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Why is conjugation usually the most important part of learning a language?

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People often wonder why verb conjugation is often considered the hardest part of the language. This post seeks to answer that question – at least to some extent. To answer it, we will answer two further questions:

  • Why are verbs in themselves important – what function do they have?
  • Why are verbs important in particular from the language learning perspective?

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What function do verbs play?

Verbs are usually the most important part of speech because they provide the crucial function of linking concepts together in terms of relations or actions. In general, verbs play a number of crucial functions:

  • relating objects – verbs show links between different objects; for example, they show how objects take up different attributes (‘I am a doctor’) or how they related to one another (‘she seems like a nice person’);
  • expressing actions – verbs allow different objects to act upon one another (‘the dog eats the food’), also allowing to locate those relations in time (compare ‘she drives’ to ‘she drove’).

Because of these significant functions, like no other part of speech, verbs enable languages to effectively represent different states of affairs in the world, therefore enabling communication.

Why are verbs important from a language learning perspective?

In the section above, we explain why verbs play an important part in a language – but that does not in itself justify why we focus on them. After all, nouns, adjectives, adverbs and all the other parts of speech also have a number of key roles in enabling communication (some more than others). So why all the fuss about the verbs?

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Well, the answer is – verbs are important from a language learning perspective because they are so complicated. In fact, if you compare translations at quite literally translated bilingual books, verbs are usually the most elusive ones to translate directly: there are just too many parameters of each particular verb, which make it hard to match it with verbs of other languages.

In most languages, verbs have the following characteristics:

  • tense – ordinarily at least the present, past and future;
  • person and number – normally we have two numbers (singular and plural) and three persons (self, interlocutor, other), therefore we derive six distinct persons and number combinations: I, you, he/she/it, we, you all, they;
  • mood – usually at least the indicative, imperative and more often than not also the subjunctive;
  • voice – regularly the active and passive moods (although languages like Greek also have a medio-passive one);

All in all, that creates at least around 3 * 6 * 2 * 2 = 64 possible different endings and combinations. While some of these endings are similar, the number of them is still quite staggering. Moreover, in many languages (especially Indo-European ones), verbs have different conjugation patterns, which effectively triples or quadruples the amount of possible endings. One simple verb stem can have in the order of a thousand different endings (not to mention the fact that verb stems themselves often change, esp. in languages like English).

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This sort of complexity is not easily replicated, as nouns, adjectives and other parts of speech usually have a much more limited number of possible combinations. For example, nouns regularly have only a handful of cases (in Indo-European languages, that number often happens to be around six) and then plural nouns (frequently formed in very regular ways). It is true that nouns have different declension patterns too, but even with those, the number of possible combinations can usually only go into the hundreds, and frequently it is even lower. Similar is true for other parts of speech. Not the case with verbs!

That is why we focus on verbs: they’re important, and they’re hard.

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