Ever felt confused by so much grammar when you’re studying a language? Join the club. Present tense, future tense, past tense, passive voice, ….. it can be enough to make you shout “Stopppp!” and put some earmuffs on. In this post, I’ll offer a technique that can help navigate this confusing landscape.
Once you reach an intermediate level of speaking, several things happen:
- You’re happy, because now you can have a conversation (even if there are still some mistakes), you can understand a lot of what’s being said (even if not everything), and you start to build more confidence with an increasingly large list of words in your head.
- On the other hand, you make mistakes you know you shouldn’t, you want to speak perfectly but can’t, and so many different pieces of grammar can be confusing. What do I use when?
This is exactly where I’m at with French right now.
A Helpful Tool: Language Maps
To stop our heads from spinning, my wife and I created what I call a Language Map. Akin to mapping out a city with street names, we mapped out the French language using the grammatical structures we’ve learned up until now, and how they fit together. This really helped in remembering what goes where, and which tenses to use when.
It’s not perfect – nor is it intended to be – but it is a useful strategy for learning that can be applied to any language. Fair warning: it’s about to get geeky. If you’re just starting out, this is good to know, but might be a bit overwhelming.
Here’s the map (click to zoom to the full image):
How to do it
Step 1: Write down any specific points you’re confused about. (E.g. “When do I use the recent past, versus the preterite past?”)
Step 2: Look at your notebook and any worksheets you recieved in class, and make a list of all the grammar rules you’ve learned so far.
Step 3: Get a big piece of paper and some markers. Start at the top, and map out past/present/future across the top.
Step 4: Underneath each of them, split out and write the grammar rule for each one, with an example.
Step 5: Put it up on the wall and look at the whole picture. Then start kicking serious a$$ when you speak.
For French learners, here is what we mapped out:
- Passé Composé (Past Preterite – Completed Actions, “I ate“)
- “Etre”: used with DR. MRS. VANDERTRAMP verbs (the first letter of these verbs spells that acronymn out. Devenir, Revenir, Monter, Rester, Sortir, Venir, Aller, Naitre, Descendre, Entrer, Rentrer, Tomber, Retourner, Arriver, Mourir, Partir)
- “Avoir”: used with all the other verbs.
- Passé Proche (Recent Past, “I just did xxx“)
Rule: Venir conjugated + verb in infinitive
Example: Je viens de arriver (“I just arrived“)
- L’imparfait (Imperfect: past continuous actions)
Rule: “Nous” form + ais/ais/ait/ions/iez/aient
Example: Quand j’etais petit, nous allions a la plage (“When I was young, we used to go to the beach”)
- Listed the conjugations for all standard -ir, -er and -re verbs
- Conjugations for exceptions (the most commonly used)
- Future Proche (near future, “I’m going to xxx“)
Rule: Aller conjugated + verb in infinitive
Example: Je vais ecouter de la musique (“I’m going to listen to music”)
- Future simple (simple future, more definite, “I will xxxx“)
- Regular verbs: infinitive + endings ai/as/a/ons/ez/ont
Example: Je regarderai la telé ce soir (I will watch TV tonight)
- Irregular verbs – listed out their conjugations + endings
- Avec “si” = present and then future
Example: Si’l fais beau, j’irai a la plage (“If the weather is good, I’ll go to the beach“)
We’ll add to it as we learn more.
Have another method for demystifying grammar? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
Photo credit: Jonmiao