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. You will also find him giving blogging advice on Grow With Less.

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

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

    • 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 .

  3. 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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