The Preterit and The Imperfect Spanish Verbs: A Love Story
Friday, February 19, 2010 at 10:17AM
Jeanne Bielejeski in Spanish verb conjugation, Spanish verbs, The Preterit and The Imperfect

There are two past tenses of Spanish verbs: the preterit and the imperfect. It would seem like one past tense is enough for any language. The duality is frustrating for native speakers of English. Perhaps, like a pc and a mac, Coke® and Pepsi®, McDonald’s® and Burger King®, there is a mystical balance behind this cosmic partnership. Both serve a purpose, at least to remind us that we have a choice. And once we accept the duality, our opportunities double too, like speaking in two languages.

The Infatuation Stage

What happens with the inspiration and intention filling our hearts when we embark upon learning a second language, Spanish in particular? Does it sustain us until we become fluent? Or do we lose our enthusiasm somewhere along the way and decide to break it off?

At the outset of the endeavor to learn Spanish, we are proud. We proclaim our commitment to the world, “I’m going to learn to speak Spanish! It’s such a beautiful language. I would love to travel to a Spanish speaking country some day, and it would also help me stand out of the competition to land a good job.” It is a desire coming from a place deep inside, a feeling we can’t quite explain. We are inspired to bring the colorful world of Latin culture and the Spanish language into our lives.

Our experiences with Spanish usually start in high school, but some of us are late bloomers and jump in later at the community college or university level. Perhaps we are professionals or travelers fulfilling that life-long dream to learn Spanish. Or maybe we purchase a self-study program to use on our own.

The Honeymoon  

We start out with the alphabet, pronunciation, vocabulary, greetings, and talking about the weather. Adjectives and vocabulary words simply require memorization and gender agreement (identifying masculine and feminine words). Everything is going pretty well, and then the day comes when verbs are introduced. There are more definitions to memorize, but the subject pronouns and different verb endings for each subject take us in a direction we never intended to go. These grammatical concepts are totally different than verb conjugation in English. Up until this point, we were able to use our native English language to bridge the gap. It’s a good strategy when building vocabulary, but it doesn’t seem to work now.

We plug along knowing that learning a new language isn’t always easy, but something happens, something changes. This is the point where the inspiration somehow vanishes, and without it, learning even the most basic grammar becomes a chore. The honeymoon is over, and for some of us it’s just a matter of time before we lose interest in Spanish altogether.

Real Life

Native English speakers continually struggle with verb conjugation in Spanish. In addition, we feel frustrated with our limited ability to communicate in a second language while we are accustomed to our native language level. Our cognitive ability is higher than our second language ability, so our mind and mouth don’t match up. It’s similar to having a speech impediment, and there really is nothing fun or inspiring about that. The visions and aspirations we once held of learning Spanish lose their grip and fall away. We tend to shut down. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard, “I took two (or four) years of Spanish in high school, and all I can say is, ‘¿Dónde está el baño por favor?’” For those of us who stick it out, we do so with a sense of obligation.

Rewind to your formative years when your language skills were developing. Besides the magnetic letters of the alphabet on the refrigerator door, your family members modeled to you how to communicate in your native language without any grammar tools involved. We learn basic language skills through language modeling and immersion.

There were countless conversations whirling around you as a child. Luckily you didn’t understand everything. Like anything that involves a progression of skills, one step leads to the next. In basic language development, one word leads to another and another, until we learn how to string them together to make a sentence. This leads to expressing complete thoughts and debating opinions, maybe having some arguments, and before you know it you’re a teenager with a pretty healthy vocabulary.

As we enter our required high school English classes, we struggle to put all of our feelings and thoughts into coherent written English. By then, not a lot of us know how to define a dangling participle or a sentence fragment. We can sure talk smart, but recording language is a different story. Language skills develop without knowing exactly how grammar functions. They develop by the shear human instinct to communicate and to survive.

Set Realistic Expectations

Some of us arrive at a place where learning a second language presents opportunities we can’t pass up, or it simply activates that instinct to communicate and survive in another language besides our own. We can develop second language skills in a similar way to native language skills: through modeling and immersion. The difference is that we have a greater cognitive ability than we had as a toddler. As mentioned, this can work against us because we then have the ability to create expectations to communicate in the second language with the same ability that we have in our native language, right off the bat. Unless we were raised in a bilingual family, we cannot expect to speak in a second language at the exact same level of ability as our native language. 

As adults, and specifically after the age of twelve, it can be unnerving to leave our comfort zone to learn a second language. Checking our expectations is in order. Bring the bar down to a realistic level by focusing exclusively on acquiring basic second language skills. Start out small, baby steps do lead somewhere.

Don’t believe any gimmicks that claim to help you learn Spanish in no time. They are marketing traps and some of them are very convincing because they play on our emotions. I have fallen in these traps myself. You may be able to memorize vocabulary words or phrases quickly, but integrating an entirely new language takes time, and everyone learns at their own pace. 

Keep It Simple

There are those beginners who follow a calling to acquire advanced skills, but the majority of second language learners do not for a variety of reasons. There’s nothing wrong with maintaining basic second language skills. Just think, if you acquired the language skills equivalent to a Spanish speaking eighth grader, you would be considered advanced. Or better yet, observe the native language skills of a five-year-old, they’re not too shabby actually, and they have a pretty good time too. A five-year-old has the perfect attitude for learning a language.

We tend to look at practicing a second language in black and white terms: either I speak perfectly, or I won’t say anything at all. As we grew up, our egos did too. Although we need a healthy ego to survive in the world, this is one of those times when it actually gets in the way. So, get over yourself!

What are your goals? Do you want to communicate in a second language enough to meet some really wonderful people? Travel? Expand your occupational horizons? Or, do you want to go the long haul and get an advanced degree? Maybe become a teacher to share your love of the language and culture? What’s important is to build a solid foundation of basic second language skills wherever they may lead.

Strategies For Second Language Success

Immerse yourself as much as possible in the target language. In the United States, it is very possible to find Latin culture without leaving the country. Consider listening to television in Spanish, or start listening to Latin music. There’s a lot of great Latin music out there which is celebrated by the Latin Grammy Awards. Having Spanish TV or Latin music playing in the background, even without understanding it, seeps into your subconscious. Just like when you were a toddler, you didn’t understand everything that was being said, you could only pick out a word here and there. That same drive to understand what is going on in your environment–motivates you to learn how to communicate. Ideally, you should try to immerse yourself in real life situations where the target language is spoken. Perhaps as an observer initially until you gain enough confidence to participate.

Up to this point, I hope you have gained some perspective on how native and second language skills develop. I’ve found in most cases, awareness is like turning on a light in a dark room where I was fumbling around. Now, with the lights on, let’s start arranging the big pieces so it feels more comfortable. Before we continue, try to keep the following in perspective while you are starting to learn Spanish: 

Article originally appeared on Free Spanish Verb Charts (
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