Mais c’est vrai que les étudiants ont tendance à vouloir savoir ce qui est correct. Et c’est tout-à-fait légitime. Et je les comprends tout-à-fait. Et j’encourage pas du tout l’incorrection, c’est pas ça. Mais en tout cas, parfois il peut y avoir des cas, surtout dans un contexte, voilà, d’écriture créative, où quelque chose qui n’est pas usuel va devenir d’autant plus intéressant à travailler.
When learning a language, the first challenge is to know where to begin. Should I listen and repeat? Should I study the rules of grammar? Should I be learning verb conjugations off by heart? And so on.
If there’s no one answer, it’s partly because different solutions work better for different people, depending on age and aptitude. But it’s also because the learning process is a complex one, for which a blended approach often works best. Let’s look at the question taking a single expression from this month’s interview: parfois il peut y avoir des cas où…
The phrasebook approach
To know what parfois il peut y avoir des cas où means, a quick solution is translate it into your language using deepl. In English the result is: Sometimes there may be cases where.
Let’s suppose, for the sake of example, you think it’s a kind of phrase you’d like to add to your repertoire. You could jot it down in your notebook or add it to your Anki cards if you prefer digital methods. Invest a little time memorising it and it’ll become part of your French armoury.
So far, so good. There’s nothing wrong with the phrasebook approach when you’re starting out. But it will only take you a short distance. There’s only so much the human brain can absorb through pure memorisation: the task soon becomes overwhelming.
Grammar as a multiplier
Let’s instead stop and analyse the expression. If you know a little French, you’ll know that Il y a means there is. And if you know how to conjugate the verb avoir, you can come up with variations like:
Il y avait
Il y aura
Il y aurait
Il y a eu
and in the near future we have:
Il va y avoir
This isn’t a verb tense, it’s a two-part construction:
The means y sticks alongside the infinitive, unlike with the past tense. Compare:
Il y a eu
Il va y avoir
Now if we go back to the example, we can see that it’ i’s just another variant of the expression il y a.
Parfois il peut y avoir des cas où…
We can think up lots more along the same lines.
Il pourrait y avoir…
Il semble y avoir…
Il doit y avoir…
Il devrait y avoir…
So now we’ve got ourselves a cluster of very common French expressions we can use and listen out for.
Back to rote learning
It’s at this point learning by rote can come in.
To be able to use these expressions in a live situation, they need to trip off the tongue without thinking. And that means training the link between thought and mouth movement.
Anki flashcards are a good way to accelerate the process. You can use the Reverso website to find some example sentences, stick them on Anki and use the Hyper TTS extension to have them read out to you.
This pack of cards contains examples from this lesson, to give you a model to work from.
The unexpected bonus
We’re remarkably good at deducing grammar rules without being aware of it: that’s how we learn languages as children. So whilst drilling yourself on the different ways of saying There is, your mind will be twigging that this knowledge can be applied elsewhere. All of a sudden a whole bunch of other expressions will be tripping off your tongue without you having to think about it.. nous allons y revenir.
Memorising a phrase book, sitting down with a grammar book or repeating verb tables are valuable activities in themselves, but may prove to be dead ends. If instead you start with the direct experience of a sentence that you’ve heard or read and then mix up your approaches, you’ll develop skills that have a wide range of application. And at that point, the task of learning French will start to seem much more manageable.