If you are having trouble with foreign language terminology in Spanish, French, Italian and German this guide is for you.
It will give you a better understanding of some key foreign language terminology in relation to the Spanish, French, Italian and German languages.
It is designed to be a quick reference, rather than a detailed reference, but other articles are available on this site by clicking on ´Learning Tips´ towards the top of this page.
This guide only relates to Spanish, French, Italian and German, so other languages are not considered.
The key terms below have been ordered alphabetically for ease of reference.
Accusative Case (German only)
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.
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 German adjectives also normally go before the noun, just like in English (e.g. der alte Mann = the old man).
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 being used is one which usually goes in front of the noun. Others usually go before the noun.
- Some Spanish and Italian adjectives go before the noun in other circumstances, for example, inherent characteristics usually may go before the noun (e.g. white snow, tall mountains, etc.). Usage however differs between languages.
- In all the languages offered adjectives may require an ending added to the end of the adjective to agree with the gender of the noun being described. The languages operate in different ways, so generalising here is not possible.
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). By way of example, “schnell” can mean “quickly” (as well as “quick”).
- In all the languages offered 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 (German only)
The German language has a case system. This includes the nominative case, the accusative case, the dative case and the genitive case. The different cases are all briefly explained on this page.
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 (i.e. conditional) on something else happening or someone else doing something. There is usually an implied ‘if’ in sentences with the word ‘would’ in it.
Conditional Perfect Tense
This is expressed by the structure ‘would have -ed’, for example, ‘I would have talked to him’. The formation of this tense in all the languages offered (French, Spanish, Italian and German) could be discussed during tuition sessions.
In English the continuous tense is formed 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 (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).
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. (e.g. Ich spreche = I am talking). For ‘was/were -ing’ you should usually use the Imperfect Tense (e.g. Ich sprach = I was talking).
Dative Case (German only)
The Dative Case in German typically relates to the Indirect Object of a sentence. This is usually a recipient of something in a sentence (e.g. to whom something is said, to whom something is given, etc). The dative is also compulsory after certain German prepositions and some verbs.
The Direct Object in a sentence typically tells us who is being seen, what is being read, etc. By way of example:
- Example 1: "The woman reads the newspaper", the newspaper is the direct object, as it is the thing being read. (For info: The woman is the subject).
- Example 2: "He cooks a meal", the meal is the direct object, as it is the thing being cooked. (For info: He is the subject).
- Example 3: "She sees a friend", the friend is the direct object, as the friend is seen. (For info: She is the subject).
Also see: ‘The Accusative Case’ (for German) above
Also see: ‘Personal ‘a” (for Spanish) below
The future tense tells us what ‘will’ or ‘shall’ happen in the future or what someone ‘will’ or ‘shall’ do in the future.
The Genitive Case (German only)
The Genitive Case in German typically shows ownership in a sentence, but is also compulsory after certain German prepositions.
The imperfect tense is normally used in the French, Spanish and Italian languages to say what someone ‘used to do’ or ‘was doing’. It is also normally used for descriptions in the past.
In German the usage of the imperfect tense is more complicated. Some people use it in a similar way to French, Spanish and Italian. Others also use it also to replace the Perfect Tense in some circumstances. Having said that summarising the usage in just a few sentences is impossible, as usage varies somewhat.
Also see ´Perfect Tense´ (for French, German & Italian) below
Also see ´Preterite Tense´ (for Spanish) below
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
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)
- Note: A limited number of German infinitives however end in ´rn´ or ´ln´ (e.g. segeln = to sail, feiern = to celebrate)
In all the languages offered, 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/He dejado de fumar = I am learning to drive/I have given up smoking (i.e. I have stopped 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 get in contact.
As regards German most (but not all) verbs require ‘zu’ to be inserted before the second verb, for example:
- German: Ich brauche zu sprechen = I need to talk (brauchen requires a zu)
- German: Ich muss sprechen = I must speak (müssen does not require a zu)
For more details on the above, feel free to get in contact.
Nominative Case (German only)
The Nominative Case in German relates to the Subject of a sentence, namely who (or what) is doing the action.
Nouns are things, people, places, etc. Examples of nouns in English include ‘man’, ‘woman’ and ‘book’.
Also see ‘Noun Gender’ below
In English we usually think of people having a gender, but we do not usually think of objects as having an gender. However, in all the languages offered 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.
The Perfect Tense is a past tense and is used in all the languages offered 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.
Also see ‘Imperfect Tense’ (above).
Personal ‘a’ (Spanish only)
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.
Also see ‘Direct Object’ (above)
The Pluperfect Tense tells us what someone had done, for example ‘She had already talked to him’.
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. The endings have to agree with the thing(s) being owned, not the owner.
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 offered 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).
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?’.
Also see: ‘Continuous Tense’ (above)
Preterite Tense (Spanish only)
The Preterite Tense is the most commonly used past tense in Spanish. It is used to describe actions in the past, typically, what someone did. In Spanish 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 descriptions in the past in Spanish.
Also see ‘Imperfect Tense’ (above)
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 offered.
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‘.
Stem-Changing Verbs (Spanish only)
Stem-Changing Verbs are common in the Spanish language. 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. In the Present Tense it is as follows:
- Puedo (NOT podo) = I can
- Puedes (NOT podes) = You can (speaking to one friend)
- Puede (NOT pode)= He/She/It can + You can (speaking to one stranger)
- Podemos = We can
- Podéis = You can (speaking to 2(+) friends)
- Pueden (NOT poden) = They can + You can (speaking to 2(+) strangers)
From the above verb, 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 forms 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.
The Subjunctive is something which exists in all the languages offered, 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 differs enormously. By way of example:
- Italian verbs of opinions whether negative or positive in nature usually require the subjunctive to be used afterwards (e.g. I think that he is Italian - Penso che sia italiano/I don’t think that he is Italian – Non penso che sia italiano).
- In Spanish and French negative opinions usually require 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).
- By contrast positive opinion verbs do not usually require the subjunctive (e.g. I think that he is Italian - Pienso que es italiano/Je pense qu´il est italien).
In German the subjunctive is used mainly for reported speech to show mutuality or to express doubt, but usage varies in practice.
Regardless of the above, the subjunctive is complex and is used in many ways not mentioned above. 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 in just a few words.
If you have a solid foundation in the language you are learning, you could cover the key aspects of the subjunctive for the language you are learning during language tuition.
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 (as well as when):
- In Spanish, for example ‘hablo’ means ‘I talk’ whereas ‘hablamos‘ means ‘We talk’. By contrast, ‘hablaremos‘ means ‘We will talk’.
- In Italian the equivalents are ‘parlo’ (I talk), ‘parliamo’ (We talk) and ‘parleremo’ (We will talk).
- With exceptions, people do not usually use the words for ‘I’, ‘You’, ‘He’, ‘She’, etc. in front of the verb in Spanish or Italian, because the verb ending (as well as the context) usually tells us who is doing the action.
In French the endings of the verbs 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, French puts the equivalent words for ‘I’, ‘You, ‘He’, ‘She’, etc. with the verb.
In German the endings of the verbs confirm who is doing the action in the present tense, for example:
- In German ‘Ich spreche’ means ‘I talk’ and ‘Wir sprechen’ means ‘We talk’.
- Just like in English, French puts the equivalent words for ‘I’, ‘You, ‘He’, ‘She’, etc. with the verb.
German also uses the verb werden in various forms to form the conditional and future tenses, for example:
- In German ‘Ich würde sprechen’ means ‘I would talk’ and ‘Ich werde sprechen’ means ‘I will speak’
In all the languages offered, verbs do not have a gender. The ending is the same whether a male person or a female person is doing the action, for example:
- Spanish: ´Hablo´ means ´I talk´ regardless of the gender of the person talking.
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