A to Z of Learning a Foreign Language

As a language tutor, I am regularly asked about different language terms. Below is a guide to some key terms that you may come across while learning a foreign language.

I have limited this page to dealing with Spanish, French, Italian and German, which are languages for which I offer tuition.

The idea behind this page is to give you an idea of some linguistic terms I could help you with during tuition.

Feel free to contact me on adam@farehamtutor.co.uk, particularly if you would like to take foreign language tuition with me (to learn/improve Spanish, French, Italian or German). We could do a one-off session or ongoing sessions. Either way, I would love to hear from you!


Aquí, Acá, Ahí, Allí and Allá (& Hay)

There are a few words for ‘here’ and ‘there’ in Spanish, which can be confusing. The different words for ‘here’ and ‘there’ are explained here.


The Accusative Case

The Accusative Case in German typically relates to the Direct Object of a sentence (e.g. who is being seen, what is being read, etc) but is also compulsory when used with certain German prepositions. The words for ‘the’ and ‘a’ for singular nouns in the Accusative case in German are:

  • den and einen (for masculine singular nouns)
  • die and eine (for feminine singular nouns)
  • das and ein (for neuter singular nouns)

Plural nouns all take the word ‘die’ for ‘the’ in the Accusative case.


Adjectives

An adjective describes a noun (i.e. a thing, person, place, etc.). Examples of nouns in English include words such as ‘beautiful’, ‘small’ and ‘big’.

In English adjectives normally go before nouns, for example, ‘the tall man’.

Unlike in English, in Spanish, Italian and French in general adjectives go after the noun. There are however exceptions:

  • Some Spanish/French/Italian adjectives always go before the noun, because the adjective requires it.
  • Some Spanish/French/Italian adjectives go before the noun in other circumstances.
  • In all the languages I offer adjectives may require an ending added to the end of the adjective to agree with the gender of the noun being described. Most of the languages operate in different ways, so generalising here is not possible.

Links to my pages on adjectives:


Adverbs

An adverb describes how an action is being done. Most adverbs in English end in ly (e.g. slowly, quickly). By contrast:

  • In Spanish and Italian most adverbs end in ‘mente’
  • In French most adverbs end in ‘ment’
  • In German you use the default version of the adjective without any extra endings as an adverb (i.e. the dictionary form)

In all the languages that I offer adverbs never change. It makes no difference that a man or a woman is doing the action. The reason for this is adverbs describe how an action is being done. They are not describing the person or people doing the action.


Case System

The German language has a case system. This includes the nominative case, the accusative case, the dative case and the genitive case (all briefly explained on this page).


Conditional Tense

The conditional tense most commonly uses the word ‘would’ in English e.g. ‘I would go’. The reason why it is called the conditional tense is because the ability for the person to do the action is dependent on something happening or someone else doing something. There is usually an implied ‘if’ in sentences with the word ‘would’ in it.

Links to my pages on the Conditional Tense:

Spanish Conditional Tense

French Conditional and Future Tenses

Italian Conditional and Future Tenses

German Conditional and Future Tenses


Conditional Perfect Tense

This is expressed by the structure ‘would have -ed’, for example, ‘I would have talked to him’.


Continuous Tense

In English this is using the ‘to be’ verb plus ‘ing’ word in English, for example, ‘I am studying’ or ‘I was studying’.

In French, you should avoid the continuous tense, as it does not exist as such in this language. Instead you should just use the Present Tense for ‘am -ing’ etc. (e.g. Je parle = I am talking). For ‘was/were -ing’ you should use the Imperfect Tense (e.g. Je parlais = I was talking or I used to talk).

In Spanish, you should can use ‘estar’ in the Present Tense plus the Present Participle to say that you are doing something right now (e.g. Estoy hablando = I am talking). You should however avoid using this structure for talking about things you are doing on a longer term or generally (e.g. Aprendo a conducir = I am learning to drive, NOT Estoy aprendiendo a conducir). In any event the normal present tense is more popular than using this structure.

In Spanish it is also possible to use the Imperfect Tense of estar plus the Present Participle to say what someone was doing (e.g. Estaba hablando = I was talking). However, in most circumstances people tend to use the normal imperfect (e.g. Hablaba = I was talking). Link to my guide on how to use Spanish Continuous Tense here.

In German you should avoid the continuous tense, as it does not exist as such in this language. Instead you should just use the Present Tense for ‘am -ing’ etc. (e.g. Ik spreche = I am talking). For ‘was/were -ing’ you should usually use the Imperfect Tense (e.g. Ik sprach = I was talking) or possibly the Perfect Tense (Ik habe gespochen = I have talked/I talked, or possibly, I was talking).


Da quanto tempo?

In Italian when you say that you have been doing something, unlike English in Italian you use the present tense. To form questions you use da quanto tempo.

To find out more see my page on ‘Da quanto Tempo?’ here.


Dative Case

The Dative Case in German typically relates to the Indirect Object of a sentence, usually a recipient of something in a sentence (e.g. to whom something is said, to whom something is given, etc), but is also compulsory after certain German prepositions. The words for ‘the’ and ‘a’ for singular nouns in the Dative case in German are:

  • dem and einem (for masculine singular nouns)
  • der and einer (for feminine singular nouns)
  • dem and einem (for neuter singular nouns)

Plural nouns all take the word ‘den’ for ‘the’ in the Dative case.


Direct Object

The Direct Object of a Subject in a sentence typically tells us who is being seen, what is being read, etc.

Also see: ‘The Accusative Case’ (for German) above

Also see: ‘Personal ‘a” (for Spanish) below


Estar

Estar and Ser are two important verbs which translate as ‘To be’. Learn how to use Ser and Estar here.


Future Tense

The future tense tells us what ‘will’ or ‘shall’ happen in the future or what someone ‘will’ or ‘shall’ do in the future.

Links to my pages on the future tense:

Spanish Future Tense

French Future and Conditional Tenses

Italian Future and Conditional Tenses

German Future and Conditional Tenses


The Genitive Case

The Genitive Case in German typically shows ownership in a sentence, but is also compulsory after certain German prepositions. The words for ‘the’ and ‘a’ for singular nouns in the Genitive case in German are:

  • des and eines (for masculine singular nouns)
  • der and einer (for feminine singular nouns)
  • des and eines (for neuter singular nouns)

Plural nouns all take the word ‘der’ for ‘the’ in the Genitive case.


Imperfect Tense

The imperfect tense is used in French, Spanish, German and Italian languages for descriptions in the past and to say what someone ‘used to do’ or ‘was doing’.


In bocca al lupo

This is not a grammar term as such, but an Italian expression that commonly confuses people. It means ‘Good luck’ in Italian. See more about ‘In bocca al lupo’ on my page here.


Indirect Object

The Indirect Object of a sentence is usually a recipient of something in a sentence (e.g. to whom something is said, to whom something is given, etc).

See also ‘Dative Case’ (for German) – above


Infinitive

The Infinitive of a verb is the ‘to….’ version, for example, ‘to eat’, ‘to sleep’, ‘to talk’. Typically it is the second verb in a sentence, for example, ‘I want to talk‘, ‘He needs to sleep‘, etc.

The infinitive in the various languages is as follows:

  • In Spanish the infinitive ends in ‘ar’, ‘er’ or ‘ir’ (e.g. Hablar = To talk, Comer = To eat, Salir = To go out)
  • In French the infinitive ends in ‘er’, ‘re’ or ‘ir’ (e.g. Parler = To talk, Vendre = To sell, Sortir = To go out)
  • In Italian the infinitive ends in ‘are’, ‘ere’ or ‘ire’ (e.g. Parlare = To talk, Vendere = To sell, Uscire = To go out)
  • In German the infinitive normally ends in ‘en’ (e.g. Sprechen = To speak, Verkaufen = To sell)

In all the languages I offer, where one verb follows immediately another one (with limited exceptions) typically the first verb has an ending, whereas the second verb stays as the infinitive. Examples:

  • Spanish: Necesito hablar/comer/salir = I need to talk/to eat/to go out
  • French: Je veux parler/vendre/sortir = I want to talk/to sell/to go out
  • Italian: Voglio parlare/vendere/uscire = I want to talk/to sell/to go out
  • German: Ich will sprechen/verkaufen = I want to talk/to sell

Be aware that in Spanish, French and Italian some verbs require a preposition (see ‘Prepositions’ below) to be inserted between the first and second verb, for example:

  • Spanish: Aprendo a conducir/Dejo de fumar = I am learning to drive/I am giving up smoking
  • French: J’apprends à conduire/Pienso en viajar = I am learning to drive/I am considering travelling
  • Italian: Imparo a guidare/Penso di viaggiare = I am learning to drive/I am thinking about travelling

There is no rule as such on which verbs require a preposition and which don’t. It is a case of learning a list of verbs which require a preposition and which preposition they use. For more details, feel free to contact me.

Also, most German verbs require ‘zu’ to be inserted before the second verb, for example:

  • German: Ich brache zu sprechen = I need to talk

For more details on the above, feel free to contact me.


Nominative Case

The Nominative Case in German relates to the Subject of a sentence, namely who is doing the action. The words for ‘the’ and ‘a’ for singular nouns in the Nominative case in German are:

  • der and ein (for masculine singular nouns)
  • die and eine (for feminine singular nouns)
  • das and ein (for neuter singular nouns)

Plural nouns all take the word ‘die’ for ‘the’ in the Nominative case.


Noun

Nouns are things, people, places, etc. Examples of nouns in English include ‘man’, ‘woman’ and ‘book’.

Also see ‘Noun Gender’ below


Noun gender

In English we think of people having a gender, but we do not usually think of objects as having an gender. However, in all the languages I offer every noun has a gender, namely:

  • In Spanish, Italian and French every noun is either masculine or feminine.
  • In German every noun is either masculine, feminine or neuter.

Knowing which gender a noun is matters. The reason why this matters is adjectives as well as words such as ‘the’, ‘a’, etc. may have different endings depending on the gender of the noun being described.


Perfect Tense

The Perfect Tense is a past tense and used in all the languages I teach in slightly different ways.

In French, German and Italian it is the most common tense used in the past for expressing having done something.

By contrast, the imperfect Tense tends to be the most commonly used tense for descriptions in the past. See ‘Imperfect Tense’ (above).

Links to my pages on the Perfect Tense:

Spanish Perfect Tense

French Perfect Tense

Italian Perfect Tense

German Perfect Tense


Personal ‘a’

In Spanish the word ‘a’ is put in front of a direct object whenever it is a specific person (or specific people) or a pet (or pets) e.g. Veo a Juan (I see Juan). There is no direct translation for the word ‘a’ where it is used in this way in Spanish.

See ‘Direct Object’ above


Pluperfect Tense

The Pluperfect Tense tells us what someone had done.


Possessive Pronouns

Possessive Pronouns are words like ‘my’, ‘your’, ‘his’, ‘her, ‘our’ and ‘their’. They are the words that are used to show ownership.

In Spanish, French, Italian and German possessive pronouns act like adjectives. They have to agree with the thing(s) being owned, not the owner.


Prepositions

Prepositions are words which connect two nouns. In English these are words, such as ‘with’, ‘without’, ‘to’, ‘at’, ‘for’, ‘in’, etc.

  • In Spanish examples of prepositions are ‘con’ (with), ‘sin’ (without), ‘a’ (to) ‘en’ (at/in), ‘para’ (for) and ‘por’ (by/through, etc.).
  • In French examples of prepositions are ‘avec’ (with), ‘sans’ (without), ‘à’ (to/at/in), ‘en’ (to/at/in) and ‘pour’ (for).
  • In Italian examples of prepositions are ‘con’ (with), ‘senza’ (without), ‘a’ (to/at/in), ‘in’ (to/at/in) and ‘per’ (for).
  • In German examples of prepositions are ‘mit’ (with), ‘ohne’ (without), ‘in’ (in/into), ‘zu’ (to) and ‘für’ (for).

In all the languages I offer some verbs require prepositions to be inserted before nouns when certain verbs are used. The prepositions do not always correspond to the equivalents in English. For example, in Spanish you say that you dream WITH something, not dream ‘of (e.g. Sueño con…. = I dream of BUT literally ‘I dream WITH’).

In Spanish, French and Italian some verbs require a preposition when followed by another verb (e.g. In Spanish, I am learning to drive = Aprendo a conducir).

Also see ‘Prepositions’ above.


Present Tense

The Present Tense tells us what is happening now as well as what someone does generally. This includes the variety of structures that we have in English, such as ‘I talk’, ‘I am talking’ and question forms such as ‘Do you talk?’ and ‘Are you talking?’

Links to my pages on the Present Tense (further pages will be added over time):

Spanish Present Tense

French Present Tense

Italian Present TenseItalian Present Tense Irregular Verbs

German Present TenseGerman Present Tense Irregular Verbs


Preterite Tense

The Preterite Tense is the most commonly used Spanish past tense. It is used to describe actions in the past, typically, what someone did. The Preterite Tense may also be used for descriptions of past events in limited circumstances. However, the imperfect tense is more common than the Preterite Tense for describing the past.

See Imperfect Tense (above)


Radical Changing Verbs

See ‘Stem-Changing Verbs’ below.


Reflexive Verbs

A reflexive verb is a very in which a person does an action to themselves. In English we do not use reflexive verbs so much, but they are common, to varying different extents, in all the languages I offer.

They are the equivalent of using the words ‘myself’, ‘yourself’, etc. in English. In French, for example, ‘Je me lave’ translates literally as ‘I wash myself‘.

Links to my pages on reflexive verbs:

Spanish Reflexive Verbs

French Reflexive Verbs

Italian Reflexive Verbs

German Reflexive Verbs


Ser

Ser and Estar are two important verbs which translate as ‘To be’.


Stem-Changing Verbs

Stem-Changing Verbs are often called Radical Changing Verbs. However, I prefer the term ‘Stem-Changing Verbs’, because it is more descriptive. There are some key points to try to remember about this type of verb:

  • The stem of the verb is the first part of the verb (i.e. the part of the verb onto which the verb ending is added). By way of example, for the verb ‘dormir’ (to sleep), the stem is ‘dorm’.
  • Some Spanish verbs change the spelling of the stem for all people in the Present Tense, except for the nosotros (we) and vosotros (you – talking to 2(+) friends, etc) forms of the verb. These forms do not have the stem change in the present tense.
  • The most common types of change are from ‘o’ to ‘ue’, from ‘e’ to ‘ie’ and from ‘e’ to ‘i’.
  • The verb ‘Poder’ (To be able) is an example of a stem-changing verb. This verb has an ‘o’ to ‘ue’ pattern.

The verb ‘Poder’ is a typical example of a stem changing verb. In the Present Tense it is as follows:

  • Puedo = I can
  • Puedes = You can (speaking to one friend)
  • Puede = He/She/It can + You can (speaking to one stranger)
  • Podemos = We can
  • Podéis = You can (speaking to 2(+) friends)
  • Pueden = They can + You can (speaking to 2(+) strangers)

From the above example, you can see that the verb endings are normal ones for the Present Tense for an ‘er’ type verb. The only difference is for the first three verbs and the last one the stem has changed from ‘o’ to ‘ue‘.

The stem change for most verbs is limited only to the Present Tense.*

*There is a small change for the third person singular and third person plural for stem-changing ‘ir’ ending verbs in the Preterite Tense, but the Present Tense is much more important for most learners.


Subjunctive

The Subjunctive is something which exists in all the languages I teach, but is not commonly used in English. Generally speaking, the subjunctive is used to express doubt, uncertainty or possiblity, rather than fact.

Tackling the subjunctive is something that usually more advanced learners need to focus on.

The subjunctive, especially in French, Spanish and Italian covers a wide range of situations. Usage however differs enormously between languages. Focusing on just one situation where the subjunctive is commonly encountered in these three languages, the giving of opinions, you can see usage however differs enormously. By way of example:

  • Italian verbs of opinions require the subjunctive (e.g. I think that he is Italian- Penso che (lui) sia italiano/I don’t think that he is Italian – Non penso che (lui) sia italiano).
  • In Spanish and French positive opinions however use the indicative (i.e. normal non-subjunctive tense) (e.g. I think that he is Italian – Pienso que es italiano/Je pense qu’il est italien). However negative opinions would trigger the subjunctive (e.g. I don’t think that he is Italian – No pienso que sea italiano/Je ne pense pas qu’il soit italien).
  • In German the subjunctive would not usually be used for either of the above situations.

This is not to say that opinions are the only situation where the subjunctive may used. The above examples are just to illustrate that the subjunctive varies enormously between languages. It is therefore impossible to summarise the subjunctive for all four languages. During tuition we could cover the key aspects of the subjunctive for the language you are learning.


Tener

The Spanish verb ‘tener’ translates as ‘to have’. Sometimes this verb is used in situations where in English we would use the verb ‘to be’.

Link to my page explaining how to use the verb ‘tener’ in Spanish.


Tú, Usted, Vosotros, Vosotras and Ustedes

Tú, Usted, Vosotros, Vosotras and Ustedes are different words for ‘you’ in Spanish. See this page explaining the different words in Spanish for you here.


Verbs

A verb is an action word, in the sense that it tells us who is doing something. Examples of verbs in English include words such as ‘eat’, ‘sleep’ and ‘talk’.

In Spanish and Italian the letters at the end of the verb tell us who is doing the action. In Spanish, for example ‘hablo‘ means ‘I talk’ whereas ‘hablamos‘ means ‘We talk’. By contrast, ‘hablaremos‘ means ‘We will talk’. People do not usually use the words for ‘I’, ‘You’, ‘He’, ‘She’, etc. in front of the verb, because the verb ending (as well as the context) usually tells us who is doing the action.

In French and German the endings of the verb words confirm who is doing the action and when. In French ‘Je parle‘ means ‘I talk’ and ‘Nous parlons‘ means ‘We talk’. By contrast, ‘Je parlerai‘ means ‘I will talk’. Just like in English, these three languages put the equivalent words for ‘I’, ‘You, ‘He’, ‘She’, etc. with the verb.

In all the languages I offer help with, verbs do not have a gender. The ending is the same whether a male person or a female person is doing the action.


Still have questions? Do you need further help?

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me on adam@farehamtutor.co.uk (or by completing the Contact Form further below). I offer language tuition, namely in Spanish, French, Italian and German, and could help you with a one-off session on or on an ongoing basis.

Online Language Sessions details farehamtutor co uk