A fun way to understand conjugation of verbs

Languages are messy things. Not least English, with what Geoffrey Pullum so brilliantly described in The Chronicle of Higher Education last month as its ‘horror show phonology’ and ‘grotesque consonant clusters’, which he argues render it radically unsuitable as a global lingua franca.

This aleatory messiness is what makes languages human. They’re messy because they’re alive, evolving, experimental, always branching out in different directions. New words are added, old ones are modified, misspelled and mispronounced, imports are accommodated, grammatical ‘errors’ are adopted. Writers play around with syntax and elision, and there are moments when the character constraints of Twitter can make poets of us all.

This organic growth accounts for what might be called the ‘natural’ beauty of language: its charms and idiosyncrasies are reminiscent, as Wittgenstein suggested, of the twists and turns in an ancient city. But these irregularities can also cause frustration, when pupils feel they are losing their way in the labyrinth.

So where there is clarity, we should hang on to it. Not only hang on to it, but foreground, emphasise and underline it.

And clarity, perhaps surprisingly, is to be found in verbs.

When people complain about languages, they often point the finger at wayward irregular verbs. But the underlying logic of verb conjugation is really very simple. And it never changes.

In my view you can teach the full conjugation of the verb from any age, so long as – perhaps counter-intuitively – you also explain from the outset why it works the way it does. The metadiscourse is crucial. Get it right once, for one verb, and you can (if you so choose) get it right for all time.

And just as in basic Maths, it all comes down to how you set out your work. This is sense that you can see.

Where most (not all!) textbooks go wrong is in listing the conjugation as a single column, with only the most rudimentary connection between the different parts, which then encourages rote learning uninformed by understanding. Instead, singular and plural 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd-person forms of the verb should be lined up neatly side by side.

But then again, the textbooks don’t really matter, because a vital part of the learning process is for pupils to write the conjugation out for themselves, and to practise doing so as they would the routines of basic arithmetic. Please don’t start by handing out a printed list of tabulated conjugations. It might be the last word in perfection, but precisely for that reason the eye – and with it the brain – will just slide indifferently over the surface.

Set the handwritten conjugation out in table form, but without ruled lines; the lining up is all in the handwriting (in itself a valuable cross-curricular discipline). If English is included it should be underneath the target language, preferably in pencil, so that it informs without imposing. No arrows or equals signs. Nothing to distract from the essential information.

Take the time to do it well. And practise doing it well. Until doing it well is akin to second nature. That might sound draconian, but with high expectations from lesson one it shouldn’t take that long.

And the beauty of it is, whatever the verb, it will always follow the same rules. A phenomenon rare enough in language learning for it to be worth making a fuss about.

Children will mostly associate the concepts of singular and plural with nouns, and if you ask them to make a word plural their first instinct will be to add an ‘s’. But they’ll have a bit of a laugh if you try following that rule with verbs. It may come as a revelation that in English we pluralise verbs by changing the subject pronoun, and that the plural of ‘I love’ is ‘we love’, and nothing to do with the letter ‘s’ at all. Adding an ‘s’ will just make you sound like the pig eyeing up his beloved turnips in that old children’s television classic Fourways Farm (“I loves ’em I do”) or more likely Popeye (“I can’t stands it no more”).

Then again, if you are teaching Spanish, your pupils will suddenly appreciate that the apparent tedium of having a unique verb ending for each of the six grammatical persons is in fact an elegant means of liberating you (for much of the time) from the bother of pronouns at all. The French of course have it both ways.

In reflecting on the logic of conjugation your pupils may also experience something of an existential awakening (their parents, on the other hand, may be making quite different connections). They will be familiar with the distinction between 1st- and 3rd-person narrative from English lessons, but probably won’t have had much time to ponder the finer philosophical implications.

Aha, they now think. I am the first person or hero, the eponymous protagonist in the story of my own life. When I am born, I am (briefly) aware only of myself. Then a second person appears, in the shape of a parent, then a third, whether relative or friend.

It’s easy and effective to model this in the classroom. ‘I’, in this case the teacher, can have a personal conversation with ‘you’, a selected pupil, rather exaggeratedly making the eye contact that defines and confirms our conversational relationship. Then you and I can have a cheeky conversation about a third person in the room, without looking at them of course, or maybe with just a sneaky complicit glance or two to single them out. This encounter can be watched by ‘them’, the rest of the class, whom you may also choose to speak about. But, if you turn to speak to them, addressing them directly, ‘they’ are suddenly transformed into ‘you plural’, a crucial switch of identity and point of view.

Then, just in case you have any nervous, sensitive types, you can smooth over any awkwardness by reaffirming that ‘we’, the whole class, including the teacher, are a cohesive, mutually supportive group. I’m not a big fan of role plays, but in this case they work. As do comic strips.

Funny how much you can glean about the human condition from learning how to conjugate a verb.


Dr Heather Martin is a languages specialist and tweets @drheathermartin.

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