Don’t Study French Grammar, Do This Instead!

If you studied French at school, your teacher probably asked you to learn the conjugation of the verb “avoir” and “être” by heart at some point.

He told you that’s necessary, because “you can’t master the French language without learning grammar rules”.

Considering that the majority of students who learn languages this way fail, I’d argue that this isn’t only wrong, but also counterproductive.

You do need to know French grammar to become a confident French speaker, but you absolutely don’t need to learn grammar rules.

Here is what you should do instead!

Why studying grammar is often a waste of time

Studying grammar is boring

how to master French grammar
Copyright: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo

So boring that you most likely avoided doing it when your teacher asked you to do it.

If you did study, you did it because you had to and didn’t enjoy it at all.

The result? You quickly forgot everything.

Our brain constantly has to decide what’s important and what’s not, what it should remember and what it should forget.

This is a healthy process, we need to forget so we can move on with our life.

But this also means that our brain will often consider that what’s boring is what we should forget.

As a result, you are unlikely to memorise grammar rules if you learn them by heart the same way you’re unlikely to memorise  a list of words.

There are often more exceptions than rules

For any given rule you learn in French, you’ll probably have to learn an impressive number of exceptions.

This means that you’ll not only need to think about the rules when you speak, you’ll also have to wonder if you’re not dealing with an exception.

By the time you’re done thinking, your conversation partner will be sleeping.

Knowing the rules doesn’t mean you’ll be able to apply them

I regularly speak with French learners who know grammar rules better than I do.

They proudly tell me that French adjectives have no secrets for them anymore and that they learned how to conjugate the present tense by heart.

And then they make mistakes as soon as they speak.

That’s because knowing the rules doesn’t mean you’ll know how to apply them.

Most French speakers don’t know the rules, they don’t know why they say things the way they say them.

All they know is that it sounds right.

As a French learner, you need to develop this feeling of correctness too, because when you use the language, you won’t have the time of think about rules.

Learning grammar in context is proven to work better

The fifth rule of French Together is to learn grammar in context, and there is a good reason for that: it works better.

The famous linguist Paul pimsleur once made the following experiment:

Certain classes would practice saying pronoun-filled sentences in the language laboratory, without hearing any rules, while other (“ control”) classes would learn them by the usual method— a statement of rules followed by written and oral exercises. Then both groups would take the same test. Paul pimsleur

The result?

The outcome was that, when both groups were tested on their ability to say and write French sentences containing pronouns, the students who had spent only sixty minutes practicing in the lab did slightly better than those who had spent more than a week on it in class.Paul pimsleur

When should you study grammar rules?

I spent most of my life hating German grammar. I hated that something as simple as knowing whether a word is feminine or masculine seemed so hard.

Until I discovered that all German nouns ending in “tät” are feminine.

Suddenly, I was able to easily know the gender of most of the nouns I encountered.

Learning that there is a link between the ending of a noun and its gender helped me, because this rule (or rather pattern) is easy to learn and applies to almost any sentence.

But most rules are hard to remember and rarely useful.

That’s why you should focus on learning vocabulary and not make grammar a priority.

That or you could simply learn grammar naturally.

How to learn grammar naturally

If you want to develop the feeling of correctness I mentioned above, you need to do what native speakers did when they learned French: get a ton of exposure to the language.

If you regularly hear and read French you can partly understand, your brain will naturally learn to recognise patterns and you’ll quickly be able to tell whether a sentence is correct or not.

It takes lots of time, but you can accelerate the process by using a SRS software like Anki.

Anki is a software that’ll allow you to create virtual flashcard.

The software will then tell you when to study your flashcards so you quickly memorise them.

You can learn more about it The ultimate guide to learning vocabulary.

Step1: find example sentences

Let’s say you want to master the French present tense.

The first step is to find lots of example sentences using the present tense. These sentences should be:

  • Useful (can you imagine saying that one day?)
  • Not too long
  • Correct (make sure the sentence was written by a native speaker)

Step2: create flashcards with a SRS software

Once you have your sentences, open Anki and add them with their translation.

If you’ve audio to go with the sentence, that’s even better!

how to learn French grammat with a SRS software

Step3: open Anki everyday and study

Now all you have to do is open Anki everyday and review your sentences.

After a while, you’ll naturally be able to tell when something is correct and when it’s not.

Oh and I strongly encourage you to use Anki to learn vocabulary too. Check out the Ultimate Guide to Learning Vocabulary to learn how to do that.

how to learn French grammar with anki

Over to you

Have you ever tried to learn French grammar in context? How did it go?

Benjamin Houy

Benjamin Houy is a native French speaker and tea drinker with a BA degree in Applied Foreign Languages and a passion for languages. After teaching French and English in South Korea for 7 months as part of a French government program, he created French Together™ to help English speakers learn the 20% of French that truly matters.

28 thoughts on “Don’t Study French Grammar, Do This Instead!”

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  1. I completely agree that grammar rules do not enable you to speak a language. It’s more important for reading, but doesn’t help at all in learning to speak. When I joined a conversational French group and met others who had 17 years of study but still couldn’t form a sentence, it was further proof that knowing rules doesn’t help. It’s not how we learn our own language as children and shouldn’t be how we learn as adults. Reading simple stories, conversational phrase books, and listening to spoken French phrases has done more for me than all the years of classroom study.

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  2. Canadian here, for the first year of learning french, all we did was etre and avoir. There were a few units and because our teacher was absolutely lovely we got introduced to a show called “parlez-moi” I think. But the entire curriculum for that year was learning a few loosely related nouns and using etre and avoir with them. And I find grammar interesting now, but as a fourth grader, it killed any intrinsic motivation i had to learn french.

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  3. I am a French teacher, and I agree that vocab comes before grammar, but…without grammar, there are no sentences and no communication.
    I like to move to simple sentences including the new vocab and of course, the point of the lesson, so students can deduct meaning automatically. At the end of the lesson, I reverse the process and ask them to tell me how to say these simple sentences in French. Works like a charm! The point? a bit of everything works best; no lengthy explanation unless students have questions ( they have a textbook to do the explanations, after all!).Check on it the next day and most likely, they’ll remember!

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  4. I have not read the article but with 60 years having elapsed since I learned my French the old-fashioned way (and my German, too) I don’t welcome the idea that grammar rules are of no use. Whatever I learned then has never left me and it is what distinguishes me from modern day students. I had a foundation on which to build my knowledge. Those who cannot grasp or have no patience with grammar are simply not equipped to be language students. There is a certain type of individual that is equipped to speak another language-it is having a natural ear for language (usually musically gifted), and without that it would be an uphill struggle. Ability to speak another language can be acquired by listening and living the language every day. However, to be able to speak it as a native speaker one has to understand the structure of one’s mother tongue in order to achieve a level of fluency in another language. That equates to understanding the grammar of one’s own language first. Grammar is essential. Like you wrote, we speak our own language having assimilated and practiced it every day in the course of our lives and we don’t have to think what to say, it comes naturally. I am a language teacher and whoever has learned from me has welcomed being taught grammar and its rules.

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    • He sells fantasy! How can you say anything without understanding present or past tense, singular or plural forms, pronouns, etc? Maybe yes by total immersion but even so gradually you understand the difference between
      “je suis” and “je sais” etc .

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  5. Oh my gosh, I’m a sophomore currently and my school fired our french teacher, so we only have spanish… which sucks! But anyway to get an honors degree I have to take 3 years of a language and I’m on my second year of online french…. and I hate it, I love the teacher but that’s about it, but these have helped me so much. I’ve been in the grammar unit for a week and I still couldn’t get teh hang of it… 🙁

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  6. J’adore la grammaire! Et oui… Having said that I found it very useful to know English grammar when I went abroad. It helped me learning the rest. I wasn’t fluent then but it was what helped me through the process of understanding others and making myself understood. I’d say that vocabulary is more important but it’s good to be able to refer to the past correctly to make yourself understood.

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  7. For e.g.. think about Je suis chaud…NEVER say this to a french person you do not know…hahaha! Most French people understand that you are learning and will make mistakes.

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  8. Also I think I’m of a minority because I actually find learning French grammar really interesting! I find the patterns and learning the structures fascinating but I can’t explain why – it just seems very logical (most of the time but the exceptions are interesting as well)

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    • I’m the exact same way! I could spend hours just studying le conditionnel and le futur simple. It’s a relaxing way for me to unwind from all the other college happenings. But, of course, I want to move from knowing the rules to being able to use and speak them effortlessly

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  9. I just want to say thank you so much for learning to speak English fluently because it’s a ridiculously hard language to learn and it’s really only the lingua franca because Britain tried to invade everywhere (or at least that’s what it seems like in my opinion)! I can imagine how much time and effort you must have had to put into it to become fluent – I’m not yet fluent in anything other than English but I love foreign languages so I hope I can reach a high level of fluency in many different ones. I feel very fortunate that English is my first language just because it’s such a random mush of other languages. Your articles are very useful for learning French so thank you for creating them as well! 🙂

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  10. I mostly agree that learning grammar in class is, for me, an exercise in futility. But recently, my tutor asked me to send her several essays in French before each session. I was astonished how much this improved my usage and comprehension of French. I can now write whole sentences in French without the use of a dictionary (except for the accents).

    Here is how I was able to accomplish this in 5 months: I started by embracing the French language. By doing so, the learning process became a challenge, not a chore. Then I studied grammar in classes and tutoring sessions. Lately, I’ve been putting my grammar into use by writing in French.

    My ultimate goal is, of course, to speak French fluently SOON, which I think I can do.

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  11. I recently started going to a class to improve my conversational French. It is run by a French person so I thought it would be perfect. The main focus was…. grammar. I thought the teacher would address us in French but it was conducted in English & we were told how wrong it is to use inflection at the end of a sentence rather than inversion of verb & noun or est-ce que. We spent the whole lesson forming questions & negative questions in this way. Is it right that no adult would ask a question by keeping a statement structure but expressing as a question? I was always taught that this was acceptable but my teachers were previously English natives, not French. Many thanks.

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    • There are lots of cases when using inflection at the end of the sentence is a perfectly acceptable way to ask questions in French:

      T’es où ? Where are you ?
      Ça va ?

      You are much more likely to hear people use inflection and inversion in everyday life but using inflection is considered quite informal. You can do it with friends and family members (and should if you want to sound more French) but should be careful if you do that with people you don’t know.

      “Est-ce que” is a good middle ground. Not too informal but not too formal either.

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    • I was also taught by my French teacher that it is necessary to use subject verb inversions to ask questions in French or you may use EST-CE QUE. Either is acceptable. Using the ENGLISH method of raising pitch is NOT.

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  12. OK what do you do about a Brit that understands discounted cash flow but cannot distinguish between, and doesn’t know the difference between an adjective, noun, verb etc, and thinks a split infinitive is a physics term? I want simple conversational French I can build and am not interested in formal rules. I can write a business plan in English despite my shortcomings. I need convincing.

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    • Isn’t a split infinitive a physics term? 🙂

      If you want to be able to speak basic French and don’t want to bother with rules, your best bet is to listen to lots of everyday French conversations and simply look at the translation of basic French sentences you would need.

      French and English are quite similar in the way they are constructed, so most sentences are pretty easy to understand from a grammar point of view and all you often need is to compare the French and English version.

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      • Thank you that’s useful. I’m not afraid to look foolish or make mistakes- but I did accidently tell a French banker the other day his French was rubbish, I meant mine, ooppsss. Still, I forgiven when its the other way around, mistakes are natural. Once I get the basics the subtleties will come.

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    • You will be happier if you take the time to learn even some basic grammar. Grammar is rule oriented just like learning accounting. There is s logic to it. It is consistent but I find the exceptions are interesting as well.

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  13. Hi, I just read this article, and find it quite interesting. My native language is Korean, and although I’ve never formally studied French, I learned English for long time and am still learning. I’m currently interested in learning French and happened to find this article.

    I agree that grammar should be automatic, as I now speak English while being very poor at explaining its grammar. However, I still think learning grammar is nontrivial in order to speak any language accurately. My native language is Korean, and it’s an isolated language so different from others so even linguists find difficult where it’s originated. I think that when your native language shares nothing with the new language, not learning grammar might be even more frustrating. Moreover, I think that learning a foreign language is not usually done in ideal situations where you can naturally recognize grammar patterns. Native speakers have the entire day learning their languages when they are babies, but we don’t. Grammar is certainly not the best plan, but the best among plan B’s.

    Nevertheless, I can’t agree more by grammar being automatic. Speaking any language can’t just work in the way by plugging words into grammar forms. I’m just pointing out that, in the course of learning, or in the beginning, learning grammar is still important and effective for many people.

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    • Oh I totally agree. I just think grammar should come after learning vocabulary, not before.

      For example, if you see a sentence, you could learn about grammar and see how it applies to the situation. But learning random grammar rules doesn’t work in my experience.

      When I learned Korean, I learned quite a lot of grammar. But always in context.

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  14. A great article, Benjamin and very encouraging. I’ve been using PC software for 2 1/2 years, which uses immersion French and as you say, I have to discern the grammar and patterns. I was always bored of grammar at school, and again as you say, native speakers use correct grammar without knowing the rules or terms. I have your Amazon book and am just about to start the chapter on grammar. Well done on such a great site.

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    • Yeah learning grammar by heart doesn’t work in my experience. It’s counterintuitive but I think the best way to learn grammar is not to study it.

      But I plan to create more articles showing patterns in French grammar. That’s something that can make it much easier to learn at first.

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      • That is right. I learnt most when I was searching what I need. For example, There are many words that I don’t know in my native language because I do not need them. I finished something like Comparative Literature, and and Read a lot. That increases my vocabulary very much, in different languages and areas, but some words or sort of it are too special, local or just unnecessary. But I could understand almost everything in different languages when it comes to my favorite topics. It means that I learn only that I need to express myself. In French case I am lover of Stendhal, Laclo I am not sure that is right spelling, Propustena, some Flouber, something from Lacan, offcource Râbles, some culture, food, design, painting, music, themes.

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  15. I appreciate this article. Like you say rote learning in itself is not so efficient. This is the reason, for instance, for which initially I never could remember well the main English irregular verbs list. Then I started to change my approach.
    In particular, I choose to avoid flashcards because to me are boring and prefer in place of that to repeat words and structures with a lot of reading.
    There are different approaches toward the acquisition of grammar, that in way or another is necessary to be learned. Here is suggested an approach that makes use of drills to check and internalise language patterns
    https://www.languagesurfer.com/2014/11/20/the-grammar-wheel/
    Anyway, I think that the point is about to continue to stay in the language, with some checks: this can be done through practising drills or by noticing details on what one is listening, reading and then searching for the explanation when something become necessary.

    A thing completely apart from this article -knowing you know the German language- maybe it could be of some interest to you this:
    The Great Vowel Shift
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLMpTdAsGH0
    I heard talking about the Great Vowel Shift in a debate on BBC radio, it was being said that this is one of the point explaining the differentiation of Germanic languages. (And also responsible -if I have understood- of the variety of accents in Great Britain). But, honestly, I still have to understand this information and how to possibly use it.

    Reply

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