Verb Conjugations – Learning the Framework

Verb Conjugations

Conquering verb conjugations can be difficult and strenuous. Let me emphasize can be. And it’s true. They can be terribly frustrating because they constantly change and, as a new language learner, you are tasked with the responsibility of deciding which form to use within the context of your conversation. But just because they can be frustrating, doesn’t mean they are.

One of the keys to language learning is to recognize patterns and frameworks in your target language. Fortunately, conjugating a verb fits quite neatly within a patterned framework. Once you learn the frame it becomes relatively easy to decide how to conjugate the verb. For illustrative purposes I’ll be using Spanish, but you should keep in mind that most Greek and Latin based languages are structured in the same way, and so are many other languages around the world.

But first, a few quick notes. To understand verb conjugations, you must understand three things: Person, gender, and plurality. Here is a brief explanation of each:

Person – Refers to who is speaking. First person is you, second person is the one you’re talking to, and third is someone else (i.e. he/she).

Gender – Many languages, and especially romance languages, follow a “gender” based system. Words are either “masculine” or “feminine.” This may include inanimate objects, but here we will be using this with people.

Plurality – Simply refers to whether or not the word is plural (more than 1) or singular.

We will use these three criteria to “parse” (break down) and construct verbs. For example, “he walks” is (for me) third person, singular, masculine. “We talk” is first person, plural, and, by default in most languages, masculine (unless, of course, the “we” refers to an all-female group).

The Framework

To create a framework for verb conjugations, start by thinking of a set of railroad tracks. This will establish clear distinctions between the three kinds of “person” mentioned above:

The second division will separate plurality as follows:

When we combine the two images above, we get the framework for conjugating verbs:

This framework is where the magic happens. In its beautifully simple way, it gives your brain a way to categorize verb conjugation information – a system of folders, if you will. The English equivalents of the above framework look something like this (using the verb “to speak” as the example):

Notice that in English our conjugations are fairly easy; the verb itself doesn’t change much, for the most part. Other languages, however, aren’t always so forgiving. Let’s look at some examples from Spanish, which uses the following suffixes for verb conjugations with verbs ending in -ar:

From here it’s not a bad idea to just memorize the endings themselves – it’s a lot easier than trying to memorize whole words with the endings attached. Once you feel comfortable with the endings, all you need to do is plug the correct ending onto your root word, and you have a completely conjugated verb! Let’s look at the verb hablar, which means “to speak.” In Spanish, the -ar ending drops off and is replaced with the suffixes from above (languages will differ in how the verb is actually conjugated, but most will follow some sort of pattern to maintain consistency). So from here, we simply attach “habl-” to our endings to produce:

We could replace hablar with another verb ending in -ar with the same results. But it should be clear that this framework is simply a way to help your brain categorize information. If remembering person, gender, and plurality bogs you down at first, then use the framework as a visual map to help your brain code “hablo” as meaning “I speak.” This is the first step to translation.

Keep in mind that many exceptions exist to this general framework, especially when you consider all of the irregular verbs that exists in languages. But generally speaking, this framework should help to guide you when attempting to learn the difficult task of conjugating verbs.

Have you found any other ways of simplifying verb conjugations? Let me know in a comment below!

2 comments
Kenny
Kenny

Thanks for the feedback, Fasulye! There are, of course, exceptions - for example, Spanish formal verbs break the rules a bit - but for the most part, I have found this framework invaluable in learning verb conjugations. It's a pleasure to read your perspective.

Fasulye
Fasulye

The general structure of verb conjugations is very well explained here and with this structure in your head you can use it for any language. I couldn't explain it better and the visualisation of the structure makes it easy to understand. Fasulye