Teaching French in an Academic Context: How to Overcome Challenges Related to the French Past Tense System

The comprehension and effective correct use of tenses is especially challenging for Hebrew-speaking learners of French, since the Semitic source language (in the case of the Israeli academy, the Semitic L1 is not always a mother tongue) and the Roman foreign target language (L2) have radically different verbal systems.

In French, the tense-aspect-mood forms are categorized into the indicative, subjunctive, imperative, and conditional finite moods, as well as into three non-finite moods (the infinitive, past participle, and present participle). These simple forms can be further categorized into four tenses (future, present, past, and future-of-the-past), or into two aspects (perfective and imperfective). French tenses and moods come in two forms: simple (a single word) and compound, with “être” and/or “avoir” as auxiliary verbs.

The French indicative mood alone comprises eight tenses – présent ‘present tense’, passé composé ‘compound past tense’, imparfait ‘imperfect’, plus-que-parfait ‘pluperfect’, passé simple ‘simple past/ perfective past’, passé antérieur ‘the perfect form of the simple past tense’, futur simple ‘future’, and futur antérieur ‘future perfect’. This number can be increased to ten tenses for those who also include the future-in-past (i.e., future-as-viewed-from-the-past tense–aspect combination, which is morphologically equivalent to the present conditional) and the future perfect in the past (morphologically equivalent to the past conditional).

Modern Hebrew has only three tenses in total, – past, present, and future – and three moods (indicative/declarative, imperative, and infinitive).

In light of these discrepancies, our paper addresses the challenges related to the acquisition of the French indicative mood tenses by Hebrew-speakers learning French as a foreign language in an academic environment, and focuses particularly on the past tense-aspect microsystem. We will start by describing the basic differences between the two verbal systems, and specifically the disparities related to the expression of perfective and imperfective aspects. Secondly, we will examine the way Israeli handbooks for French learning (Gabbay, 1972; Shor, 1993; Her, 2008) attempt to overcome these obstacles. Thirdly, we shall propose tools and methods designed to (a) help students fill the gap between Hebrew and French tense-aspect divergences; (b) improve students’ awareness of the effective use of different tenses and aspects; (c) help students become accustomed to a system where aspectual nuances are expressed grammatically instead of lexically (for instance, by means of adverbs). The results of our first field analysis should hint towards an added value of the suggested method, and eventually indicate its efficiency in the case of learners of French whose L1 is other than Hebrew.