Linguistics

How to Learn Verb Conjugations: A Toolkit

I’ve gotten a lot of emails asking for help with grammar. Most of those emails had questions about learning verb conjugations, so I thought it might be handy if I blogged a bit about that topic. I’m going to give you as many tools as I can here, so buckle in; this is going to be a lengthy post. ????
Verb conjugations can feel overwhelming. There’s usually a lot of information to learn. It can be unclear precisely how to learn that information. And that lack of clarity makes it hard to figure out where to begin.

The Simple, Piecemeal Approach

Lately, when I learn verbs, I alternate between two different approaches. The first approach is pretty simple: whenever I encounter a conjugated verb in a sentence, I learn that particular conjugation, along with the infinitive of that particular verb.
So if I encounter ​a sentence like this one:

Cuando estaba en la universidad, vivía con otros 7 estudiantes en un apartamento​.
When   (I was)  in  the  university, (I lived) with  other  7  students  in  an   apartment.

​Then often, I’ll create the following flashcards for “estaba” and “vivía”, and then move on to the next sentence (I’ll just show the front sides, to save time/space):

4 flashcards for “estaba” (I was):
4 flashcards for “vivía” (I lived):

I discuss these flashcard types over in this blog post. (And for those of you who have read it already, yes, I’ll often add definition cards too, if I’m at a high enough level in Spanish to understand those definitions)
This approach gets a bunch of extremely valuable information into my head: I’m learning infinitives for two essential verbs (“to be”, “to live”), along with two really common past tense conjugations (“I was” and “I lived”).  I’m also connecting these chunks of information to each other (vivir ⇆ vivía), and to a bunch of imagery and story-related data (i.e., these are the right verb forms to use to tell a story about where I lived during college).
That said, this approach is definitely not comprehensive. In a grammar book, a verb like vivía shows up in a giant chart, like this:

So…what about the other billion-and-a-half conjugations on that chart? How do I become comfortable with those?
There are two solutions here, and I’ll start with the simpler one.
The first solution, is that you just keep on doing the simple, piecemeal approach. Over time, you’ll find that you naturally start to pick up an ability to conjugate verbs. This is, after all, how you picked up your native language; it’s not like your kindergarten teacher handed you a conjugation chart and told you to color it. You simply encountered a whole bunch of sentences and over time, intuitively began to understand the patterns that connected those sentences.
For that reason, I tend to stick with the simple, piecemeal approach for a long time when I’m first learning a language. When creating sentences for my 625 wordlist with a tutor, I’ll generally learn my verbs with this piecemeal approach for most of the first 200-400 sentences I create. I’ve found that by the time I get halfway through my list, I’m actually pretty decent at conjugating verbs in most common circumstances. It’s only when I try to use less common constructions that I start struggling, and even then, I can fix those struggles by deliberately seeking out or creating sentences that fill in my knowledge gaps. If I can’t seem to correctly conjugate verbs when the subject is in the 2nd person plural (i.e., “y’all were” and “y’all lived”), then I may spend an hour with my tutor, making a bunch of examples for verb that start with “y’all.” Or if I’m struggling with Spanish’s subjunctive mood (“I wish that she were here right now!”), then I may spend an hour with my tutor, focusing on examples of that.
But…you can only fill in holes when you know where they are. If you’ve never heard of the ‘subjunctive mood,’ then it’s not going to be very easy for you to proactively seek out sentences that include it. So after you’ve played around with the simple, piecemeal stuff, you may want to flip over to a different approach – something a bit more deliberate and comprehensive. Let’s talk about that approach now:

The Comprehensive Approach

To learn verbs more deliberately, let’s break down the learning process a bit. Practically speaking, learning to conjugate verbs in a new language is a three step process:

  1. Learn About a Conjugation Pattern
  2. Get Example Sentences and Supplemental Resources
  3. Memorize

We’ll go through each step, one by one.

Step 1: Learn about a conjugation pattern

In this step, you’re trying to learn two different things:

    1. What’s the purpose of this verb conjugation? What information does it convey?
    2. How does the verb’s spelling change in order to convey that information?

The Purpose of a Verb Conjugation: Storytelling

New language learners often struggle with the feeling that verb conjugations seem like random, extraneous information to memorize. What’s the point? Why can’t we just say things like:
THAT BURGER LOOK GOOD! I WANT EAT BURGER! YOU! GIVE BURGER ME!
​Usually the answer we receive is something like “Well, that’s not correct grammar, so you can’t say that”. . . but ultimately, that’s a really unsatisfying answer. Merely following rules in order to follow rules can feel empty and annoying, and annoyance can turn into resentment and sap your motivation when you’re learning a language. Let me try to give you a more satisfying answer:
Verb conjugations store extra, key data about the stories you’re trying to tell. In English, for instance, we say: “I walk in the park.”
In Spanish, it’s:

Camino      en      el      parque.”
(I walk)      in       the       park.

Spanish’s “camino” tells you the following four chunks of information:
Definition: There’s walking going on.
Grammatical Roles (aka Case Information): Here, the speaker of the sentence is doing the walking. Even though there’s no “Yo” (I) in the sentence, this particular verb form is only used when the speaker is doing the walking.
Time (aka Tense Information): This is happening now, in the present
Reality of the Situation (aka Aspect Information): This is actually happening. We’re not talking about a walk that I’d theoretically like to take someday, or a walk that I would have taken, but didn’t have a chance to take.

​Note: These four chunks of information aren’t universal – some languages store less information within their verbs, and some store more – but these four are pretty common, so if you aren’t sure about what information to look for in your verbs, start with these. You can get a more in-depth discussion about these chunks of information in this article on grammar.

​In some ways, these four chunks of information are just a detailed way to answer the question, “What kinds of stories can I tell with this verb form?”  You grapple with this question automatically with the simple, piecemeal approach. Here, we’re just thinking about it consciously and making sure we understand all the pieces. By doing this, we’re going to make the learning process feel more comfortable; it’s easier to memorize information when you fully understand what you’re learning.
To build this understanding, crack open a grammar book, find the first page that delves into a verb form in depth (usually they’ll start with the present tense), and read the explanations until you really understand what’s going on. You’re looking for information about the stories you can tell with a particular verb form (i.e., the English simple present tense is used to talk about habits [I smoke], repeated actions [I walk to school at 9am] and facts [Chicago has excellent food])
If you don’t feel fully comfortable with the explanation in your grammar book, then supplement it with additional material. Find the jargon-y, grammatical name of the verb form you’re studying in your book (“Present tense indicative”. . . “subjunctive imperfect”. . . etc.), and then Google it (e.g., “spanish subjunctive imperfect”) and see what explanatory websites you can find. They’re often quite good.  Alternatively, chat with a tutor, though you may find that you need a tutor with teaching certifications to really clarify when and why you should use a particular verb form. (Untrained tutors may not know exactly why they’re using a particular form, other than a vague feeling that one verb form feels right in a particular context.)

Understanding Spelling Changes

In those same pages of your grammar book or grammar website, you’ll find intimidating looking conjugation charts, like the giant chart for vivir we encountered earlier. More importantly, you’ll find some explanations about how that chart works. Specifically, how a verb’s spelling changes in order to encode information. As discussed above, that information might include data about the grammatical roles (I), time (in the past), and the reality of the situation (I really did live in that college apartment).

For many languages, you’ll learn that each verb’s definition tends to live in the first few letters, known as the “stem”, and the rest of the data is often encoded into the last letters, or endings, of each conjugation. (So for vivir (to live), the stem is “viv“, and some conjugations would include vivo = I live, vives = you live, vive = he lives, and vivía = I lived, viviría = I would live, viviré = I will live, etc.)
Grammar books will divide their discussions about verbs into specific verb forms that allow you to tell specific sorts of stories. The very first verb form you’ll encounter in your grammar book will almost always be some sort of ‘present tense’ verb form – some way to tell stories about things happening now. They’ll give you some sample sentences, tell you about the sorts of stories you can tell with this verb form, and then they’ll start to break down the spelling patterns. As an example, for the present tense of Spanish’s vivir (to live), you get something like this:

(yo) vivo   –  I live
(tú) vives   –   you live
(él/ella/Usted) vive  –   he/she/You(formal) lives
(nosotros) vivimos   –  we live
(vosotros) vivís   –   y’all live
(ellos/ellas/Ustedes) viven  –
they(masc./fem.)/y’all(formal) live

​Then they’ll start mentioning that this pattern of endings repeats across lots of different verbs:

-o
-es
-e
-imos
-ís
-en

​So you can plug in some other stem and the same stuff happens. Here’s “abrir”:

(yo) abro   –  I open
(tú) abres   –   you open
(él/ella/Usted) abre  –   he/she/You(formal) opens
(nosotros) abrimos   –  we open
(vosotros) abrís   –   y’all open
(ellos/ellas/Ustedes) abren  –
they(masc./fem.)/y’all(formal) open

For Spanish, you can use these endings for most verbs that have an infinitive ending in “IR.”  Practically speaking, this means that you don’t need to learn a giant pile of conjugations for “vivir” and then another giant pile of conjugations for “abrir.”

​As soon as your book shows you this information, you’re ready for the next step.

​Step 2: Get Example Sentences and Supplemental Resources

​Scenario 1: You’re learning Spanish. Your book shows you these endings, and all of them are new to you. You understand that they’re used to tell stories about the present, and they work with verbs ending in “IR,” like “vivir” (to live), “abrir” (to open), “existir” (to exist), “ocurrir” (to occur), recibir (to receive), etc.

-o
-es
-e
-imos
-ís
-en

In this scenario, you’ll want the following:

  • 6 example sentences, one for each ending. Each sentence uses a different ending. Each sentence tells a significantly different story that can work with a completely different image. You can use the same verb for all six sentences, or switch the verb each time, as long as you understand that all six sentences are a part of the same pattern. You’ll get these sentences from the examples in your grammar book, from online resources like linguee.com, or best, from a tutor.
  • Additional example sentences for every kind of story you’re missing: Each verb type tells certain kinds of stories. Here, the Spanish present tense is used for Habitual Actions, Things Happening Now, Things Happening in the Near Future, Statements of Fact, etc. If your 6 sentences don’t include clear examples for each story type, then add a few more sentences, so that you’re memorizing at least one example for every use of the verb form you’re learning. When you make flashcards for these, put a little note on the back of those flashcards (in your target language or even in your native language), referring to the story type (e.g., ‘un habito’ (a habit), ‘ahora’ (now), ‘pronto’ (soon), etc.) These example sentences are easy to take directly from your grammar book.
  • A conjugation chart for each verb you use. You’ll probably want to find a website that allows you to easily look up a conjugation chart for any verb. I recommend Verbix.com for most languages for this purpose. You’ll put this conjugation chart on the back of each flashcard you create. To get the appropriate chunk of that chart onto the back of your cards, you’ll want to use a screenshot tool (Mac | Windows)
  • (Optional) Recordings of your sentences. You’d get these from our tutoring app.
  • (Optional) Monolingual definitions for your verbs. If you can understand enough of your target language to understand 80% of the words in a monolingual dictionary definition, then you’ll want definitions. Get them from an online dictionary. We generally link one in each of our multisearch scripts.

​Scenario 2: You’re learning Spanish. Your book shows you some endings, and some of them are new to you. Perhaps some of them are familiar because they’re the same as another set of example sentences you created. Or perhaps you were using the simple, piecemeal method described earlier, and you’ve already covered some of the verb endings that way. You’ve read your grammar book and you know what kinds of stories you can tell with this new set of verb endings.
In this scenario, you’ll want the following:

  • Example sentences for each new ending. You don’t need to learn new examples for old information. If a verb behaves in a predictable manner except for one specific situation, then just grab a sentence for that single situation.
  • Additional example sentences for every kind of story you’re missing: Same as before; fill in any storytelling gaps.
  • Conjugation charts, recordings (optional) and monolingual definitions (optional), as before.

​Step 3: Memorize

Your main tool here, naturally, are flashcards. Lately, I’ve been using New Word cards and Root Form cards (the cards at the beginning of this article and described in this blog post), rather than the Word Form cards described in the book, but you can use either option and they’ll work well.
Make these flashcards with one modification: include conjugation charts on the back sides of your flashcards, and refer to those conjugation charts when you review your flashcards.
Once you’ve done this, then you can either return to the piecemeal approach until you encounter another troublesome hole in your knowledge, or you can skim to the next new verb form in your grammar book and repeat steps 1-3.​

Verb Mnemonics

You have one supplemental tool, and that would be verb mnemonics. I’m going to show you how to use them, but I’d actually recommend not using them unless you feel like they’d be helpful. I’ve run into the situation twice now, where I’ve worked hard to create verb mnemonics for Spanish and Japanese, and then I found that I wasn’t using them at all. As it turned out, my flashcards were working well enough that I didn’t need mnemonics, and so that extra work was wasted. To spare yourself the same fate, start with flashcards. Then, if you find that you’re having trouble remembering your flashcards, add mnemonics, as needed, to help.

When to use verb mnemonics

Generally, a language’s verbs fall into groups. In Spanish, for instance, there’s one set of endings for verbs that end in “IR” (like vivir – to live and abrir – to open)​, another big set of endings for verbs that end in “ER” (comerto eat), and a third big set of endings for verbs that end in “AR” (hablarto speak). Then there are a bunch of smaller groups – these are the “irregular” verbs – which are usually groups of 1-40 common verbs that behave similarly when it comes to their endings/conjugation patterns.
Mnemonics are useful when you already know the right endings for each of your language’s groups, but you’re having trouble remembering which verb falls into which groupBoth of these ingredients are important. You need to already know how multiple groups are conjugated, and you also need to answering your flashcards incorrectly, because you’re struggling to remember which group fits the verb you’re memorizing.

Returning to Spanish as our example, you’ll find that Spanish has some verbs where the endings are the same as you’d encounter for standard verbs, but the stem (the first few letters) changes in a few particular cases. They’re often referred to as ‘boot’ verbs because you can draw a boot around the weird conjugations in a typical conjugation chart:

When you encounter a new verb in Spanish, you may have trouble remembering whether it follows the normal pattern, or this particular ‘boot’ pattern with that altered “ie” spelling in the stem. If that happens to you frequently, then you’ve found a situation that warrants a mnemonic.

​How to use mnemonics

Once you’ve identified the groups that are causing you trouble (e.g., -“IR” verbs and -“IR” verbs with preferir-style stem changes in that ‘boot’ pattern), then choose an object or a person for each group.

Object examples:
Regular “IR” verbs: large gold hoop earrings
“IR” verbs with preferir-style stem changes: cowboy boots
Person examples:
Regular “IR” verbs: Barney the Dinosaur

“IR” verbs with preferir-style stem changes: The Man in Black from Westworld

It doesn’t matter much if you choose objects or people at this point.
Next, create 4 flashcards (Use the “2. Mnemonic” card model from the typical Fluent Forever model deck.):
Card 1 (Front | Back):

Card 2 (Front | Back):

How to fill out the fields for Cards 1-2:

Card 3 (Front | Back):

Card 4 (Front | Back):

Once you’ve created and learned those flashcards, then keep learning new example sentences with verbs normally, as you were before. Every time you get a flashcard wrong, specifically because you have trouble remembering whether a verb is a regular “IR” verb like vivir – to live, or a stem changing “IR” verb like preferir – to prefer, then you’ll use your mnemonic. 
To do this, you’re going to incorporate your mnemonic image (that object or person you chose) into the imagery of the example sentence.
Suppose you encounter this example sentence:

Una empresa honesta nunca miente a sus clientes.
An honest company     never    lies to/cheats its clients.

You make some flashcards for the verb in this sentence, pairing the sentence to these Lincoln Logs (surely all companies that sell Lincoln Logs are honest):

Una empresa honesta nunca __ a sus clientes.

Unfortunately, you discover that most of the time you encounter this flashcard, you want to erroneously say “mente” (normal “IR” conjugation pattern) instead of “miente” (stem changing “IR” conjugation pattern). Now you use your mnemonics. The next time you get that flashcard wrong, spend a moment to imagine cowboy boots, crushing the Lincoln Logs box.  (Or, if you’re using people, then you might imagine the Man in Black constructing The Maze from Westworld out of Lincoln Logs)
The next time you encounter your flashcard, you’re going to be more likely to remember the strange imagery you created. When you do, take a moment to recall what that imagery means (this is a stem-changing verb!), then use that information to produce the correct answer (miente). If you succeed, you win. If not, spend a moment to create more vivid imagery (GIANT COWBOY BOOTS ARE MADE OF LINCOLN LOGS, CRUSHING YOUR HOME TOWN! NO!). Keep up this cycle until your tricky cards are no longer tricky.

When and How to use Multiple Mnemonics

I mentioned above that ‘It doesn’t matter much if you choose objects or people at this point.’ As you continue to use mnemonics, you may discover that a verb can unpredictably fall into multiple, independent groups. In our previous example, “Una empresa honesta nunca miente a sus clientes” (An honest company never cheats its clients), our verb is a stem changing verb, but it also uses a particular preposition: “a” (to) before “sus clientes” (their clients). Some similar verbs will use a particular preposition, like “a” (to) or “de” (from), and some won’t use any prepositions at all.
This is another situation where you may discover that you’re frequently getting your flashcards wrong. If that happens, then choose additional mnemonics to attach to each of those situations (e.g. “a” = oak tree, “de” = “watermelon”, [no preposition] = laptop sleeve). If you do this, you may find that it’s easier to add a Person and an Object to a story (The Man in Black picks up an Oak Tree and smashes this box of lincoln logs!), rather than 2 Objects (Cowboy boots fall from Oak Trees and smash Lincoln Logs?). That’s when it may be prudent to think about whether your mnemonics are People vs Objects.
​And with that, we’re through with our discussion of verbs! If you have further questions or strategies that you’ve found helpful, let me know in the comments!

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