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French Lessons | Mastering verbs

A French shop assistant in Antibes’ old town asked me for the translation of a French word the other afternoon. We’d become bosom buddies in her quiet swimsuit store, but I was glad for the conversational distraction.  I hated swimsuit shopping. It brought out all my insecurities. As my new friend rang up my purchase, she complimented my grasp of the French language. I beamed.  She moved to a more meaningful thread of conversation. How could I possibly habiter à Antibes for some months of the year and otherwise live elsewhere?  What exactement did I do?

Je suis écrivain,” I told her. I write. My work travels with me. Travel, in some ways, is my work.

“Quelle chance!” she said, counting my lucky stars.  Our conversation meandered, then circled back.

Un écrivain,” the sales clerk said. “Is that someone who writes?”

Wait a minute. Around here I’m the one who does all the asking, not the answering. I stumble through the world’s most beautiful language, the tongue of scholars, getting midstream into a sentence – my brain already a paragraph and a half into the future – when I seize up. I don’t know the critical word. It’s as if my IQ suddenly has been sliced in half.

French verbs are the worst

Of all vocabulary problems, verbs are the worst. Whenever a verb crops up in a sentence – an all-too-common circumstance when communicating with people older than a year and a half – I am expected, then and there, to find that verb and to conjugate it. The locals perform this trick with astounding ease, so in speaking with them, I, too, must make my verbs match the subjects that are performing those verbs.

If I could stick to the present tense in everything I say, never dreaming of the future or talking about the past, never imagining a possibility or conjuring up any doubts, I might be able to swing the art of French verb conjugation. Using only le présent would mean (whoops – I’ve already flipped into le conditionnel, the tense of possibility). Sticking to le présent would mean that every verb in my vocabulary possessed a maximum of only six forms, one for each of six, broad subject categories, which are, so I’ve learned in French classes, the first person singular, familiar second person singular, third person singular, first person plural, second person plural and formal second person singular, and third person plural. Phew. Those six formations for each verb in le présent hold for both “regular” French verbs (those that morph according to the rules) and “irregular” ones, which crop up in the French language with astounding regularity.

It can get tense

But who can stick to le présent?  In any normal, adult conversation, verb usage involves a simultaneous and sometimes hair-splitting choice of tenses. In addition to le présent, the French language proposes two tenses for the past, le passé composé and l’imparfait, each of which is appropriate in some situations but not in others. Each verb in each tense requires another suite of six conjugations to match the various subject types.  Just to mix things up, some verbs having the courtesy of being regular in le présent become irregular in the past. And vice versa, of course.

 If the past gets two tenses, so does the future in le futur proche and le futur simple. One of these – I can never remember which – is highly correlated to le conditionnel présent, the tense that offers the possibility of talking about possibility.  These verb machinations all stem from l’infinitif formation, which, for increasingly gifted and near-genius-level people, can evolve with the twist of a tongue into le plus-que-parfait, l’impératif, les participes présent and passé, and an array of lesser cousins – most of which come in half-dozen size lots.

But none of these verb tenses scares me like le subjonctif, its embodiment in le présent or otherwise. I cannot even recognize this tense in the English language.  A certain paralysis overtakes my brain whenever I realize that, shock and horror, the phrase that just flew out of my mouth – the way I began that French sentence – demands imminent use of the subjonctif!  All bets are suddenly off. Everything I learned about the six conjugations in any particular timeframe doesn’t count. The only upside, so I’m told by my French teacher, is that most French people don’t use le subjonctif properly anyway.

Passé simple is not simple

I’ve not mentioned the passé simple.  Its sole purpose, as far as I can tell, is to outwit students of the French language. The passé simple only appears on the written page. It is never spoken. And it’s far from simple.

All of these rules about verbs assume that French people speak like Americans do: directly. Breathe easily. This is my last point in Les Verbes Français 101, but it’s an important caveat. While the English language favours direct, active verbs that deliver a decent punch, the French language often opts for beauty and poetry. Rather than engaging resolutely in la forme active, which is a matter of good schooling for English speakers, la forme passive is a real and often more gracious alternative for francophones. I’ve heard plenty of it in practice. What better way to discuss French building codes or delivery bottlenecks? Using the passive tense implies that the problem is absolutely no one’s fault.

I had a quiet celebration that afternoon in the swimsuit shop of old Antibes. My verbs had apparently flowed out just fine in conversation with the sales assistant. Mercifully, we’d stuck to le présent. 

My new friend instead was asking me to confirm the meaning of a noun: écrivain, a word native to her own tongue.

To be certain, “writer” wasn’t the sort of vocabulary word you learned early on, alongside “red” and “dog” and “cheese.” It was a word I’d necessarily built into my own repertoire, just like the builder-friendly prise (plug) and heurtoir (doorknocker).

But the fact remained: For once, I was not the one with the question. For the first time in my journey down this sticky, linguistic trail, I had become the asked.

It was only in writing this piece that I tweaked. My celebrations had been unwarranted. Rather than a linguistic victory, I’d stumbled on another enormous frontier for my studies. The French shop assistant had to know the word “écrivain.” It was hardly an esoteric term. The real issue was probably this: She couldn’t understand my pronunciation.

Jemma Hélène is a writer, find out more at frenchlessonsblog.com

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