Verbs are the driving force of any language. As words of action, verbs help us describe what's happening—what we're doing, what we're saying, what we're thinking, and much, much more.
Verbs are so essential, in fact, that there's not a language on earth that doesn't have them. Despite that, it must be said that essential does not at all imply simple.
Being words of action, verbs need to be able to convey that action across a massive variety of contexts—things that did happen, things that will happen, things that might happen, things that are happening, and things that were happening when something else happened, (just to name a few). And that's without even mentioning who or what is actually doing the thing itself!
To convey this incredibly diverse range of actions, most languages use "verb conjugations", which are ways of changing the form of a verb to match subject, tense, mood, and a variety of other things.
This means that, as a learner of a foreign language, you must not only memorize verbs and their meanings, but also a (potentially) massive list of conjugations to go along with them. Some languages have harder conjugation systems than others (though certain languages have no conjugations at all), but on average you'll find that learning to use verbs well is one of the most challenging aspects of learning any language.
So today, I'd like to share a few tips and tricks for learning to conjugate verbs in your target language.
Let's dive in!
1. Learn from Context
So, how the heck do you learn to conjugate verbs?
Back in 1996, when I first started learning German, I tried to learn grammar the only way I knew how: by reading through grammar books!
This was a technique I had learned when studying Latin at school, so I naively assumed that it would work for German as well.So I got my hands on a very dusty (and very boring) grammar book in German, and started trying to learn as much as I could.
By the time a couple of weeks had passed, I had already read through the majority of the book, and completed all of the exercises along the way. However, all this work was not having the effect on my German that I was hoping for.
Instead of having a well-memorized knowledge of things like German “Der, Die, Das” declension tables and “Ich, Du, Er, Sie, Est” verb conjugation tables, I was stunned to find that nothing was actually sticking in my brain.
I remembered some things, of course, but most of what I had absorbed from the book was just a confusing jumble in my head.
At this point, I was not only getting discouraged, but also terribly bored with learning German as a whole.
If sifting through grammar books was what it took to learn German, why wasn’t it working, even after spending hours upon hours doing everything I could to get the information into my brain?
Well, it took me a while to figure it out, but now I know the reason why:
The human brain was not created to memorize grammar tables.
Think about it for a second.
If you listen to a five- year old kid speak his mother tongue, you will quickly realize that that kid has very little trouble (if any) conjugating most verbs. The kid just does it, and he does it well.
How does the child know how to use verbs so well?
Do you think it’s because he likes to spend his time reading grammar textbooks and doing conjugation exercises?
Of course not. That’s absurd. The child has likely never even seen a grammar textbook in his life. And yet he conjugates verbs just fine.
This is possible not because the child is smarter or more “intellectually equipped” than you, a functioning adult. But rather it is possible because the child learns language in a completely different way than you do:
While adults try to learn by cramming and drilling facts, children learn through massive amounts of exposure.
In this way, children are like sponges. They don’t actively go out of their way to absorb what they need to absorb. When the child is exposed to useful forms of language over and over and over again, the child learns those forms instinctively.
For children, learning comes through massive repetition of language, in context.
So to learn verbs like children do, you need to do the same.
Don’t focus on conjugation tables, which are selected, curated forms of language taken out of context. Focus on using and reusing resources that represent the language as it is naturally used, and you will absorb the proper verb forms over time.
Personally, my favorite beginner resources for absorbing natural language are spoken dialogues, with an accompanying transcript.
These dialogues, naturally, will be full of verbs that are conjugated appropriately according to context, so if you repeat and review them often enough, you will soon learn what form of the verb matches that exact context. Over time, this exposure will help your brain implicitly understand the patterns that verbs in your target language follow, and you’ll never have to mentally consult a conjugation table ever again.
2. Focus on the Essential
As you gain more and more exposure to natural language, you will come across an ever increasing number of verbs and verb forms.
You might be tempted to learn them all; to know them all so that you’ll always know just the right verb form for any situation.
But do you really need to know all the verbs to speak a language well? And what does it mean to “know” a verb, anyway?
Does it mean that you know all its forms? Does it mean that you know how to conjugate the verb in all its tenses, aspects, and moods?
Thankfully, the answer is no. There are thousands upon thousands of verbs in every language, but to speak well in everyday life situations, you only need to master a tiny fraction of them.
This reminds me of when I started learning Hungarian.
Hungarian has a very complicated system of grammatical cases. So difficult, in fact, that it is often considered to be the most difficult language to learn in all of Europe.
Officially, any Hungarian verb or noun can be conjugated in more than a dozen different ways depending on tense, mood, “definiteness”, and a number of other factors.
If you were to try to learn these forms through rote memorization, as with a conjugation table, it would take endless hours to not only learn the dozens of verb forms, but also to keep them separate in your head.
Fortunately, although a wide variety of verb and noun forms do exist in Hungarian, very few of these forms are actually in widespread use in daily life. Normal people don’t use every tense, every pronoun, every mood, and every aspect of a verb equally often. Instead, there’s a small, select number of “essential” verb forms that are common, and a massive quantity that are used sparingly, if at all.
So, from the beginning, you should aim to focus on only the most essential verbs and verb forms, and learn the rest only as you need them.
And while determining which verbs are essential and which are not may seem like a challenge, it is actually quite easy:
Essential verbs and verb forms are the ones that you and people you’re learning from use often. Verbs like “”to be”, to think”, “to do”, “to have” and “to go”, are verbs that you’ll come across every day, and that you’ll need to master quickly if you want to have effective conversations. Once you’ve mastered those “everyday verbs” (and others like them) then you can expand and learn the other forms.
The goal, in the end, is not to know every verb in its entirety, but rather to build your knowledge and understanding of verbs and verb forms slowly and gradually, over time.
3. Test Your Understanding
Have you ever purchased a thick, hefty grammar book only to bring it home and look at it once or twice, if at all?
I’ve done it a number of times.
In the days before the Internet, thick grammar books were the only grammar reference materials that language learners had, so even if you learned through context, you would need to consult these books if you had any questions or doubts.
Nowadays, things are totally different. The Internet has not only made language learning quicker and easier, it has given us learners a wide variety of different ways to test and verify our understanding of grammatical concepts—without using conjugation or declension tables!
My favorite way of testing my understanding of a particular grammatical concept are online grammar quizzes.
Let’s say I’m learning French, and I’m having difficulty with conjugating verbs into the subjunctive mood.
I could try to immediately input “French subjunctive” into my favorite search engine, and read all I could on the topic, but that would be ineffective. In fact, it would be just as dry and boring as if I had looked up the subjunctive in a grammar text.
Instead, what I do is search online for “French subjunctive test” or “French subjunctive quiz”.
Fortunately, there are lots of language learners who have taken the time to develop short grammar quizzes that are freely available online. These quizzes exist for nearly every popularly learned language, and specific quizzes can be found for nearly every grammatical topic within those languages.
These quizzes and tests are useful because they allow you to immediately test your understanding of a verb (or tense, mood, aspect, etc) and see if you really know how to use it well.
So that’s what I do. Following my example, I search for a “French subjunctive quiz”, and I take the quiz first.
Once I’m done with the quiz, I take a look at what I got wrong. By looking at the wrong answers, I’m able to learn where the holes in my knowledge are.
Then, based upon the types of errors I made (e.g. I forget which verbs are irregular in the subjunctive), I then search online for detailed explanations of the specific grammatical concept I was having.
So basically, I go to Google and type in “French subjunctive verbs irregular” and read through the first few explanations I find.
At this point, you may be wondering why I’m choosing to test myself first and look up explanations later.
The answer is simpler than you may think: grammatical explanations are often difficult to understand.
If you try to learn a grammatical topic by looking at explanations first, you’ll usually be exposed to a large amount of information. Some of this information you’ll know already, some of it you won’t have learned yet, and the rest you’ll find either confusing or unnecessary.
Taking a quiz first helps you zero-in on exactly which verb or verb-related concept you’re having trouble with, so that it becomes much easier to find and learn what you need to when you check a grammar book or website.
Not only that, but following this “quiz-first” approach will help you return to that implicit, exposure-based way of learning like children do. Children don’t limit themselves to using verbs and language forms they’ve explicitly been taught; instead, children actively experiment with language, and try to infer grammatical patterns based on what they already know.
And just like you, a child will get it wrong sometimes. It’s not unusual for very young English speakers to say “I goed to the store” or “I seed the dog”. What they’re doing is learning through trial and error. Eventually, the children realize that “I goed” is wrong, and they learn to say the correct “I went”.
To learn to conjugate verbs well, you need to do this too. Get exposure to lots of verb forms, and try to infer the correct grammatical patterns from those forms. Then, use online quizzes to see if your “mental grammar” is correct. More often than not, you’ll need to make a few adjustments, which you’ll be able to then do with the help of a trusty online grammar explanation (or even grammar book!)
Verbs are an essential part of any language.
If you want to express yourself well, you need to learn to master verbs, but not in the way you might think.
Learning verbs well does not come through the explicit memorization of verb tables and complex grammar explanations, as you may have been taught in school. Instead, a healthy mastery of verbs comes mostly through implicit learning, which is developed through massive amounts of exposure to natural language.
This is how children learn, and how you must choose to learn if you want learning verbs to be anything other than a major headache.
Find sources of natural language that you enjoy, and learn from them over and over again. You’ll encounter a large amount of verbs, but with time, you’ll gradually learn which verbs and verb forms are essential and useful, and which are not.
Use those essential verbs, and try to make them a part of your active vocabulary. Use them often, and experiment. When you’re ready, test your knowledge through online quizzes and other forms of feedback. And then use that feedback to help you use grammar references to fix any gaps in your knowledge.
With time, and patience, you’ll know how to conjugate verbs like a pro—and you’ll never have to consult a conjugation table ever again