introduction to French verb tenses

One of the hardest aspects to learning French in the verbs. This is because there are lots of different verb tenses and learning to conjugate them can be a total nightmare for a lot of people.

My name is David Issokson. I’ve spent my whole life learning French and now I’m a full time online teacher. When I first faced French verbs in 1987 in junior high school I was baffled by this subject.

So, in this article I’d like to help you by explaining which verb tenses you should focus on in your studies.

If you look at a French verb conjugation website such as conjugation-fr.com you’ll find that are a ton of different tenses. Actually, 18 in total! While this looks very daunting at first it’s not so bad.

Actually, I suggest focusing on six tenses. If you get really comfortable with these six tenses and know how to use them inside and out then you’ll be perfectly well equiped to engage in fluent French conversation.

So, what are the tenses?

Present Tense

The first tense which you’ll need to focus on the present tense. For this simple article we’ll use the verb, “parler” which is a regular ER verbs and means “to speak”. Here’s the conjugation:

Je parle
Tu parles
Il/elle parle
Nous parlons
Vous parlez
Ils/elles parlent

Simply put in the first person singular form (je, meaning “I”) this means either 1) I speak or 2) I am speaking. This is the verb tense that you’ll use most of the time when you’re speaking French.

One common mistake is for people to say “Je suis parle” when they want say “I am speaking”. The correct way to say this is simply: “Je parle” because the “I am + ing” bit is built into the verb.

However, if you just speak in the present tense you might make yourself understood but you won’t be able to express yourself very effectively. So, there are more tenses you’ll have to learn.

Passé Composé

The second these which you’ll have to learn is called the “Passé Composé“. Simply put, this is the past tense. Let’s take a look at it using the verb “parler”:

J’ai parlé
Tu as parlé
Il/elle a parlé
Nous avons parlé
Vous avez parlé
Ils/elles ont parlé

In the “je” form this would mean: “I spoke”. You use this verb tense to describe things that happened in the past at specific times. For example, if you wanted to say, “I spoke with James at 6 o’clock” you’d use the past tense. “J’ai parlé avec James”.

Imperfect Tense

With just the present tense and the passé composé you can talk about what you’re doing and what you did. However, if you want to describe things that you used to do or things that took place over a period of time you need to use the imperfect tense or “l’imparfait”. You also use this tense when you’re describing the background of a story.

Je parlais
Tu parlais
Il/elle parlait
Nous parlions
Vous parliez
Ils parlaient

So, here “Je parlais” means “I used to speak”. Because of the usage of this verb tense there’s no way to say “used to” in French. To say “used to” you must conjugate the verb in the imperfect tense.

Future Tense

Just as the name implies you use this tense to talk about things you’ll do in the future. It’s very straight forward and little explanation is needed. Here’s the conjugation:

Je parlerai
Tu parleras
Il/elle parlera
Nous parlerons
Vous parlerez
Ils/elles parleront

So, “Je parlerai” means “I will speak”.

In addition to the future these there’s another tense that you can use for describing things you’re doing to do. This is called the “Near Future” or “Future Proche” tense. It works like this:

Je vais parler.

So basically, you have “je vais” (I go) + INFINITIVE (PARLER – to speak), or “I’m going to speak”. You can use both the Future Proche AND Future Tense for describing things you’ll do in the future.

Conditional

After the future tense you will want to focus on the conditional tense. This is the tense used to express “would”. Here’s the conjugation:

Je parlerais
Tu parlerais
Il/elle parlerait
Nous parlerions
Vous parleriez
Ils/elles parleraient

As you can see construction of the tense is very similar to the future. Take the infinitive then put on the appropriate endings.

So, “Je parlerais” means “I would speak”. No more explanation needed.

Present Subjunctive

This is a big stickler for many students because the concept of the subjunctive really doesn’t exist in English. Basically, the French have a specific verb tense that’s used to describe 1) Wish, 2) Emotion and 3) Doubt. Here’s how it looks:

que je parle
que tu parles
qu’il parle
que nous parlions
que vous parliez
qu’ils parlent

“Que tu parles”, for example means “that you speak”. So if I said, “je veux que tu parles” that would be the subjunctive because it expresses a wish.


Imperative

This is the final tense which I suggest you learn. It’s the “commanding” tense. For example in English if you said, “Eat!” as in “Eat your dinner!” that would be the equivalant of the imparative tense. Here’s how it looks for parler:

Parle!
Parlons!
Parlez!

So, “Parle!” means “Speak!” in the tu form (to a peer or somebody younger than you). “Parlons” means “Let’s speak” and “Parlez!” means “Speak!” to a group of people or somebody who you don’t know.

I sincerely hope this short article has helped to answer the question of which verb tenses to focus on. There are many others but learning them is actually more of an academic exercise than anything else.

Focus on these six tenses and you’ll be well on your way to speaking fluently!

Let’s Hear Your Comments!

What do you think? Do you agree or agree with what I’ve written? What’s been your experience learning French verbs? Please let us know in the comments section below!

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Comments

  1. Very helpful! Thank you. 🙂

  2. Helpful indeed, merci

  3. T Lannister says

    One remark, regarding conditionnel: “As you can see construction of the tense is very similar to the future”

    For me it is rather similar to the imparfait tense.

  4. T Lannister says

    I know what you mean now, sorry. What I meant was the ending, they are identical to those of imparfait (e.g. -aient in plural 3) adding the -er before (at least with this verb).

  5. Aarush Lal says

    Really nicely explained…. precise and to the point… better than my teacher at school!

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