People who are struggling at learning Spanish tend to start with this basic formula:
I have an idea in my head – in English.
That idea usually employs complex structure and advanced verb tenses – even if the concept it expresses is very basic.
Here’s an example:
I wanted to come to class yesterday but couldn’t. I had to take care of something important.
This would be a nightmare struggle for a basic (or intermediate) Spanish learner to translate. It will be a chunky mess and will most likely come out impossible to understand.
You would have to stop and ask multiple times – How do I say “this word” or “that word”? – and it still won’t make you any easier to understand.
No matter what level of Spanish you are at, no matter how limited or expansive your vocabulary is, you must get into the habit of speaking pure, unadulterated Spanish. It must be born of itself, not of your English ideas.
OK – yes, you have to expand your vocabulary. And you’re not a baby – you can’t be expected to make nonsense noises until your hyper-plastic brain magically churns out logical speech. I get that.
But you’re not ever going to communicate effectively if you have to check a dictionary for every other word.
That’s no way to converse. And it’s not an effective way to learn new vocabulary either.
Plus, there’s zero grammar input there – just a hodgepodge of words that you will string together uselessly and forget instantly.
Let’s get back to basics.
Suppose your teacher asks:
¿Por qué no viniste ayer a la clase?
You understood the basics – Why didn’t you come to class yesterday?
But how to respond…
The Trouble with Tenses
Is your goal is to be understood, or to sound like a fluent Spanish speaker?
If you’re aiming to be understood, there’s an easy hack to skipping conjugations all together.
You need to use time markers. This is a feature of languages that do not use verb conjugations and – while totally incorrect in Spanish – still makes you understandable.
Start with the Time
For instance, start your reply with “yesterday – ayer”. Now just use the verbs in whatever tense you can.
Only know the present tense? No problem.
Only know the infinitive? Who cares?
Say “ayer” and then let the verbs flow. Your listener will understand – which is the true goal of any conversation.
English phrasal verbs
These are nasty. English uses strange combinations of verbs and prepositions to create entirely new shades of meaning.
I would argue that Spanish does this to some extent, but nowhere near the level of English.
Beware of translating phrasal verbs directly – they will screw up your meaning and just confuse both you and your listener.
Instead of finding the perfect verb, just go with the most basic idea possible.
This is an entirely different topic – learning to break down your ideas into their simplest parts. But it will help you learn to communicate.
Let’s use the original answer from the top of this post as an example:
Teacher: ¿Por qué no viniste ayer a la clase?
Student’s Idea: I wanted to come to class yesterday but couldn’t. I had to take care of something important.
- Start with the time: ayer
- Add a basic verb: quiero
- Throw in an easy noun: clase
- Finish the thought: no puedo
You get some something like:
Ayer yo quiero clase. No puedo. Yo otro importante. No clase.
Grammatically, this is a nightmare. But logically it’s fine. Your listener will get the point and you will have succeeded at communicating.
Never forget that the reason you are learning Spanish is to communicate, not to show off your language skills.
While you’re still at the beginner and intermediate levels, go easy on yourself. Making mistakes is part of learning Spanish.
Your goal here is to train yourself to stop translating in your head from English to Spanish. If you can get a thought out in 100% Spanish – no matter how ugly it might sound – you have made huge progress.