English speakers have it easy with verbs. Aside from those pesky irregular ones, you’ve only got -s and -ed to worry about.
That’s why verbs can be the first brick wall anglophones hit when they begin a foreign language. Look at Spanish – every tense has six forms, one for each person (I, you, he/she/it etc.), and all of them are different from the word you’ll find in the dictionary. Look up hablar (to speak) as a total beginner, and it won’t tell you about hablo – hablas – habla – hablamos – habláis – hablan. And that’s just the present tense!
Now, I don’t mean to scare anyone off learning verbs. There’s actually a logical beauty to conjugation systems, especially for dyed-in-the-wool language geeks like me. The patterns might be unfamiliar, but they will come with time and patience.
However, there are a couple of tricks you can use as a total beginner to get your conversation flying, and not struggling to take off in a pea-souper of verb endings.
Tables of verbs will easily overwhelm a beginner. It’s just a massive wall of words if you don’t know the language very well. But ask yourself: how much of that detail do you actually need as a beginner?
Chances are that as a newcomer to a language, your conversations will mainly be talking about yourself (I), or the person you’re speaking to (you). You’ll probably be doing most of that in the present tense (making general statements) or the past (talking about what happened). So why not cut the padding, and just focus on the four combinations of those things? In English, that would look like:
In many languages, you can ask a question by simply changing the intonation of your voice. So you won’t even have to learn any special question forms. Pick out your simplified verb parts, and add them to your favourite vocab drilling program like Anki like you would with any other word or phrase. Paper flashcards are great for learning these verb parts, too.
Ah, you might be thinking. My foreign language has several different past tenses according to what you’re talking about! Spanish, for example, has the preterite for single, completed actions, and the imperfect, for repeated or habitual actions in the past.
Well, just take one of them. If you’re talking about stuff that happened in Spanish, then the preterite (the ‘story-telling’ past) is probably the best. In German, the perfect tense might be best, as it’s used as a ‘conversational past’. Whichever tense you choose, if you use it incorrectly, most native speakers will be forgiving and still understand. And comprehension is the name of the game, right?
So, here’s our ‘essential conjugation’ for the Spanish verb hablar (to speak):
The same goes for languages with different familiar and polite words for you. Pick just one, for now. Make it the one that makes most sense for you – I used the familiar in the Spanish above. If you’ll be speaking with peers and other students, then probably the familiar one is best. If you’ll be in lots of formal situations, learn the polite one.
To be, or not to be
Of course, you can go one step further, and not learn any endings at all. The trick is to find phrases that you can just slot that dictionary form – the infinitive – into. Then, just look up your word, pop it into your sentence, and voilà! Neatly-formed sentences without any effort.
Taking Spanish and French as an example, here are just a few stock phrases you can use with an infinitive:
|Hay que …
||Il faut …
||I/you/we must …
|Me gusta …
||I like …
|Voy a …
||Je vais …
||I’m going to …
Just look up a verb in the dictionary, and wodge it on the end. Simples!
It’s all about making your job as a learner easier. Simplify – you’ll be communicating all the sooner for it!