French compound tenses and the poverty of the stimulus argument

It’s not your fault that you’re having trouble with French compound tenses.

 As brilliant a schematization of compound tenses as any I have ever seen. Picture source:

As brilliant a schematization of compound tenses as any I have ever seen. Picture source:

The famous behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner maintained that language-learning by children could be explained by the same process to which he attributed all learning: you get exposed to something, you get reinforced.  Chomsky pointed out that this couldn’t explain how children learn language, since we can produce and understand linguistic things that we have almost never been exposed.  One of my first professors used this example: he must have been being interviewed at that time.  If you are a native speaker of English, I would guess that you had no trouble understanding that sentence, and it probably doesn’t seem particularly strange to you.  For instance, you might have asked someone why Kevin didn’t show up for a meeting at 9 AM yesterday, and perhaps the person who you asked knows that Kevin was being interviewed for something or other at 9 AM, and answers he must have been being interviewed at that time.  However: the sentence is unusual in that it combines every possible place in a sentence where you could use a modal auxiliary in English.  (Modal auxiliaries in English are words like must, have (when it modifies another verb), and things like that.)  Chomsky pointed out that you will very, very rarely run into structures like that–and yet, as an adult native speaker, you have no problem whatsoever producing or understanding them.  This is known as the poverty of the stimulus argument against Skinner’s conception of how children learn language: if you’re not exposed to something, then Skinner has no explanation for how you can learn it.  (There are other aspects to the poverty of the stimulus argument–you can see some of them on this Wikipedia page.)

How this fits into my struggles to learn French: I suck at “compound tenses” like “had been interviewed,” and stuff like that.  In French, not in English!  Objective, third-party evidence of my suckiness in this respect: I recently took a French assessment test on the Lawless French web site, hoping to end up with something like the DALF C1 level that I’m planning to test for, and only got a DELF B1 level!  (That’s two below what I was hoping for.)  Looking at my results, a lot of my problems came from the compound tenses, of which French has many.  So: let’s learn them.

Looking over the various compound tenses in a Bescherelle, they’re somewhat less intimidating than I initially thought, in that as far as I can tell, they’re all formed with one of just two verbs: avoir “to have,” or être “to be.”  (Undoubtedly I could have looked this up somewhere, but I remember things better if I figure them out for myself.)  Some of the really outlandish ones are formed from tenses of these verbs that one would rarely see–j’eus été–but, you only have to know those tenses for these two verbs in order to be able to form all of those particular compound tenses.  Then, as far as I can tell, the last verb in the compound will always be the past participle–so, again, you don’t have to remember quite as much as you might have thought.

With this introduction, we’ll look at some of the compound tenses in future blog posts.  I’ll try to make the material less dry by including material from Twitter and the like (if I can find any–see above about the poverty of the stimulus).  While you wait, there’s a beautiful page on compound tenses here.


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