The Difficulty in Learning New Languages

Learning another language is always difficult, and a lot of us know that first hand through studying different languages in high school and etc. I took three years of French during high school and not going to lie I aced both freshmen year and sophomore year. However, come junior year I was completely lost. First year French and second year French were all memorization of easy words like “yellow” (jaune) and “skirt” (jupe), as well as a lot of game playing (and we got candy if we won!), so junior year hit me pretty hard when we switched gears to actually learning how to form proper sentences. After struggling through the class I dropped out of French the summer before senior year.

Bonjour, hello in French written on a blackboard.

Dropping was a huge mistake. Maybe I would actually still be able to speak some French if I had stuck it out.

Nonetheless, here is the main reason why I struggled through my last year of French:

Passé Composé vs. Imperfect

Dun. Dun. Dun.

After you learn all of the easy vocabulary of a new language you have to learn how to actually form sentences. That’s the kicker. Which is where the verb tenses begin to come in, and where Whitney as a French student began to check out. However, a simple way of understanding Passé Composé and the Imperfect is this;

The imperfect in French translates to the imperfect in English, such as, “I was eating.” While on the other hand, the passé composé translates to the English present perfect, such as, “I have eaten.” The trick with the passé composé is it can also be translated as the English simple past, such as, “I ate,” or the emphatic past, such as, “I did eat.”

I’m lost all over again, but we’re going to keep going.

Generally speaking, and thanks to help online, the imperfect describes past situations, while passé composé narrates specific events. More specifically, there are rules to follow when using either, and indicators to help with the struggle.


-Habitual actions or states of being (I worked with my father last year)

-Physical and emotional descriptions: time, weather, age, feelings (When he was five, he was always hungry)

-Actions or states of an unspecified duration (He was hoping to see you before you left)

-Background information in conjunction with the passé composé (He was at the bank when he found it)

-Wishes or suggestions (How about going out tonight?)

-Conditions in si clauses – If-Then clauses (If he wanted to come, he would find a way)

– The expressions être en train de and venir de in the past (He had just arrived)

And here are a list of the French Imperfect conjugations, which I actually remember!

Pronoun Ending parler > parl- finir > finiss- étudier > étudi- manger > mange- être > ét-
 je (j’)  -ais parlais finissais étudiais mangeais étais
 tu  -ais parlais finissais étudiais mangeais étais
 il  -ait parlait finissait étudiait mangeait était
 nous  -ions parlions finissions étudiions mangions étions
 vous  -iez parliez finissiez étudiiez mangiez étiez
 ils  -aient parlaient finissaient étudiaient mangeaient étaient


Passé Composé:

-An action completed in the past (They have already eaten)

-An action repeated a number of times in the past (We’ve visited Paris several times)

-A series of actions completed in the past (When I arrived, I saw the flowers)


A list of French Passé Composé conjugations:

AIMER (auxiliary verb is avoir)
j’ ai aimé nous avons aimé
tu as aimé vous avez aimé
il, elle a aimé ils, elles ont aimé
DEVENIR (être verb)
je suis devenu(e) nous sommes devenu(e)s
tu es devenu(e) vous êtes devenu(e)(s)
il est devenu ils sont devenus
elle est devenue elles sont devenues
SE LAVER (pronominal verb)
je me suis lavé(e) nous nous sommes lavé(e)s
tu t’es lavé(e) vous vous êtes lavé(e)(s)
il s’est lavé ils se sont lavés
elle s’est lavée elles se sont lavées


Below is a key with words and phrases that generally associate themselves with either the imperfect or passé composé, making it easier to detect which one is being used.

Imperfect Passé composé
chaque semaine, mois, année every week, month, year une semaine, un mois, un an one week, month, year
le week-end on the weekends un week-end one weekend
le lundi, le mardi… on Mondays, on Tuesdays… lundi, mardi… on Monday, on Tuesday
tous les jours every day un jour one day
le soir in the evenings un soir one evening
toujours always soudainement suddenly
normalement usually tout à coup, tout d’un coup all of a sudden
d’habitude usually une fois, deux fois… once, twice…
en général, généralement in general, generally enfin finally
souvent often finalement in the end
parfois, quelquefois sometimes plusieurs fois several times
de temps en temps from time to time
rarement rarely
autrefois formerly


Whew. Look for a follow-up to this post later in the coming weeks!

Until then,





  1. Wow, French is even more complicated than I had thought! I think when it comes to learning new languages, it’s important to dive in to things like sentence structure right away. I took ASL in PSEO, and my professor explained the basic sentence structure on day one. After that we weren’t allowed to use English in class, which was difficult sometimes, but it ensured that we were actually learning to communicate rather than just learning random words.

    1. I think you are so, totally right. I am incredibly jealous of your knowledge of ASL! That is one of my goals for the future, but on another note, that is an extremely beneficial way to teach so that the student really gets as much out of the class as possible when you are not allowed to speak any of your first language.

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