Learn French grammar according to your learning style

Do learning styles really exist? Ask this question and you’ll start a debate among researchers, teachers and learners! If you’ve tried to learn something before (who hasn’t?), I’m sure you’ve found out that you do have one, two or maybe three preferred ways of learning. Things that you do that help you understand and remember durably what you learn. Am I right? Do you like to listen, write, read, pace the room as you recite a lesson, find funny mnemonics? These are all ways of learning. If you’re learning French, you’ve most likely been exposed to a significant amount of grammar, from the early stages. Since you ended up on this page, I assume you’re interested in knowing how to learn French grammar in the most efficient way for you to understand and apply it.

If you’re learning French, you’ve most likely been exposed to a significant amount of grammar, from the early stages. You may be wondering how to learn French grammar in the most efficient way for you to understand and apply it?

In this article, I’ll explore the following.

  1. What’s the true purpose of learning French grammar? (it’s NOT to know rules by heart)
  2. What’s missing from the way schools teach grammar?
  3. Which profile resonates with you? Tips to choose the best course of action to learn French grammar.

What learning French SHOULD NOT look like! #

The best way for someone to not learn something?

  • Make the learner feel bad about their performance.
  • Diminish the effort they put into doing something.
  • Emphasize the mistakes instead of using positive reinforcement of what was done right.
  • Just saying “it’s wrong” without looking for the source of the confusion. It’s like treating symptoms only instead of addressing the root cause.
student copy with lots of mistakes and not nice teacher's comments. The wrong way to learn French grammar
Image by sandid from Pixabay

Do I even need to learn French grammar? #

Short answer: no. But please keep reading 😉

Some people can speak a language although they know nothing about the grammar. This may be your case in your native language.

Can I reach an advanced level if I don’t learn French grammar? To some extent. For native French speakers as well as for learners of French as a second or foreign language.

You may be able to reach a high level of fluency, having conversations, living your day to day life in French, reading simple books… However, you might hit a glass ceiling, especially if you’re trying to write a more formal French, read classic literature or poetry, or if you want to pass a C1 or C2 test.

But what does it even mean “to learn French grammar”? #

Does it mean you should be able to recite rules ? That you have to study linguistics and know technical jargon like COD, COI, participe, subordonnée, etc?

I’m not going to lie, it makes my job easier if we can name grammatical concepts like a subject, a verb, a direct or indirect object, etc. And if we agree on what they are. For example, did you know that German has a subjunctive tense but the uses are radically different from French subjonctif? In reality, they’re two different things. So grammatical terms used by teachers may be confusing. It doesn’t really matter how we call concepts as long as their use is clear in your head. And if you need to explain what it means to someone, you can give examples.

I’m going to tell you a secret… I don’t know all the names of the grammatical categories in French. I regularly need to check some things in reference books. And that’s normal. The most important to keep in mind here is that grammar is just here to help you organize all that knowledge. You don’t need to know all the grammar, just the one that’s useful for you. And the purpose of it is to help you understand and produce the language.

learn French grammar: grammar categories are like file folders
Grammar is a set of boxes to sort out concepts into categories. Tidy up the mess and get the language organized.

Knowing some French grammar may help you stop translating from your native language because you understand how to say certain thing directly in French.

Grammar is not a study topic, it’s a tool. Unless your profession or passion is to be a grammarian or a linguist.

You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.” 

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

A mistake schools make when teaching how to learn French grammar #

They start with the rules… Concepts are introduced before there is a need for your brain to understand it. And our brain is super-efficient, or lazy, however you want to call this ability to not bother learning things that are deemed useless.

So, to please your teacher and score good grades, you may learn rules by heart. You memorize them. You may remember a few examples and applications until the exam day. And then you forget everything. (In reality you don’t completely forget but it’s buried so deep that it would take tremendous efforts and special circumstances to revive that knowledge.)

If the concept has no meaning or application in your life, rules and book examples are useless. You need real life examples. And not your teacher’s life. YOUR life.

Don’t learn rules by heart. Understand the concept and use examples that are personal and highly relatable to learn French grammar. IF that makes your happy only!

What if it doesn’t make you happy? We’ll see below the different ways of approaching grammar.

Grammar as the key to unlock a deeper understanding of a different world view #

I have clients of all levels, from beginner to advanced. And I am also a very independent language learner, I like to learn on my own with the help of coaches or tutors from time to time. As a result, I have analyzed the ingredients that increase learner satisfaction and understanding.


Why is satisfaction and understanding important? Why do I choose to emphasize this over fluency? #

When the brain understands what is going on, the world and the words around it, there is a feeling of satisfaction. And this feeling is essential to maintain the motivation to learn.

How many times have I heard this?

I understand the words but I don’t understand the meaning of the sentence…

I spoke with a French-speaking woman from Quebec whose son has a lot of difficulty in French. When he reads, he has trouble understanding. As a consequence, reading in French is not a fun activity and it is difficult to motivate him to read more. Yet, we know that reading is one of the key factors to reach a high level in a language (according to Stephen Krashen’s work), including your native language.

Grammar families #

In my opinion, one of the reasons why it is so difficult for young people to “connect” with French and understand the subtleties of spelling and grammar is that they don’t really realize the importance of knowing which “family” (or grammatical category) words belong to.
For example, if I tell you “skiing and snowboarding are the same thing, so you can do either/or indifferently”, or “a strawberry, an apple, it’s the same thing, they’re both fruits…”, what do you think?
If you tell a French teacher: “”se” and “ce” (works in English with “there” and “they’re”), it’s pronounced the same way, you can understand me, so why is it important to know how to write?”, it makes us cringe 😖.

For the same reason that a strawberry and an apple are not the same thing at all: “se” and “ce” are two-letter words, but that’s the only thing they have in common.
To understand the concept behind a word – sometimes the spelling is identical as with “leur” (to them) and “leur/leurs” (their) – is to open the door to an advanced and more immediate, more intuitive understanding (with practice).

When the brain understands what is going on, there is a feeling of satisfaction. And this feeling is essential to maintain the motivation to learn.

When you don’t understand the logical and lexical articulations, reading is a painful activity.
Vocabulary is important but secondary. It’s easy to look up the meaning of a word, but it’s harder to grasp the subtle nuances if the overall meaning of the sentence escapes us.

What is that essential thing that teachers, very often, don’t share with learners to learn French grammar so it makes sense? #

I would say it’s the big picture.
In school, concepts are strung together like pearls but little is said about the relationships between the different parts of that concept. Yet, it’s often useful to better understand the concepts and the construction of the language. Everything is connected, or almost. Let’s take an example.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Learn French grammar: the concept of masculine/feminine #

Many learners feel a surge of panic when they think about the masculine and feminine in French. But masculine and feminine is a very broad concept that encompasses many different domains.

  • Are we talking about the “gender” of nouns like la table, le soleil, la guerre, le fromage? I read somewhere that we should use another word than gender because it is confusing. Indeed, it is mostly arbitrary, objects do not have “feminine” or “masculine” qualities.
    There are some rules (e.g. words ending with -tion are all la/une and words ending with -age are le/un) but, for the most part, it is arbitrary so there is no real “method” to learn them. You learn by repetition or mnemonic tricks.
  • Are we talking about pronouns? For example, differentiating the pronunciation of “il” and “elle” is difficult for Arabic speakers because, in many dialects, they don’t differentiate the vowels i and e (I’m simplifying, forgive me).
    There is also the incoherence of the pronouns “lui” and “leur” which are unisex (whereas French always differentiates masculine and feminine!)
  • Are we talking about spelling and the differences between the form of the feminine and the masculine?

If your teacher or coach has a clear idea of the big picture of a concept, he or she can help you see the big picture. Then they may direct your attention and work on the point that is most challenging to you. One bit at a time to dimish the feeling of overwhelm.

Each language has a unique way of representing the world, and each learner has a preferred method. #

“How to learn French grammar according to your profile” is something you’ll have to uncover yourself. You may get inspiration from what others do, ask for a coach’s help and use some tips I share in my videos and podcasts. However how to make grammar “make sense” can only be directed by your own brain, including your language background. As a coach, I’m just here to give you pointers and information that may help. I’m not here to tell you what to do.

What if you don’t understand a concept even after a lot of explanations? #

Maybe your brain is not ready, it lacks other elements, or it does not feel the need to master this concept. This is why the way schools teach grammar is inefficient.


Suggestions

  • Why not take a break, move on and come back to it later?
  • Another option: increase the number of examples in context. If you see a lot of examples, maybe your brain will start to see the recurring patterns, or maybe you’ll encounter a particularly relevant example for you, and things will finally click 💡.

Different approaches to learn French grammar depending on your personal preferences: which one are you? #

Why are conjugations and prepositions so hard to master in a foreign language? That’s because the way we organize time, space and relationships between things and people is influenced by culture.

Profile 1 #

For many of my clients, and for me, it is exciting to understand this new perspective on the world in an almost philosophical way. Talking about grammar is fun. Find a teacher or coach who enjoys talking about (but not unilaterally teaching) it. However, don’t forget to practice with examples and practical applications.

Sounds like you? You’ll like this!

Try the big picture/chunking down method with this guide to learn French conjugations and masterclass on the present tense.

Profile 2 #

However, others are indifferent or have difficulty connecting abstract concepts with their linguistic implications. In this case, the method based on conversation and “learning by doing”, without spending much time on explanations (just the minimum to give some keys to the puzzle) is the most effective way to increase fluency while speaking.

In this case, I recommend a lot of repetition so that you can feed your subconscious knowledge and develop intuitive choices. This will help you when you’re speaking.

On the other hand, mastering written French will remain a more tedious and time consuming task. It’s not “bad” but you have to be aware of it because your progress might be slower in this area.

If this sounds like you, individual coaching would be of great healp.

What is the learner’s job after learning about a concept? #

After understanding a concept, we go back to fluency, because understanding a concept doesn’t mean we’re able to use it, let alone spontaneously. So, after understanding, the job is to:

  • Develop strategies to remember concepts (e.g., when do I write “se” and when it’s “ce”) when in doubt. Each learner has different ways of doing this.
  • Practice, practice, practice (you knew I was going to say that, right? 😁)

What profile fits your personality best? #

  1. I like to have an almost philosophical understanding of language and its representation of the world (and talking is not that important).
  2. Discussions about grammar and worldview confuse me (confuse me), I prefer to work only with examples. Then 1:1 coaching or workshops would be the best course of action for you.
  3. A mix: I find discussions about why and how interesting but I really need to make the effort to practice to know how to use a concept.

If you answered 1 or 3 to the last question, you’ll love this online course by Kerstin Cable:
Finally Get it French grammar.

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