Posted on July 4, 2023 by Marcos Ferreira

Go Forth and Conjugate!

[CW] When some people think of verb conjugations, they get a little nervous. All of those endings, the spelling changes, the irregulars… English, if it’s your native language, seems so much simpler. All you do is stick an -s or –es on the he/she/it forms, and Bob’s your uncle. That’s still a conjugation, of course, even if it’s a simplified one.

Other languages like French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Russian have a lot more going on. Every person, or almost every person, has a different form. There are multiple yous. There are spelling changes or stem changes or all sorts of other footnotes to keep in mind, and different categories of verbs (-ar, –er, –ir in Spanish for example) that have slightly different conjugations. It seems like a lot to take in at first.

But it really isn’t. In some ways learning verb conjugations is easier than learning vocabulary. It’s just one pattern (okay, a few different patterns) that you need to commit to memory, and then apply to as many regular verbs as you like. You’re getting more bang for your memorization buck.

You usually can’t avoid learning a couple of irregular verbs at the very beginning. Annoyingly, be and have and go and do are often irregular, depending on the language you’re learning, and you’ve got to learn them fairly early because they’re so common and useful.

But after that, go nuts with one category of regular verbs at a time. Let’s look at some examples from a few languages you might be studying:

Spanish French Italian German
hablar parler parlare sprechen
yo hablo je parle io parlo ich spreche
tú hablas tu parles tu parli du sprichst
él/ella habla il/elle parle Lei/lui/lei parla er/sie/es spricht
nosotros hablamos nous parlons noi parliamo wir sprechen
(vosotros hablaís) vous parlez voi parlate ihr sprecht
ellos/ellas hablan ils/elles parlent loro parlano Sie/sie sprechen

Memorizing one of these paradigms can take as little as five minutes, if even that long. As with all things memorization, the trick is repetition. Repeat the forms to yourself in the order above, since this is almost always the order that verb conjugations are presented in. Say them out loud while you’re reading them, triggering two sense at once: parlo, parli, parla, parliamo, parlate, parlano; parlo, parli, parla, parliamo, parlate, parlano, etc. You’ll naturally give a little rhythm to it as you repeat, and that’s good. Think of how much easier it is to memorize something if it’s in a song.

Then write the full conjugation out a few times, speaking each form aloud as you write it and then read it. Again, you’re ushering in more ways of connecting with the forms. Move on to sentences, again staying in the order you’ve been using: je parle en classe, tu parles en classe, il parle en classe, elle parle en classe…

Now use index cards or just cut up a piece of paper, or use a flashcard app if you’re not old school. Put the pronouns on one side, and the verb forms on the other. First go through them in the I-you-he/she/it-we-you-they order. When you see hablo, add the pronoun: yo hablo. Check the other side to make sure you’ve got it right. Then turn your deck over so you see the pronoun first. When you see ich, say spreche, and double check your answer. (For German wir and Sie/sie forms and French je and il/elle forms, you’ve got identical answers, so make some little note like a star on one form or the other.)

Finally, mix it up. Shuffle your deck so the forms are out of order. Start with the verb form side. If you see hablan, say ellos/ellas, and then double check. Then reverse sides, so you see the pronoun first: voi – parlate. You’ll probably find that this is a bit harder than doing things in the order you were sing-songing, but that’s the point.

After this whole process, you’ve probably come very close to indelibly writing the conjugation in your head, including any little stem changes like in German sprichst and spricht.

To expand your practice a bit, find another four or five regular verbs and see if you can do the entire conjugation out loud. If you’re still having trouble, write out the forms, and repeat them aloud again. Keep a nice, limited stock of infinitives as your practice set, and use them. Tell yourself what you’re doing, say what someone else is doing, talk about your friends or family, imagine that you’re speaking to a stranger. Just keep producing sentences with a variety of subjects, all using your small stock of infinitives.

All of this may seem goofy or even tedious, but it’s accomplishing the goal of making an automatic association between a subject and a verb form. You want to get to the point where the moment your mind thinks ella/elle/lei/sie, the only possible thing to come out of your mouth is habla/parle/parla/spricht.  And there’s no secret trick to doing that, other than building up the automatic association through repetition. If you’re in a car and a ball rolls out into the road in front of you, your right foot is hitting the brake before you know what you’re doing. That’s from years of pattern building. You certainly didn’t know that when you were born, but now you couldn’t forget it if you tried. A lot of language learning comes down to the same concept.

The owner of this website has made a commitment to accessibility and inclusion, please report any problems that you encounter using the contact form on this website. This site uses the WP ADA Compliance Check plugin to enhance accessibility.