French grammar is the reason many French learners give up. We’ll show you how to approach learning French grammar and not be one of the quitters.
It is all about starting the right way and knowing a few key rules.
Oftentimes, french learners put grammar on a pedestal, subordinating everything else to it, believing that’s the most crucial aspect of a language. They start by learning tons of grammar rules only to discover that in theory, it works fine but in a real situation, they fail to apply what they learned.
When learning French, grammar shouldn’t be the first thing on your plate. Think of a child, who learns a language first by saying the words, and then combining the words in simple sentences. That’s you, in another language.
How to Approach Learning French Grammar
There are often more exceptions than rules
Almost any rule in French is likely to have a number of exceptions. When you speak, you’ll need to consider not just the rules, but also think if an exception is involved.
What should l learn first?
You opened up a grammar book and pretty much you have no clue what to learn first. You find yourself jumping from verbs to nouns, spending too much time on learning, but knowing too little at the end of the day.
We’ll help you get there with a minimum of effort.
Have you ever heard about the 80/20 rule?
The 80-20 rule, known as the Pareto Principle, states that 80% of outcomes result from 20% of all causes for any given situation. In terms of French grammar, it means that learning 20% of French grammar covers 80 % of daily French communication. The same applies to vocabulary.
To cover 80% of French communication, you need to focus on the high-frequency words and phrases in French.
By covering the top 20% of any language, you’ll be able to participate in almost any social setting. In short, you can learn a new language without constantly memorizing or covering lessons you’ll never use. Sounds neat, right?
Here, we offer you 4 tips to learn French grammar effectively and not excessively.
TIP #1 Learn the Most Used Grammar Sequence – Pronouns
If you dissect every sentence in French, you’ll find that most of them contain some sort of pronoun, whether possessive, reflexive, relative, interrogative, or eleven more, that exist in French. You heard me right.
The French language has 15 types of pronouns. As it’s hard to avoid them, then we’ll have to make our way to learning them effectively.
To make things less complicated, know that pronouns are divided into two basic groups, personal and impersonal pronouns.
What are personal pronouns?
The pronouns are personal in the sense that they vary according to who they represent grammatically. French personal pronouns replace people. Whether talking about yourself, the other person, or someone outside your conversation, there’s a different pronoun for it.
The pronoun thing could come as a challenge, especially for those whose native language is English. To see the complexity of French pronouns as opposed in English, take a look at the French-English difference:
The indefinite articles in English a/an correspond to 3 forms in French:
The definite articles in English the corresponds to 3 forms in French:
The partitive articles “some” in English also corresponds to 3 forms in French:
de la (feminine)
Unlike personal pronouns, impersonal pronouns do not have different forms for each grammatical person, which is a relief. But, there is an extensive list of impersonal pronouns in French.
TIP #2 How to Master French Gender Rules in a Nutshell
In French, all names have grammatical gender. They can be masculine (masculine) or feminine (féminin).
It feels like a never-ending game of guessing which gender the word is. Yet, if you learn a couple of rules ahead of time, you’ll be able to state gender in 80% of cases.
The trick is to look at the noun’s ending. Some typically masculine or typically feminine endings can help you determine the gender in 80 % of cases. After a while, you’ll see that you can intuitively tell the gender of a noun based on its ending.
Masculine noun endings in 89% of cases
- -an, -and, -ant, -ent, -in, -int, -om, -ond, -ont, -on (but not after s/c¸)
- -eau, -au, -aud, -aut, -o, -os, -ot
- -ai, -ais, -ait, -es, -et
- -ou, -out, -out, -oux
- -i, -il, -it, -is, -y
- -at, -as, -ois, -oit
- • -u, -us, -ut, -eu
- -er, -é
- -age, -ege, – ème, -ome, -aume, -isme
- -as, -is, -os, -us, -ex
- -it, -est
- -al, -el, -il, -ol, -eul, -all
- -if, -ef
- -ac, -ic, -oc, -uc
- -am, -um, -en
- -air, -er, -erf, -ert, -ar, -arc, -ars, -art, -our, -ours, -or, -ord, -ors, -ort, -ir, -oir, -eur
- -ail, -eil, -euil, -ueil
Feminine noun endings in 89% of cases
- -aie, -oue, -eue, -ion, -te, – ée, -ie, -ue
- -asse, -ace, -esse, -ece, -aisse, -isse/-ice, -ousse, -ance, -anse, -ence, -once
- -enne, -onne, -une, -ine, -aine, -eine, -erne
- -ande, -ende, -onde, -ade, -ude, -arde, -orde
- -euse, -ouse, -ase, -aise, -ese, -oise, -ise, -yse, -ose, -use
- -ache, -iche, -eche, -oche, -uche, -ouche, -anche
- -ave, -eve, -ive
- -iere, -ure, -eure
- -ette, -ete, – ête, -atte, -otte, -oute, -orte, -ante, -ente, -inte, -onte
- -alle, -elle, -ille, -olle
- -aille, -eille, -ouille
- -appe, -ampe, -ombe
- • -igue
Remember it works, but not always.
There are also other ways to determine the gender of a noun: by looking in the dictionary or by looking at the noun’s article. This is why you want to learn a noun gender together with an article.
Another way to learn it is to associate it with categories that are typically masculine or feminine. Note that every method we suggested is full of exceptions but helpful in most cases.
For instance, the directions, days of the week, months, seasons, tree names, wines, cheeses, colors, metals, languages are always male. On the other hand, typically feminine are names of sciences and other domains of learning, names of rivers, or brands of watches.
Why is guessing the genre so crucial? The grammatical genre of a noun will influence the associated words: articles, adjectives, and verbs, due to a principle of agreement. That’s why this step shouldn’t be missed.
TIP #3 Most Useful Order of Learning French Tenses
There are over 20 French tenses. Luckily, you don’t need all of them. Do you still remember the cycle method of learning? Great. We’ll apply the same principle for learning French tenses.
To be able to get by in daily conversations, first, you’ll need Present Simple, Futur, and Past Simple to start with.
After you’ve mastered those 3 tenses, you can nuance your expression by adding two very simple tenses, Passé Recent and Future Proche. They both have a simple formula and are frequently used in daily conversations.
Passé Recent expresses a completed action that happened shortly before the moment of speaking. The same goes for Future Proche, except for it expresses an action that will be done after the moment of speaking. Both tenses come very handily in day-to-day conversations and as we mentioned are extremely easy for learning.
As you know, there are so many French verbs that if you start with an idea to learn all of them, you could spend a tremendous amount of time learning present simple only. Stop, right there. We recommend you create a list of the most used French verbs and learn only those, in different tenses. You can easily expand the list.
The third cycle of learning would include modes. French grammar uses moods, to indicate how the speaker feels about the action. For example, a speaker who wants to express a possibility would use the conditional while someone who wants to give a command would use the imperative.
You get the idea. Start off learning the most used verbs in the most used tenses and you’ll quickly progress.
TIP #4 Learn French Grammar From the Context
Your new vocabulary gains meaning when you place words in context. Meaning is the key to getting words into your long-term memory.
By learning grammar in context, you’ll be able to see how rules can be used in sentences, and what ways of saying are appropriate for the given situation. According to Thornbury “The absence of context makes it very difficult to correctly interpret a single word or phrase” (Thornbury, 1999, p. 69).
The best French practice is the one when you get to engage. If possible, you should avoid learning from random lists, phrasebooks, and vocabulary drills. There is no point in spending time on it! Learn what makes sense for you, and learn it by engaging.
There is never a wrong way to learn a language, and grammar definitely has its place in the learning journey. Perhaps, not on the first day of learning, but once you reach that point where you start wondering “Why does it mean? Why am I getting this wrong?”, we recommend you grab a grammar book.
Learning grammar can seem overwhelming, if you learn smart and in cycles, you’ll be able to make quick progress and not get bored along the way.
After each focused grammar learning, make sure to actively use the knowledge you gained. Whether in making a sentence, leading a conversation, active listening. The method will help the information to stick.
The end goal of learning grammar is to be able to apply grammar rules in the moment of need and develop a sense of correctness whenever you hear something in French.
If you want to develop the intuition that tells you when something sounds right or wrong in French, you need to immerse yourself in the language and learn from the context. A combination of immersion with focused grammar study is a recipe for success.
When you regularly get exposed to French, your brain will learn to recognize patterns. You’ll quickly be able to distinguish whether a sentence is correct or not.