Lost in Conjugation

By my count I've studied (thought not even close to mastered) the following tenses in French: le présent, l'imparfait, le passé composé, le plus-que-parfait, le passé recent, le futur simple, et le futur proche. All of this is in l'indicatif. I've also studied le conditionnel (not quite sure how say "mood" en Français.)


All of these tenses and moods seem intimidating. But they are mostly intimidating (I suspect) because we encounter them on AP exams or while crashing through Berlitz. But as puzzles--as lego pieces--they are fascinating. The  imperfect reflect some continuous action taken in the past ("When I was a child, I would run around the neighborhood.") The compound past reflects some action taken at particular time ("On Saturday, I ran a 5k.) But you can combine aspects of the imperfect and aspects of the compound past to get the pluperfect ("I had carbo-loaded, before I ran the 5k.") And these combinations spiral out into the conditional, into the future and so on. Part of learning the language is understand which combination to apply in which situation.

There's some very visual and very cool about it. I'm sure we do the same thing in English. But because I learned English at such a young age, and because I've been writing for so long, I can't really "see" it. Having to experience it this way is rather special. It is as though I am hacking my own brain or attempting to upload new programming. 

And I can feel the actual effects. When I first started studying all I heard was blur of language. And then I could hear words and sentences. And then I could pick out particular words and sentences. And now I can hear whole sentences which register as foreign and know what they mean.  None of them sound as native to me as English which sounds like "thought," if that makes any sense. But the language comes closer. It becomes a polite friend, whereas once it was a stranger on the street. Now I've just got to get out the friend zone.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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