Tips for Learning Spanish for English Speakers

Lee Phillips
October 14th, 2020

It is well known, or a least well repeated, that, once you have reached a certain age and are set in your linguistic ways, it is a mighty struggle to acquire a new language.

I can attest to that. But after a few years of engaging in this struggle, I can order food from a waitress without getting slapped in the face, most of the time.

I kept some notes along the way, and I’d like to share them for the edification of the native English speaker who is beginning this long and arduous journey. I merely hope to make the road a little smoother by sharing a few tidbits of hard-earned knowledge.

Accents

These are just decorations, and you can safely dispense with them. It will make your writing more streamlined and aerodynamic. After all, we used to use them much more in English, but we know better now. (Or most of us do. The New Yorker still uses the dieresis in such words as coöperate. The editors there are so busy adding accents to everything that they haven’t noticed that, tiring of all those prickly dots and lines, everybody stopped reading that magazine years ago, except for the writers and staff, who all congratulate each other every month when they manage to squeeze out another issue. But I digress.) We no longer bother with the fancy accents on words like résumé, because what kind of idiot can’t figure out what you mean when you offer to send in your resume?

While speaking, I have found that people appreciate my suavity in this regard. When others receive only a polite smile after wishing their friends a «bien año nuevo», (those are what they use instead of normal quotation marks), I am the life of the party after telling my hosts that I hope they have a «bien ano nuevo».

Accent

Just as in English, there is no one true Spanish accent. They take this to extremes, however. So if someone has trouble understanding you, it is definitely not your fault. Just tell them that you are from the next village over, where everyone talks like this. You can always speak more loudly; that usually works, and is very much appreciated.

Past Tenses

Spanish is really unreasonable here. We know quite well that the only past tenses required are regular past (to use the technical term), and those ones that use extra words: oh yes, present perfect and past perfect. For some reason, probably having to do with the Middle Ages and the Plague, in Spanish they insist on another kind of regular past tense as well. I don’t remember what they call it, but it doesn’t matter, because you never have to use it. Oh, you will sit through your first lesson and think you understand when to bring it out, but, trust me, you don’t. Personally, I’m pretty sure that native Spanish speakers don’t know either, and just use one or the other at random. But I have a solution. Do not spend months trying to memorize all the weird conjugations of verbs in both kinds of past tense. Look at the calendar, and at your watch. Say it is 2:00 pm on Thursday. If something is happening now, use the present tense. If it happened before 2:00 pm on Thursday, use the present perfect tense. This way, you only have to remember the conjugation of haber, and the past participles of a few irregular verbs. Now, people might look at you funny when they ask you what you did this morning and you reply, “I have woken up at six and then I have eaten breakfast,” but they will appreciate not having to wait there for five minutes while you weigh the pros and cons of the two choices of past tense and then talk gibberish, as you conjugate all the verbs incorrectly. It’s easier for everybody.

Subjunctive

Don’t even try.

If you have started studying Spanish after about age two, you are already too old to absorb the complexities of the subjunctive. In English, if you are talking about the possible consequences of something that is not real, you use were: If I were Superman, I could fly. That is the entire subject of the subjunctive in English.

In Spanish, you could fill a big book with lists of conjugations (yes, all the varieties of past tense that you are not using have subjunctive versions, plus there is an extra secret past tense subjunctive, but nobody knows why; and there is a future subjunctive, which is actually illegal in some countries) and all the situations, which multiply endlessly, in which you need to use the subjunctive.

But here is the secret: nobody except professors uses it. There, I’ve just saved you a year and a half of study. Unless you plan to be a professor.

Imperative

Here is something that they should tell you on the very first day of Spanish class. This is something that is kept hidden for months, but should be revealed right away, so that the fearful can run out the door now, instead of delaying the inevitable. Because if you can deal with this, you have a good chance of success. But many people simply can not, and they should have the opportunity to bow out gracefully at the beginning.

Here it is:

Here is how you command somebody to talk, or not to talk:

Talk: «¡Habla!»

Do not talk: «¡No hables!»

Did you see that?

It is what we experts call the second person (familiar) imperative. And, if you payed close attention, you noticed that the conjugation is different depending on whether the command is to do it (positive) or not to do it (negative).

There is nothing more to say about this.

Future

Here is a secret: your teachers will claim that there is such a thing as future tense conjugations, and make you learn them. But I think this is really just part of Spanish teacher job security. You can roam all over Latin America and Spain, and never hear these so-called future tenses used anywhere. You just might possibly catch a little subjunctive on the wind, if you are passing by a café where professors hang out. But the way people talk about something that is going to happen—there, I just did it. I am going to talk; she is going to talk. Just remember how to conjugate to go, and save yourself another eight months by skipping the so-called future conjugations of verbs.

Pronouns

There are too many. Just when you think you’ve learned them all, they add more. Take the pronouns for “you”. In English, we have….”you”. I’m talking to you, I’m going to smack you, is he with you, are y’all coming or not? etc. It seems to work for us. But that’s too simple for Spanish. At last count, there were approximately 23 second-person pronouns, and that number increases daily. But there is a simple solution. Simply put them all in, and let your reader or listener pick out that ones that he or she needs. This way, nobody can complain that you didn’t use the right one. The correct pronoun will be in there somewhere.

Conditionals

A whole new list of conjugations to memorize! I’ve heard these are important, but I’m not sure why. It seems to me that if something is conditional, you can just skip it. If it happens, then we can talk. In the present tense.

Good Luck

I wish I had had someone to tell me these valuable secrets when I was beginning my journey into the depths of this beautiful but, for the English speaker, treacherous language. I offer you these nuggets of wisdom simply from a desire to help my fellow student. Best of luck in your studies, and if you ever feel discouraged, remember that King Charles V of Spain said, “I speak Spanish to God, French to men, Italian to women, and German to my enemies.” I don’t know how this will help, but there it is.


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