Written by Jesse Reyes
Ask any native English speaker new to the Spanish language what the most difficult part of learning Spanish is, and you’re likely to hear something about Spanish verbs. While in comparison to most foreign languages, Spanish is closely related to the English language (this is largely due to their shared roots in Latin), there are still many aspects of Spanish that may be difficult to grasp for new learners; and verbs are one of the most prominent examples.
So what exactly makes Spanish verbs so difficult? It all boils down to how they are used. There are some grammar rules Spanish verbs follow, that we’re simply not used to as native English speakers. In this post we’ll look at 3 unique features of Spanish verbs and give you some practical tips on how to handle them.
The biggest difference between English verbs and Spanish verbs is conjugation. Spanish verbs change form based on the person or number of the person or thing performing the action. This change is called conjugation. This means that a simple verb such as “to eat” (comer), will take on six different forms in the present tense:
I eat: como
You eat: comes
He/She eats: come
We eat: comemos
You all eat (Spain only): coméis
They eat: comen
So you can see from the root form of the verb “comer”, we form these six different conjugations based on the person who is eating. Keep in mind that this set of conjugations is only for speaking in the present tense. There will be separate forms for past and future tense verbs.
Technically speaking we also conjugate verbs in English, it just doesn’t result in the variety of words that we see in Spanish.
Thankfully in Spanish, verb conjugations typically follow a predictable pattern based on the root of the verb (usually called a stem). The ending of the stem will often dictate which ending a verb receives in a given conjugation.
As you learn Spanish focus more on learning the patterns behind the verb conjugations versus trying to memorise each individual word. You’ll learn much more efficiently this way!
There are two past tenses in Spanish: the preterite and the imperfect. The difference between the two isn’t always easy for native English speakers to pick up on.
In general the preterite tense is used to describe an event or action that took place and was completed at some specific time in the past. The imperfect tense will describe past actions that either weren’t completed, are continuous, or were habitual.
Take for instance the English sentence: “I walked home yesterday”. In Spanish we would use the preterite tense of the verb “to walk” because when we say, “I walked home yesterday…” we are speaking about a completed action. If I were to say “I walked home every Tuesday”, then the imperfect would be used because the action was habitual.
If you’re having trouble understanding the difference from these two brief examples, don’t worry. The concept of preterite versus imperfect tense is one of the harder aspects of Spanish grammar for most students.
The number one way to learn the Spanish past tense verbs is to practice them. There’s no getting around it, you’ll have to use these verbs again and again until you begin to internalise the differences between them. That being said, once you do learn them the difference will feel like second nature.
A good Spanish tutor may also be able to tear down some of the mystery surrounding this difficult grammatical concept. If you find yourself struggling it might be a good idea to give yourself some extra help by booking a lesson.
If conjugations and present tenses weren’t enough, there are also different moods in Spanish. The grammatical mood a speaker uses will be based on his or her attitude toward what is being said. There are a total of three moods in the Spanish language: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. Each mood uses a different form of a verb.
Overall the indicative and imperative moods are pretty straightforward. The indicative mood is the most common and is used when talking about things that are believed to be true (think facts). The imperative mood occurs anytime you give a command or tell someone to do something.
It’s the subjunctive that usually gives learners trouble. The subjunctive is used anytime you talk about something that is subjective or possible, but still not certain. For most native English speakers this can be an especially difficult concept to grasp, or at least to remember.
Take for example the two English sentences “You work”, and “I want you to work”. In Spanish “you work” would look like this: “Tu trabajas”. But the translation of “I want you to work”, would look like this: “Quiero que tu trabajes”. Notice that the verb in each sentence changes form.
The first example is in the indicative mood (it’s a fact that you are working right now). The second example is in the subjunctive (I want you to work but it’s not certain that you will).
The best way to become comfortable with the subjunctive mood is to pay attention to the way that native speakers use it. Make note of any example you find of the subjunctive mood, whether it's in a lesson with a teacher, in a phrase from a Spanish movie, or from some other Spanish resource.
Spanish is a beautiful and intriguing language, but it’s not always a walk in the park if you’re learning it. Use the tips we’ve shared to help you become more comfortable with some of the tougher features of the language. However, also remember that the greatest thing you can do to improve your Spanish is to engage with the language as much as possible!