If you’re anything like me, you’re dizzied trying to keep all the different Spanish verb conjugations straight –
“Do I use the past participle…?”
“I can’t remember if the pluperfect uses haber.”
“Is this a subjunctive case?”
“What if it’s a command?”
These questions are difficult, and common – so how do we tackle conjugation in Spanish?
Forms of Conjugation
In Spanish, and many other languages, verb conjugation is an important part of being understood. The form of the verb changes based on the listener and also based on time or conditions, e.g. happened in the past, will happen, could happen, etc.
Here is an example of a simple verb conjugated in the present tense for each listener:
COMER (to eat)
Now multiply that by the 10+ time/condition-based conjugations, and you’ve got your hands full!
Some verbs are irregular and change their root (called stem-changing verbs), and follow a common “boot” conjugation pattern, where all the singular forms plus the “Ustedes” form adopt the same root spelling:
VOLAR (to fly)
If you notice the red text changed from ‘o’ to ‘ue’ – the “boot” comes from a mental picture if you were to draw a continuous line encapsulating only those boxes containing the verbs with red text.
The Real World – Conjugation Strategies
I spent hours (probably days) poring over my old Spanish conjugation charts, memorizing the proper forms (above), and here’s what I found: I almost never got it right in real-time speech. The feedback of studying just wasn’t fast enough for me – plus, there are so many times when you get it wrong, and people understand you just fine. Think of all the folks who speak broken English to you – chances are you can easily rephrase what they mean, and they will confirm with a heartfelt (and relieved) “Yes!”
But assuming you’re an aspiring scholar of Español, or at that really advanced level, then you’ll want to make sure you completely nail verb conjugations. It is a true sign of deeply understand the mechanics of a language.
What it does take is practice, practice, practice – and a little help from some tools.
Let’s take a look at some strategies for mastering Spanish conjugations.
1. Live Conversation
As you’ve probably gathered from the rest of the articles on the site, getting yourself out there is the best way to learn any aspect of a language. While it sometimes is not fully practical, engaging with native Spanish speakers is one of the surest ways you’ll improve your conjugation skills rapidly. They’ve been conversing in these terms all their lives, and it comes naturally.
Not only are you forced to recall (or in most cases, forget) all the different forms on command, but if you don’t get it quite right, you’ll have immediate help and feedback. Plus, you’ll also have the opportunity to listen for conjugation forms, and ask the speaker to repeat themselves if you didn’t quite catch it.
2. Good ol’ Paper
Remember that “Spanish conjugation chart” I mentioned spending days studying? There are several variations of these, some of them compact, in a pamphlet-style folder, some on a long legal-sized sheet, some even blown up to poster size. In any format, these hard copies can be useful for the myriad “regular” verbs in Spanish – those that follow well-defined rules. They’re also great for quick reference and tend to have helpful color-coding; but many folks also find them incomplete and overwhelming.
3. Online Software
Apart from standard search engine queries that will often only yield results for your verb of interest, there are many software products aimed at helping you master conjugation. You’ll want one you can customize to your own level, which lets you select any number of verbs, the time you have to translate simple sentences, and which tenses you want to practice. This way, you can really hone in on problem areas and immediately get feedback on your performance. You should also focus on a product that allows listening and speaking translation, otherwise, you might get stuck when listening to a native speaker whose voice you’re not used to.
4. Live There!
It sounds trite, but if you have the means, even for a month or two, go live in a Spanish speaking country. Then you won’t’ have to deal with any “Spanish verb conjugation chart.” It’ll all be right in your brain. Not only that, you’ll get the benefit of cultural context, which is immeasurably valuable with language retention. You will be able to form so many associations with the language you acquire, it becomes harder to forget even the most complicated conjugation patterns.
Conjugation in any language is tough, but hopefully you’re better prepared to go give it your best shot!