The problem with conjugations and tenses
In my recent efforts to re-learn and learn a bunch of languages, I’ve noticed several trends in the majority of grammar books I’ve leafed through both in book form and on the internet. When learning romance languages, it’s critical to properly and fully understand the grammar as they apply to verb conjugations and tenses. I’ll be using French as an example in this post.
In my use of these references the trends I’ve noticed are:
- The terms used to describe the tenses are overly technical and are essentially unrelated to what they are describing.
For example, the ‘imperfect’ tense refers to the past tense. I think it’s essentially meaningless to the casual learner to refer to it as the imperfect tense. In fact, why is it imperfect? Then there’s the perfect tense, also used to describe the past.
Another example is the subjunctive. The what? I hear you ask. Well, the subjunctive describes a conditional future. That is, when expressing it, the speaker has some doubt over whether the future being described will be true or not. For example, in the expression ‘It’s important that he be here…’ the speaker uncertain whether the person will, in fact, be here in the future. It needs a special grammar and in French this would be ‘Il faut qu’il soit ici’, where ‘soit’ is the third person subjunctive of être. We don’t use it very often in English any more.
Don’t get me started on the pluperfect. What is that??!!
- In most grammar books I’ve seen, the grammar and specifically tenses are presented in an almost continuous stream of facts that must be rote learned. The only concessions to the learner are a brief introduction and some examples.
- The various tense tables are presented according to the technical name of the tense and then each conjugation is presented with no English equivalent. In order to learn the tables, people essentially need to rote learn the whole lot.
- Verb tables differ considerably in their completeness depending on the author.
I think there are two things missing in how the grammar is presented / taught. The first is a conceptual model clearly showing the tenses in relation to a timeline. And the second is to simply include the English (or other language) equivalent of a tense and conjugation.