How much grammar do you need to study to speak French well? The question is difficult to answer because you have to make the distinction between acquiring and studying. Speaking impeccable French requires a good grasp of grammar. How to go about acquiring this and how much formal study is necessary is highly debatable.
Regular visitors to this site know that I strongly believe in learning by examples. Although most of my posts are on points of grammar, I always approach them through a wealth of examples. This is the fundamental logic behind my series of posts on real-life examples of French conversation.
It is important to make the distinction between spoken French and written French. I’ll be the first to admit that written French can be complicated and difficult to master. But my observation in a variety of languages is that the spoken language is always quite simple and straightforward because people generally do not like complex grammatical constructions.
My approach to French grammar is a five-step process:
Step 1: Master the basics – the most common forms.
Step 2: Pay special attention to the known problem areas.
Step 3: Watch out for interference from one’s native language.
Step 4: Train the ear with many authentic examples to decode unscripted speech.
Step 5: Have a look at the formal or literary uses.
Let’s see how all this works with a very important aspect of French grammar: direct and indirect object personal pronouns. I have devoted a page to it in my Essential French language calendar learning tool.
Step 1: Mastering the basics of object pronouns in French.
On the bus the other day, I overheard a very angry young woman on the telephone say to her soon-to-be-history boyfriend:
(1) T’es un salaud. Je te déteste. Je veux pas te voir. Je veux plus te parler.
(You’re a jerk. I hate you. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to speak to you any more.)
I wondered what the young man had done to deserve such treatment. I also marvelled at this perfect example of the use of direct and indirect object personal pronoun “te” in French. (Notice that in casual spoken French the “ne” of the negation “ne…pas” has disappeared.)
Personal pronouns are those little words that can substitute for nouns or persons. All readers here have certainly learned the French subject personal pronoun je, tu, il/elle/on, nous, vous, ils/elles that are used to conjugate verbs, e,g, je parle français.
When the verb acts on someone or something, we can use object pronouns. There are two types of object pronouns.
Direct object pronouns in French
The direct object pronouns are those that accompany a verb that has a direct effect or action on the pronoun. Here is a list of the direct object pronouns in French:
me/m’, te/t’, le/la/l’/se/s’, nous, vous, les/se
me, you, him/himself, her/herself, us, you, them/themselves
The object forms would be commonly used with verbs like: aimer, admirer, croire, regarder, voir, appeler, frapper, informer, chercher, attendre, habiller, nourrir, remercier, etc.
Here are a couple of examples:
As-tu vu Adèle ? Nous la cherchons. (Have you seen Adèle? We are looking for her.)
Je vous remercie infiniment. (I thank you very much.)
A very important rule to remember here is that in French the object pronoun always goes to the left of the verb that it is associated with. In English the pronoun goes to the right.
The pronouns le, la and se become l’ and s’ in front of verbs starting with a vowel.
Indirect object pronouns in French
Indirect object pronouns are those that associated with the idea of an action that is usually indicated by a pronoun like “to.” In the English “I’ll speak to him,” the “him” is an indirect object pronoun. In “I gave her a gift,” the “her” is a also an indirect object pronoun meaning “to her.”
Here are the indirect object pronouns in French:
me/m’, te/t’, lui/se/s’, nous, vous, les/se
me, you, him / himself/he/herself, us, you, them/themselves
The indirect object forms would be used with verbs like: parler, dire, expliquer, paraître, sembler, offrir, donner, etc. Note that these verbs will use the preposition à when used with a noun instead of a pronoun, e.g. Je parle à Pierre (I’m speaking to Pierre.)
Here are some examples:
Elle m’a tout dit. (She told me everything.)
Ils lui ont expliqué le problème. (They explained the problem to him.)
Much of this should be familiar to readers here. Notice that the direct and indirect pronouns are identical except for the third person indirect pronouns that become lui and leur. As we will see, this is where the complications arise.
To see how this all works, we’ll revisit that example overheard on the bus. Let’s imagine that the young lady is talking to a friend about that ex-boyfriend. Here is what she would say:
(2) Il est un salaud. Je le déteste. Je veux pas le voir. Je veux plus lui parler.
(He is a jerk. I hate him. I don’t want to see him. I don’t want to speak to him any more.)
Now let’s change roles and have a male speaker talking about an ex-girlfriend.
(3) Elle est salope. Je la déteste. Je veux pas la voir. Je veux plus lui parler.
(She is a bitch. I hate her. I don’t want to see her. I don’t want to speak to her any more.)
In the next example, the speaker uses the vous pronoun form when speaking to a group of persons:
(4) Vous êtes salauds. Je vous déteste. Je veux pas vous voir. Je veux plus vous parler.
(You are jerks. I hate you. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to speak to you any more.)
Finally, let’s look at a situation where the speaker is talking about some other people and says:
(5) Ils sont salauds. Je les déteste. Je veux pas les voir. Je veux plus leur parler.
(They’re jerks. I hate them. I don’t want to see them. I don’t want to speak to them any more.)
In example (5), we could have used “Elles” when referring to a group of women. All the other pronouns would remain the same.
This is basically the entire system minus a few little details. It’s quite simple. Most of the direct and indirect pronouns are identical and all go to the left of the associated verb. With the information in these examples alone you could function quite well.
But things can get a bit tricky and trip up the unsuspecting learner. This is when we go to Step 2 that I’ll address in the next post.
1. The Essential French Language Calendar
2. Real-life Examples of French Conversations
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.