Is memorizing French verb conjugations an effective use of time?

French verb conjugation charts

It is no secret that French verb conjugations can be difficult to learn. With so many different conjugation patterns and exceptions, it can be hard to master them all. However, memorizing French verb conjugations is an essential part of learning the language and one of the most important skills a student must acquire in order to become successful in French. At least, this is the conventional wisdom that many teachers have used for decades – if not centuries. But is it time for a paradigm shift?

Arguments for memorizing French verb conjugations

Argument 1: Mastering French Verb Conjugations Improves Fluency
Verb conjugation patterns are crucial for mastering French grammar, as well as improving overall fluency in the language. By understanding how verbs are used and how they interact with other words in a sentence, students will be better able to express themselves accurately and naturally when speaking or writing in French. Additionally, knowing verb conjugations gives students more confidence when communicating, allowing them to focus on their conversation rather than spending time trying to remember basic rules or constructions.

Argument 2: Memorizing Verbs Helps With Comprehension
Knowing how verbs are used also makes it easier to understand written or spoken French, as well as allowing students to quickly recognize familiar words and phrases. This improved comprehension allows students to move beyond basic conversations and engage with native speakers on more complex topics, as they are better equipped to pick up on subtleties in the language such as idioms or slang terms.

Argument 3: Practicing French Verb Conjugations Improves Retention
Finally, memorizing French verb conjugations helps students retain new information more easily—this means that things like verb tenses and grammar rules will stick with them for longer periods of time. As a result, students will need less review time when studying for tests or exams since the material has already been committed to memory through regular practice drills.

These arguments are all standards of the “drill and kill” version of French class that many of us went through as we worked our way to becoming French teachers. But times are changing, and there are new methods that don’t rely on the memorization of verb charts. It’s time to re-examine those arguments and look at whether or not these arguments are actually based in reality.

A closer look at the arguments for memorizing French verb conjugations

Argument 1 is that mastering French verb conjugations helps with fluency. But is that really true? And is it true for everyone? Verbs are of course important, and anyone who wants to become fluent in the language will eventually have to be able to conjugate them properly. The issue is that there are different goals for our students, and assuming that all students will someday become fluent – or that they even want to become fluent – is a mistake. The reality is that many of our students are only taking French to get their two years in and will never reach full fluency.

There is another intermediate goal that we should instead be considering – what level of speaking proficiency do our students want to have after two years? Most of them would be happy being able to have a simple conversation about themselves and their lives and activities, and for that they will not need to memorize hundreds of verb charts. If you focus on all of the forms, your students may be so overwhelmed with the charts that they can’t put that into functional use. Perhaps it is better to focus on the most useful/easiest forms of the most useful verbs in the first two years and add the remaining forms in later years.

Also, the idea that memorizing verb charts leads to fluency simply doesn’t bear out. There are many former language students who will tell you “I took ___ years of (insert language here) and I can’t say anything!” Most of them could conjugate verbs at the time, but still couldn’t speak the language. I myself have experience with this – after 53 credit hours of university Russian, I could conjugate any verb you asked me to conjugate. I got straight A’s in all of those courses, but I never developed any sort of fluency in speaking. This is a very common situation. If the very best language students don’t end up fluent after verb charts, how will the average student fare?

Argument 2 is that memorizing French verb conjugations helps with comprehension. In some cases, this may be true – there are some verb forms that don’t look anything like their infinitive, or they are quite different from one another (aller and être come to mind). But this isn’t true of the majority of French verbs! When students are reading, most verbs will be easily understood with or without the ending, and since the subject pronoun is required, the ending doesn’t carry nearly as much meaning as it does in other languages. In listening, the endings are almost never heard, so this is irrelevant.

Argument 3 is that memorizing French verb conjugations will help with retention. This may be true for some students, but again – it isn’t true for all students. Many students may be more successful learning fewer words with more repetition and exposure than having large numbers of verb charts thrown at them. What may be helpful with retention is looking at the verb charts to find patterns and teaching students to recognize those patterns across verbs.

Should students spend time memorizing French verb conjugations?

There is a middle ground when it comes to memorizing French verb conjugations. The way I look at it is that we have two groups of students. Group 1 is the students who love languages and want to continue their studies while working towards the AP tests or college courses. Group 2 is the students who are taking the course as an elective credit because they need it for graduation, or because they need it to meet university requirements. This group enjoys learning grammar and vocabulary, including French verb conjugation charts.

These groups will have very different goals and needs. Group 1 tends to be much smaller – maybe 10% of students? Group 2 is much larger, and much less likely to focus on becoming fluent. They want their credit, and probably wouldn’t mind being able to use the language a little bit, but they are not going to care about verb charts and getting everything perfect.

My personal view is that we should try to teach the largest number of students to have the most amount of practical value from our class as possible. In levels 1 and 2, focus on the most important basic verbs in the forms that will get the most use. Students will want to be able to talk about themselves, so the je form is vital. They’ll want to talk to others, so tu is equally important. In the early levels, memorizing French verb conjugations and charts is probably not the most effective use of class time.

I’m sure this is heretical, but maybe the vous form isn’t as important as we think it is. We teach our students to use vous with people they need to show respect to – but if they do speak to others, it will likely be peers – not bosses or strangers! There is time to learn vous as they need it in the future. They should still know that vous exists, and whether to use tu or vous. But as far as memorizing all 6 forms on the verb charts? Vous (and nous for that matter) can probably be tossed in years 1-2.

I do teach ER verbs (as well as IR and RE) because they are such a huge part of the language. My students learn the song to help them memorize the endings, but even with this I don’t expect them to get it right easily or quickly. Just because you can conjugate a verb in a chart doesn’t mean that you can do so in writing or speaking. This can take quite some time to learn, but focusing on the fact that four of them sound the same in spoken French does help a bit.

In levels 3 and 4, your students are probably the group 1 students. They are the ones who have found language and grammar to be fairly easy, and they are the ones who may plan to travel or study abroad, or take college courses in the language. This is when learning French verb conjugation charts may be more useful – you can add in any of the missing pieces from previously learnt verbs and focus more on accuracy. These students are more likely to be interested in the nuts and bolts and minutiae of the verb charts.

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