I believe that the number one reason most people give up learning to speak French is the verb conjugation system. Why is it so daunting? For starters, there are over 12,000 verbs. If you look up any of these verbs in a comprehensive conjugation book or website, you will see around 17 tables of forms according to person, number, tense and something called mood.
What is the difficulty of French verb conjugations?
Every student of French has spent countless hours memorizing these conjugation tables.
But that’s not all. There are irregular verbs that have to be learned individually, the TU and VOUS distinction, quirky spelling and names like pluperfect, simple past, compound past and present subjunctive,
Learning the right forms is one thing, you also have to learn how to use them correctly. When do you use the compound past or the imperfect? Why use the simple past instead of the compound past? Why can the future tense be used when referring to past events?
Also keep in mind that many verbs, especially the more common ones, can have very many different meanings. One of the most notorious verbs is faire that takes up an entire page in a good dictionary.
English verbs have their complications, of course, but at least the verb forms are pretty simple. Contrast the present indicative conjugation of aller and to go.
Je vais, tu vas, il/elle/on va, nous allons, vous allez, ils/elles vont
I go, you go, he/she/it goes, we go, they go
When you think of what else goes into using French verbs properly, you understand why most people throw their hands up in the air and conclude that French is too complicated to learn unless you start as a child.
Big mistake. Yes, French verbs are complicated in theory, but actual usage is rather simple. Indeed, as I hope to show, you don’t have to know the entire system. In fact, with just a relatively small number of verbs and forms, you can speak French fluently and correctly.
It’s not at bad as it looks
Let’s get one myth out of the way. Although there may be more that 12,000 verbs, keep in mind that pronominal or reflexive verbs are counted separately. So, for example asseoir, s’asseoir, arranger and s’arranger are counted as separate verbs.
Certain verbs are derived from a main verb. For example, intervenir, prévenir, parvenir, provenir, advenir, devenir and revenir are all related to venir (to come). This does not mean that if you know venir, you know the others. It just means that they are conjugated like venir and may have some sort of connection of meaning.
Similarly, words like lever, se lever, soulever, enlever, relever, élever and surélever have similar conjugated forms and some shared meaning .
All this means that those 12,000 verbs can be reduced to something closer to 5,000 core units. That’s good news, but do you still have to still 5,000 verbs?
Certainly not! The good news is that only a small number of verbs are actually used in ordinary spoken language. Unless you are talking about a specialized subject, you can get by with a very limited number of verbs.
In fact, studies of verb frequencies have shown that just two verbs, être (to be) and avoir (to have), in various forms, account for around 15-20% of all verbs in casual speech. This is because these two verbs are helping or auxiliary verbs that are used with other verbs in addition to having their own uses.
When you throw in the other key verbs, faire, devoir, dire and aller, you account for around 30% of all verbs. Obviously, you cannot have much of a conversation with just six verbs, but this tells us that these verbs are the foundation on which the spoken language rests.
What the statistics also tell us is that we need more and more verbs for smaller and smaller increases of coverage of verb usage. I don’t have the exact figures, but the basic principle is that generally speaking a relatively small number of verbs cover a large percentage of uses. It seems that about 500 verbs represent 95% of all spoken usage.
This tells that us that you can speak French fluently, and just like a native in fact, with a small numbers of verbs, even less than 500. It also means that if the subject gets specialized or technical, you may need more resources.
But there is a major complication. Although speaking fluency does not totally depend on the number of verbs, or words for that matter, the most common words have many uses and meanings. Thus, if you want to speak accurately and sophisticatedly, you have to pay special attention to these high-use verbs.
I should also point out that these very common verbs are also the most irregular in conjugation.
Another key observation is that studies have shown is that not all the verb forms are equally used. Those conjugation charts are very misleading. Certain forms like the simple past or the imperfect of the subjunctive are never or rarely used in spoken language. Forms with nous, as in nous sommes (we are) are nearly totally replaced by the on form, as in on est. The simple future tense (e.g. j’irai ‘I will go’) is very often replaced by the present of aller + verb (e.g. je vais aller ‘I’m going to go’.)
Something that also helps keep the verb system actually quite simple to learn is that fact that in the spoken language, many forms may be spelled differently but sound the same. For example, in je chante, tu chantes, il chante, ils chantent, the verb sounds exactly the same. So, in reality you don’t have that many different sounds to learn.
What should I take away from all this for learning French verbs?
1. The system looks more intimidating that it really is, especially when all you are looking at is conjugation charts.
2. Actual usage is much simpler because many forms are rarely used.
3. Pay attention to the sounds of verb forms. Many sound the same despite differences in spelling.
4. Only a relatively small number-500 or less-of verbs are used in ordinary speech.
5. A tiny number of common verbs-the first 25-tend to be irregular in form and have many different uses and meanings. These are the key verbs you have to know cold.
In sum, focus on quality rather than quantity. If you combine mastery of the real usage of the 100 most common French verbs with good grammar and vocabulary, you will have no problem speaking fluently and confidently in most situations.