How to master French verb conjugations
This page provides a comprehensive introduction to French verb conjugations with six very specific learning tips. One of the single most daunting questions every new student to learning French asks is: “What is the best say to learn the French verb conjugations?”. This post will answer that question and much more.
There are so many verbs and conjugation tables that you’ll find either online or in books will make your head spin. At first glance, you’ll see pages and pages of verbs with lots of confusing and advanced tenses. This post will help you to focus on what you really need to learn.
What is a verb conjugation?
One of the first and most important things to understand is: What is French verb conjugation?
In English, all verbs have what are called “endings”. These are the last few letters of very that change depending on the subject of the sentence.
For example: I speak versus her or she speaks. In English, adding the -s is required for the he/she form.
This is no different in French.
So, to answer the question, a French verb conjugation is the act of either writing out or saying a verb using all of the personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, etc.).
If you haven’t learned already, this lesson explains the French personal pronouns.
In a nutshell you have: Je (I), tu (you informal), il, elle and on (he, she and one), nous (we), vous (you plural and formal) and ils/elles (they mixed company and female only).
How to conjugate a French verb
The following is a basic French verb conjugation. Below the verb, I will write out several terms which are not fun to learn but necessary for learning French.
Parler = to speak
Je parle I speak
Tu parles You speak
Il, elle, on parle He, she one speaks
Nous parlons We speak
Vous parlez You speak
Ils, elles parlent They speak
“Parler” means to speak”. Parler is the “infinitive” or “to” form of the verb to speak. Many French teachers called this the “mother from.
Within the word “parler“, there are two things to highlight: 1) The “parl” part of the word is called the “stem” or “root” of the verb and 2) The -er is what makes this the “to” or infinitive of the verb.
The next key thing to highlight is the bolded last letters of each person. These are called “verb endings”.
When learning how to conjugate French verbs, you’ll always have to 1) Identify the stem (parl in this case) and 2) know which endings to attach to each person.
How to pronounce each person for the verb parler
At first glace, there is no way to know how to go about pronouncing the verb parler.
There are several key points here.
Firstly, the “to” form is pronounced “parlay”. The -er sounds like -ay as in play.
Secondly, the vous form (you formal and plural) has the EXACT same pronunciation. Thus, the to form (parler) and vous form (parlez) sound identical: “parlay”.
Here’s the third key point: The Je form (I), tu form (you informal), il, elle and on (he, she, one) as well as the ils and elles form (they) ALL sound the exact same. Simply say “parl”.
- On the je form, ignore the -e. It completely silent.
- On the tu form, ignore the -es. They are also completely silent.
- On the il, elle and on forms, ignore the -e. It is silent.
- On the ils and elles form, ignore the -ent. In fact the -ent is ALWAYS silent on ALL French verbs.
Thus, now that we’ve established that both the “to” form (parler) and “vous” form (parlez) sound the same, an je/tu/il/elle/on/ils/elles forms all sound the same (parl), that leaves us with one final form: nous.
For the nous form, “nous parlons”, simply say, “parl + nasal ons”. To say this sound correctly it’s useful to have a good French teacher.
How do I go about conjugating other verbs?
Now that we’ve established the basics of how to conjugate a verb, the next logical question is: How do I conjugate more verbs?
One of the keys to leaning French verbs is identifying set patterns.
If we take the French verb “regarder” as an example, you will see that the “to” form ends in -er. This means that 1) The stem of the verb is “regard” and 2) The verb endings are EXACTLY the same as parler.
Let’s look at the conjugation. Again, I’ll underline the stem and highlight the endings.
Regarder = to watch, look at
Je regarde I watch, look at
Tu regardes You watch, look at
Il, elle on regarde He, she one watches, looks at
Nous regardons We watch, look at
Vous regardez You watch, look at
Ils, elles regardent They watch, look at
Wow…that’s easy! Do all French verbs work the same way?
Unfortunately the answer to this question is “no”. It would be nice if all French verbs simply followed the pattern of removing the -er on the “to” form, identifying the stem and simply adding the right endings.
In reality, life is not that simple and neither are French verbs.
I’ve heard the terms “regular” and “irregular” verbs – What does that mean?
If you’ve surfed YouTube videos for learning French or looked at other websites, you will surely have come across the terms French “regular” and “irregular” verbs.
What are they?
In French, there are three groups of what are called regular verbs. Each group is identified with the last two letters of the infinitive (to) forms: -er, -ir and -re.
Each group has its own set of verb endings. We just learned the endings are -e, -es ,-e, -ons, -ez and -ent for parler. These are the same endings for ALL regular -er verbs.
Thus, all of the verbs in the group of regular -ir and and all the verbs under the group of regular -re verbs have the exact same endings.
I know what you’re thinking: By now your head this spinning. This is the reason that if you’ve a pure beginner and have never leaned French, it’s a very good idea to have a teacher further explain the basics.
What is an irregular verb? What makes it “irregular”?
Another key term which you’ll hear in French lessons is “irregular” verb. What does this mean?
Simply put, an irregular verb is a verb that does NOT follow the conjugation patterns (or ending patterns) of a regular -er, -ir, or -re verb.
This means that while the last two letters of the infinitive form might be the same, the endings are different. The difference in endings is what makes the verb “irregular”.
The following two verbs illustrate this point and an explanation will follow.
The main point here is that although the “to” or infinitive forms of parler (to speak) and aller (to go) both end in -er, the verb endings of aller are different.
The endings of aller are -ais, -as, -a, -ons, -ez and -ont. These are NOT the endings of regular -er verbs. This the verb aller is considered “irregular”.
Should I learn some irregular verbs?
Indeed, there are some irregular verbs which you should learn. The following three irregular verbs are extremely common and are necessary to learn.
While I could make a much longer list, I don’t want to scare you away from learning French. This is simply a short list of essential and initial irregular verbs.
Tips for learning French verb conjugations
After having taught French since 2013 and as a learner of many languages myself, I have a number of tips for learning French verb conjugation.
1) Forget about memorization
The first tip might sound a bit silly and counter intuitive, but I’m serious. Forget about trying to list massive lists of French verbs. This will just drive you mad.
Instead, let your eyes simply see the verbs. When you see them for the first time, try sounding them out aloud.
If you don’t know how to pronounce the verbs, do a quick search on YouTube and you’ll surely find some useful videos.
The most important thing is to let your eyes and ears get exposure to the verbs. You’ll see the verbs over and over again. Hence, with some time and persistence leaning will occur naturally without gruelling and unpleasant memorization.
2) Say the verbs aloud and don’t say them in the exact order
The second tip is to say the verbs aloud. Don’t simply write lists over and over. This is boring and usually doesn’t work.
I got the second part of this tip from Camille’s article called The Secret To Mastering French Verb Conjugation on Frenchtoday.com.
When you’re trying to learn the verb conjugations, don’t say the verbs in the exact order (je, tu, il, elle, etc.). Mix it up. For example, say the “nous” form first, then say the “tu” form.
3) Learn one verb at a time
As an adult learner, don’t put too much pressure on yourself and try to learn an entire list of top-100 French verbs, for example. This will only lead to frustration.
There’s a famous book on Amazon that people like to buy: 501 French Verbs.
While I do think this is a good book to own as a reference, I think you’ll make your head explode if you try to memorize all 501 verbs! Don’t do it!
Each time you sit down to study, try to just focus on one, two or three verbs at most. Again, a few YouTube videos will help.
4) Try some online lessons
One of the single most effective ways to learn French verb conjugations I’ve found has been to work with a private one-on-one teacher.
In my online lessons, I’ve been helping students to learn French verbs since 2013. Here are some student testimonials.
A good teacher will help you by “drilling” verbs. This means that she or he call out different forms and you’ll have to give the right forms.
For example, teacher might say “she speaks” and you’ll have to come up with “elle parle”.
I’ve found that drilling verbs WITH ANOTHER HUMAN BEING has been the single most effective way to go about mastering French verbs.
5) Try some exercises in books
As much as I dislike doing exercises in books (I’d rather sweep the garage!), I find this activity to be very helpful.
In my blog post on the best books for learning French, I suggested the two titles Practice Makes Perfect: Complete French All-in-One as well as The Ultimate French Review and Practice.
The reason I suggested these two books is that I like their verb exercises.
As an adult learner, one thing you can do is read through the exercises and corresponding answers. I’ve found this activity to be very effective between online lessons.
6) Watch movies with French subtitles
This tip might not be very suitable for people who are the very initial stages of learning French, but I’ve found it to be very helpful.
If you spend any amount of time trying to learn French verbs, you’ll surely benefit from this tip.
Simply try to watch a French TV show or movie with French subtitles. One great way to to do this is to get a subscription to Lingopie they offer streaming French content showing both English and French subtitles simultaneously.
Netflix also has lots of French programs.
Try to watch one scene at a time. As you’re watching it – even if you’re a beginner – try to identify some verbs you might have already seen. In particular, make a mental note of the form of the verb (Je, tu, il, elle, etc.). You might be surprised by the number of verbs you recognize!
The purpose of this article was not to teach every single verb in French but to provide a comprehensive overview of French verb conjugations and provide some useful and applicable learning tips.
I hope this article has helped and wish you all the very best in your adventures learning French. Bonne chance!
Become a pro at French verbs
Of all the books and courses out there, we’d like to suggest taking a look at Frenchtoday’s French Conjugation Verb Drills course. Each verb has a six-minute drill which you can use to build confidence fast.
- French vocabulary lists
- French numbers 1-100
- How to read French (pronunciation guide)
- French alphabet (with audio)