Every language learner understands the importance of verbs and verb conjugation. Most of the time, French learners start off with the present tense. While this is important, you can't stop there. If you want to talk about something in the past, you'll need to know how to conjugate French verbs accordingly.
Unlike the present tense, there is more than just one way to conjugate French verbs in the past tense. For many beginner French speakers, this can be very daunting and, admittedly, it took me several years to confidently use all of the French verb tenses. However, you're reading this in English which means you've already mastered a language with numerous past tenses, so don't worry! You've got this!
Luckily, you don't need to master every French verb tense in order to be understood. Having a basic understanding of each tense, though, will greatly improve your French and help you feel more confident.
Where Should You Start?
As you learn French, you'll realize that there are a lot of complex concepts that will need to be tackled slowly and over time. Conjugating French past tenses are one such concept.
You don't want to overwhelm yourself, so take things nice and slow. Don't be afraid to ask questions and look for answers online. The French language community is very large and when it comes to French grammar, you won't be the only one with questions.
As for where you should start with the past tenses, most French students begin with passé composé and work from there.
If you're not already familiar with the many French verb tenses, though, and really don't understand when to use each one, don't worry! You're not alone! Here's a crash course on knowing which verb tense to use.
The passé composé is essentialy the same as the English simple past: I did, I saw, I looked, etc. It can also sometimes mean the same thing as the English present perfect: I have done, I have seen, I have looked, etc. It has three primary uses:
- To talk about actions in the past that happened one time: Je suis tombé(e).
- To focus on the result of the completed action: J'ai terminé mon examen.
- To list a series of actions completed one right after the other: Je suis allé(e) au marché, j'ai vu une amie, et j'ai bu du café.
When you're just beginning to learn French, you can get by just fine with only knowing the present tense and the passé composé. Knowing its uses can be helpful as you learn more French verb tenses, though, so keep the above in mind even if you haven't started on other verb tenses.
Forming the Passé Composé
I won't talk much about how to form each of these tenses, as this post is more focused on helping French learners know the difference between each tense. However, if you want an explanation on how to form the passé composé, here is a good resource that you can check out on your own.
The second verb tense most French learners discover is the imparfait. As it is usually the second French past tense that's learned, many people who learn French are left confused on the differences between the passé composé and the imparfait.
As a rule of thumb, the imparfait is used in the following scenarios:
- To describe an action that continued or was repeated in the past: Quand j'étais petit(e), j'allais à l'école.
- To provide background information or context: Il habitait près de la mer.
- To describe two or more actions that happened at the same time: Sarah lisait son livre et buvait son té.
- To focus on the duration of the action: Le gateau cuisinait pendant 25 minutes.
The imparfait is a bit more fluid than the passé composé, but the two tenses often work in tandem together. For example, if you wanted to show something happened suddenly (in the past), you would need to use both:
- Je marchais dans le parc quand j'ai vu un oiseau: I was walking in the park when I saw a bird.
The use of imparfait here (je marchais) provides background information or context while the passé composé (j'ai vu) shows an action that happened once.
For a long, more in-depth discussion of the two, here's a video you can watch that discusses the passé composé vs imparfait conundrum that many French learners experience.
Think of the plus-que-parfait as another step back in the past. It's similar to the English past perfect: I had done, I had seen, I had looked, etc. Fortunately, it only has one primary use:
- To express a past action completed before another past action: J'avais habité à Paris avant d'habiter à Londres.
The plus-que-parfait can appear on its own just like the English past perfect can, but it's important to understand that it's used to express a past action that happed before something else. Even if you never explicitly state what the second past action is, it's implied that it exists.
Forming the plus-que-parfait isn't hard once you've learned both the passé composé and the imparfait, but here's a guide on forming it if you need it or just want a refresher.
The final French past tense is the passé simple. Many French language learners may not know about it, and that's perfectly alright! Unless you're reading a lot of old, French literature, you most likely won't encounter the passé simple.
The passé simple is so rarely used that my main experience with it was many years ago when I was learning French. Our teacher spent less than one lesson on it, but she wanted us to know it existed so we weren't confused if we ever saw it. After that, I saw it every now and again, but never frequently enough to suggest spending hours studying this verb tense.
Nevertheless, if you were to use the passé simple, when would you do so? These days, it only serves one function:
- To express the passé composé in literary works.
Since I don't want to hunt down and include an excerpt from Victor Hugo's Notre dame de Paris, I won't give you an example. However, if you're really excited about the passé simple and want to know more about it, here's a ThoughtCo article on everything you could ever want to know about it.
Should You Learn All the French Verb Tenses?
If your goal is to become fluent in French and read the greatest French literary works in their original language, then the answer to the above question is "yes, absolutely". However, even if you want to be fluent without a passion for old French, then you don't need to include the passé simple on your list of "French verb tenses to learn".
In reality, you can get around the Francophone world with just the present and the passé composé, so don't feel pressured or rushed to learn the imparfait or plus-que-parfait. As you become more comfortable in the language, you can further push yourself and work on navigating the various French past tenses that exist.
There are a lot of language learning myths out there that can make you feel pressured to do more than you can handle. However, you know yourself best. Take the time you need, focus on what's important to you, and as you continue on your language learning journey, you'll find it gets easier and easier to tackle complex grammar issues.