Struggling to learn French grammar?
Or just looking for tips to accelerate your French learning?
You’ve come to the right place.
Today we present seven tips I wish I’d heard when I first started learning French grammar.
7 Essential Tips on Learning French Grammar for English Speakers
He or She? We Must Agree
When you name a table, a chair or a house in English, you don’t need to worry about its gender; however in French, every noun has a gender, and you need to know it.
This is one of the tricky parts of French grammar, because the idea doesn’t really exist in English. The gender of a noun will change the ending of the words referring to it–this is called “agreement.”
The difficulty is that many of the words in a sentence must agree. This doesn’t mean they sit down to talk about it–just that their endings mark them as the same gender as the noun of the sentence. For example, the French for “a good-looking woman” is une belle femme.
But to say “a good-looking man,” we would say un bel homme. Femme is a feminine word (easy to remember), and that means the article (une = the) has a feminine ending, while the masculine word, homme, has a masculine article (un = the). It also affects the adjective, beau/bel/belle (meaning beautiful or good-looking), and you need to use the form that matches the noun you’re describing.
So, when learning French vocab, it’s super important that you learn not just the word, but its gender!
Another good way to learn the gender of new words is to learn sentences that suggest the gender to you, or by linking words of the same gender and learning them together, such as l‘homme aime son vélo vert (the man loves his green bike) or la femme aime la forêt et ses belles fleurs (the woman loves the forest and its beautiful flowers).
In a similar vein, when learning thematic vocabulary lists, break up words into one list of masculine words and one list of feminine words. For example, when learning foods, you might have, le pain (bread) and le fromage (cheese) in one list and la pomme (apple) and la carotte (carrot) in another.
Try to create mental images of these things that you can recall later: for bread and cheese, conjure up an image of dipping bread in cheese fondue; for apples and carrots, you might imagine a snack platter. As with the above strategy, this exercise gets you actively thinking about gender and making connections between the words you are learning. If you catch yourself wondering if fromage is masculine or feminine later on, you just have to remember which mental image you associated the word with!
It’s not enough to just read and memorize the words in the vocabulary lists or to study grammar.
The next step is to put what you’ve learned into practice, and get feedback on the mistakes that you’re making.
Of course it’s always good to have a French teacher who can point out your mistakes, and there are a great many mobile apps for learning French that can help you out, too.
Stay tuned for more ideas on this later in the post.
Learn a Little English
Most of us can speak and read English without actually knowing the names or the grammatical forms behind it. We just ‘know’ what sounds right and what doesn’t. But when you’re learning a new language, you have to learn to build it from scratch. Before you start into French grammar, make sure you cover some English grammar so you can relate all the terms and concepts you’re learning about in French to the ones you already know in English. This will make remembering them a whole lot easier, and will also help you understand them, since you can compare them to familiar English examples.
Another benefit of doing this is that, when you notice yourself using a certain form in your everyday speech, you’ll be reminded of how to form it in French.
A great resource for this is the book “English Grammar for Students of French,” however you can use any English grammar book that you already have, or even just do an online review to brush up.
At the very least, make sure you know what a noun is, as well as adjectives, verbs, different tenses of verbs, types of clauses, adverbs, articles, prepositions and particles. Many of the French terms are similar to the English, making them easy to learn; for example, a verb is un verbe—not too hard to remember!
It’s also worth learning the French names of grammatical terms. This will make reading the French grammar books much easier, because they like to be tricky and use French while teaching it to you.
Doing this will also help you navigate through your textbooks and grammar references, as they mostly use the French terms. So, once you know them in English and French, and have a vague idea what they mean, you can look up the specifics and refresh how to form them.
Get a Good French Dictionary for Learning Grammar
A basic tool for learning French is, of course, a good dictionary. Most dictionaries typically have a good grammar section at the back; make sure whatever dictionary you buy has this section, and if it’s a big dictionary, it’d better be a decent section – 50+ pages devoted to grammar. This is so you have everything you need in the one place. What’s the use of being able to look up the vocab if you can’t put it together in a coherent sentence?
Pocket dictionaries also have grammar sections to help you on the go. Keep one of these on you, and when you have a quiet moment, trying creating some French sentences, using the vocab and grammar guides to help. It’s amazing how tiny these dictionaries can be, so you’ll barely notice you’re carrying it around until you whip it out for some French composition.
A good dictionary is worth its weight in gold (well, maybe not quite, those things are super heavy) because if you’re going to study groups or classes, you’ll want a single book that gives you all you need, so you don’t have to lug your growing French library.
There are also many dictionaries online you can have a look at, but make sure you use one with an established name like the “Trésor de la Langue Française” or anything from the Académie française. Another trustworthy resource is Lexilogos.com, which provides links to dictionaries for many languages. The page dedicated to French here provides links to online bilingual dictionaries, as well as French-French dictionaries, thesauri, idioms, slang, and more! As always don’t trust everything you read on the internet.
The more grammar and textbooks you have to hand, the better equipped you’ll be to get a handle of French grammar. You can collect these from second hand bookstores or charity shops, so you don’t have to fork out for the recommended textbooks that are currently being used in schools or universities. These are often just newer versions of the same thing, and once people stop studying French, many of those books end up in second hand shops.
The benefit of getting a range of books is that you’ll find some are written more to your taste, or perhaps one covers some topics better than others. The best ones will have good cartoons! It’s also good to read several explanations of a tricky topic – be it the mood of a verb or how participles work – as you might find that it takes a few goes to sink it, or until you find an explanation that makes sense to you. Hearing it phrased differently also helps with your own comprehension, because rather than memorizing an explanation you don’t really understand, it encourages you to think about it from different angles.
See the Grammar in Real Life
In addition to consuming a lot of great books and dictionaries, it’s also important that you see and hear a lot of content that demonstrates what you’re learning, and this is where we return to the idea of getting feedback.
A great tool for this is FluentU, which not only uses real-world content, but enables you to see multiple examples of how a grammar point is used in different videos.
By seeing and experiencing grammatical concepts in many contexts, you will not only intuitively develop a better understanding of them, but they will become much harder to forget.
Furthermore, FluentU’s learn mode allows you to test yourself on the knowledge you pick up from videos. Not only will you get feedback on how you’re doing, you’ll get a completely customized learning experience based on what you already know.
Plus, since this video content is stuff that native French speakers actually watch on the regular, you’ll get the opportunity to learn real French—the way it’s spoken in modern life.
One quick look will give you an idea of the diverse content found on FluentU:
Love the thought of learning French with native materials but afraid you won’t understand what’s being said? FluentU brings authentic French videos within reach of any learner. Interactive captions will guide you along the way, so you’ll never miss a word.
Tap on any word to see a definition, in-context usage examples, audio pronunciation, helpful images and more. For example, if you tap on the word “suit,” then this is what appears on your screen:
Don’t stop there, though. Use FluentU’s learn mode to actively practice all the vocabulary in any video with vocabulary lists, flashcards, quizzes and fun activities like “fill in the blank.”
As you continue advancing in your French studies, FluentU keeps track of all the grammar and vocabulary that you’ve been learning. It uses your viewed videos and mastered language lessons to recommend more useful videos and give you a 100% personalized experience. Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store.
Don’t Fear Negativity
This is one piece of grammar you can easily learn then put to plenty of use. It’s very easy to create the negative in French, and it instantly doubles what you can say in your new language. So, you can say “I like chocolate” – “J’aime le chocolat.” But if, for some strange reason, you want to say “I don’t like chocolate.” you say, “Je n’aime pas le chocolat.”
If you say “I speak English,” “Je parle anglais,” you probably won’t need to say “I don’t speak English,” “Je ne parle pas anglais.” – but you could! Or you can say “I never speak English.” “Je ne parle jamais anglais.” If you can lie in a new language, you’re doing well!
So, to form a negative, use ne + [verb] + pas and you’re there. Or to say you never do something, use ne + [verb] + jamais.
Just remember that similar to how we put an “n” on the article “a” to say “an apple” in English, we drop the “e” on the end of ne in French so a vowel doesn’t touch another vowel, like in n’aime (not like). Remember–vowels don’t like touching when they come from different syllables!
Present Now, Future Later
With verbs, it can be overwhelming how many different tenses there are to learn – present, past, past perfect, future, future perfect, past and present participles, compound verbs, the subjunctive… and yes, the list goes on. But, when you’re starting out, don’t worry about these. You can get a long way with the present tense, and once you get comfortable using it to form sentences, as well as having the vocabulary to do so, learning how to put it in the past or future tense won’t be so daunting and besides; most compound tenses just involve recycling tenses you already know!
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