebody or someone).
- This particular pronoun is conjugated the same way as “il” and “elle” would be.
How does conjugation work?
The act of conjugation in itself is quite simple. If you take the infinitive of a verb, you will notice that verbs have different endings (-er, -ir, -re…). The infinitive form of a verb is the nonconjugated verb.
Remove those endings and you will be left with the stem of the verb (also called the radical). To each stem, you will add a different ending. The ending will change according to the verb’s group, the subject and the tense.
The 3 verb groups
As I’ve already mentioned above, French verbs are categorized into different groups. There are 3 verb groups :
- Verbs with their infinitive ending in -er. Such as danser, parler, manger…
- Verbs with their infinitive ending in -ir. Such as finir, réussir, répartir…
- Verbs with their infinitive ending in different ways: -ir, -re, and irregular verbs. Some examples: être, avoir, prendre, aller, venir…
|1st Group : -er||2nd Group: -ir||3rd Group: irregular|
Il danse /
Ils dansent /
Il finit /
Ils finissent /
Il prend /
Ils prennent /
Here’s a video detailing the conjugation of verbs of the 3rd group, present tense. You may find it very useful. It’s entirely in French, as some extra exposure is always good!
French moods and tenses
In French conjugation, you should also know the basic moods and tenses. What are they?
Regarding tenses, they are located inside each mood and are classified this way:
The Pronounciation Rules of French Verb Conjugation
One important thing that you need to know when it comes to learning French conjugation, is pronunciation. Most endings will have silent letters, such as S , T , X and E. Let’s take an example with the verb “danser”, at the present tense:
- Je danse (Zhe dance)
- Tu danses (Tu dance)
- Il / elle danse (il / elle dance)
- Nous dansons (nou danson)
- Vous dansez (vou danseh)
- Ils / elles dansent (il / elle dance)
Look closely at the pronunciation of the verb “danser” in the present tens. You can clearly notice that only “nous dansons” and “vous dansez” will change.
The rest of the verbs are pronounced the same way, despite being spelled differently. This concept works for almost every tense in the French language, which makes learning French conjugation much easier!
How do native French speakers learn conjugation?
In French-speaking countries, children learn conjugation by memorization. I remember my teacher asking some of us to recite the list of verbs she gave us. We were also used to do another trick. I was about memorizing only the endings. We used to recite them out loud, as letters only. Just like a poem. An example with the present tense, verbs in -er:
-e, -es, -e, -ons, -ez, -ent
If you’re curious about how native speakers learn French conjugation, here’s an example, with this video. This details regular and irregular verbs at the present tense. Notice how the person insists on the endings.
The reason why this works is also because French children are surrounded by French. They’re exposed 24/7 to it. This might not be the case for you.
Nonetheless, I have a method that I use with my students who struggle with French conjugation. I encourage them to be curious about the language they’re learning. Here are some tips about how to learn French conjugation.
Some tips on how to learn French conjugation
Prioritizing your work helps you organize yourself and be much more efficient. Here’s how I would prioritize learning French conjugation:
- Learn tenses in this order, know that l’indicatif is the first mood to learn: Présent → Passé → Futur
- Learn how verbs of the first 2 groups are conjugated, practice with a list of verbs you can find anywhere. The main irregular verbs you quickly need to master are être, avoir, aller, venir.
- Learn other irregular verbs. You can find a list of irregular verbs in French right here.
- Once you have mastered the basic tenses, you can learn new ones. See the previous table about French moods and tenses.
- Listen and read. Listening will help you recognize more and more structures and will help you with pronunciation. Remember, pronunciation is one of the most important aspects of French conjugation. As for reading, it is more than important. It helps you acquire excellent writing skills in French. Don’t be afraid to analyze verbs you stumble upon.
- Work on small exercises you can find online or in a language learning app (such as LingoDeer).
- Verb tables and online conjugators are wonderful tools to help you learn French conjugation. You can find a great conjugator right here, which allows you to type in any verb. It will show you how to conjugate it.
Learning French conjugation is a tough job. It requires a lot of effort and practice. But don’t be afraid of moving forward and pushing through your limits. Once you’ve learned a new verb or a tense, use it within a context. Practice by creating dialogues with someone or a friend, watching videos or listening to podcasts.
Would you like to practice past tenses? Wonderful! Try thinking about when you would actually use the past tense in French: talking about your holidays? Passé composé and l’imparfait! About your childhood? More like l’imparfait!
What about the future tense? Think of when you would like to use it for yourself. Is it to talk about your plans? Imagine different situations where you would use this tense.
After that, practice with a topic. If you learn French conjugation by only memorizing the charts, it’s useless. You won’t know when or how to use them.
Learning French and mastering French conjugation requires discipline. A little bit every day goes a long way. So set your own pace and stick to it.