I’m going to cover 3 things in this article today:
- Why the verb conjugations in Spanish are so important and you should learn start learning them immediately and devote a good deal of time to doing so.
- Which ones are the most important, which ones you should focus on in the beginning, and in what order (I rank them in order of importance primarily based on how frequently they’re used in popular speech and writing by native speakers).
- Recommendations of tools, websites, and resources you can use to help you do this (this is at the bottom and arguably the most valuable part of this article if you’re ready to dive right in, don’t miss it!).
Part 1: Why verb conjugations in Spanish so important and why it’s beneficial to you to devote a lot of time to learning them
This is something I’ve been thinking about and saying to certain people for a while and now I’m going to come out and say it publicly:
Being able to properly conjugate verbs is the key to learning the Spanish language. It’s also 80% of the hard work. Master it and you’re most of the way there already, the rest are things that are relatively minor by themselves and easily learned.
They’re that important. I’m learning German right now and the equivalent concept in that language are the cases – learn those and you’ve got 80% of the hard work out of the way (plus they are absolutely key to the language itself). Master the conjugation of verbs in Spanish and all you’ve got left is a little bit of additional, relatively simple, grammar and syntax, and a bunch of vocabulary, and that’s it. The vocabulary can be tedious to learn, it can take a while, yes, but it’s not difficult to understand at all (unlike the verb conjugation system), it’s just the definition of a word that you have to memorize, that’s it.
Now, note that I did not say that the verbs or verb conjugation were 80% of the Spanish language or even most of it, I said they were 80% of the hard part. By sheer volume verbs don’t make up the majority of the language or the grammar, no, but I do think they’re most of what’s difficult for people learning the language.
The concept of verb conjugation in Spanish is the hardest part of learning the language in my opinion, it’s learning how to conjugate the various verbs, what each tense/mood means, how and when to use which tense/mood, and then learning all the irregular verbs in addition to that. It’s a big deal; it’s a big, complex, nonsensical, discombobulated…thing, that is also, much to the beginning learner’s chagrin, extremely important, absolutely integral, to the language. Yes, you have to learn it, yes it’s going to be hard and it’s going to suck. Want to tackle it, get it handled, get it out of the way, and start being able to adroitly use the Spanish language correctly with fluency? Then let’s do that, let’s get going.
How should I learn the Spanish verb tenses?
One at a time, slowly, from the most essential and commonly used ones to the least so, in order.
That’s how I recommend you do it. As many of you know, if you’re familiar with my work, I place great value on using popular media in the language you’re trying to learn in order to learn that language – TV shows, movies, cartoons, books, news articles, etc. (I even wrote a book about it!). The sooner you can learn just enough Spanish (and it won’t take much) to at least get started in understanding those sources and talking to people in Spanish via language exchanges, the better. Once you can start doing those things the rate at which you will be learning Spanish will increase significantly.
I recommend that you already know at least a little bit of the language first before you start in on the Spanish TV shows and music and what-not (you don’t absolutely have to but it makes it a hell of a lot easier), just enough so that you have a clue as to what you’re looking at or listening to – “Ok, that’s a verb, that’s a noun, that word means ‘the’, that word means ‘an'”, etc. – and although you might not know what any particular verb means, more importantly you do know what tense most of them are conjugated in, what that tense means, and why it’s conjugated that way.
If you’ve got this very basic level of competency down (takes a couple weeks max), you can then use that as a jumping off point to dive into the ocean of Spanish-language media out there (TV shows, comics, etc.) and then start rapidly learning enormous amounts of Spanish from those and applying what you’ve learned by using it to talk to native speakers. Get it?
Part 2: Ok, so which Spanish verb conjugations do I need to learn and in what order?
What do I mean by “which”? I mean there are a lot of verb tenses and moods, as they’re called, in Spanish that are rarely used and as such if you’re a beginning or intermediate learner you’re really far better off not spending any time on them (initially – I’m not saying don’t learn them at all) and instead focusing on the ones that are commonly used today by native speakers in speech and print. This is just like my advice to first learn the most commonly used words in Spanish when you’re working on your vocabulary. So here we go, in order…
Level 1, for complete beginners:
Learn the Present Tense of regular verbs and the most important irregular verbs (ser, ver, etc.)
That’s it. One tense, and one tense only, please. Why?
- You’ll have your hands full enough with this: you’ve got 3 completely different conjugation tables to learn of 6 conjugations each (-ar verbs, -er verbs, and -ir verbs) which comes out to a total of 18 different words/endings to memorize, plus the 6-word present tense conjugation tables for each of the irregular verbs you decide to learn (I’ll give you a list at the end of this article, it’ll be short). So that’s already something like 40-80 words and endings to memorize depending on how many irregulars you throw in.
- The present tense is by far the most important, the most common, the most versatile, and consequently the most useful. It’s what you need to learn first. You can do so much with just this one tense – yes, sometimes there are better and more common ways to express something using another verb tense but the point is that using the present tense to do it will work, will be grammatically correct, and most importantly people will understand you and that’s what matters: communicating with native speakers in Spanish, right?
Important (and quick) side note!
If you’re reading this you’re probably learning Spanish at a beginner or intermediate level, and if so could I recommend you quickly check out a site called Yabla? They teach you Spanish using videos made by and for natives (e.g. TV shows, movies, YouTube videos, cartoons, news and documentaries originally made in Spanish-speaking countries for native speakers) coupled with a set of tools specifically designed for that purpose which are integrated into the video player:
- Verbatim subtitles in Spanish shown at the same time as English subtitles (you can turn either or both on or off)
- An integrated dictionary and flashcard system that both automatically looks up a word in the subtitles when you click on it as well as adds it to your flashcards for later review
- Exercises and quizzes about what you just watched that make you apply the new Spanish you just learned.
Check it out here (discounts for educators and institutions, by the way, I know a lot of you are teachers) or read my full review if you’d like more information (and screenshots of the system) first. Back to the article…
Level 2, for beginners who already know the present tense fairly well, know a few dozen of the most common verbs, and know essential definite/indefinite articles (“el/la” means “the”, “un/una” means “a/an”, etc.):
Learn the Preterite and Imperfect Tenses of regular and the most common irregular verbs
What I mean by this type of beginner is someone who’s still a beginner but not completely so: you can understand very basic Spanish sentences, e.g. “Yo quiero agua” (I want some water) or “¿Cómo te llamas?” (What’s your name?) and you’re already pretty familiar with the present tense and can generally use it and understand verbs conjugated in it without too much trouble. This would probably be somebody with a couple weeks’ to a month’s worth of instruction/study.
Now is where you learn the first half of how to speak about things in the past in Spanish: you’ll learn the two past tenses – preterite and imperfect – what they mean, and how to choose the right one. Level 3 is where you’ll learn the second half of this.
Level 3, for intermediate-beginners who understand most verb tenses covered in levels 1 & 2 above:
Learn how to use the compound tenses in Spanish as well as how to form the past participles of regular verbs and the most important irregular ones
This is the second half of how you speak about things in the past in Spanish, and yes it is very common (all three ways are, so yes you need to learn all three).
The compound tenses are generally merely this: have or had + past participle (sometimes it’s “have been” or “had been” + past participle). For example, “I have already washed the dishes”, “You had already left when he called”, or “I have been waiting three hours). That’s it, simple.
The way they do this in Spanish is very similar to English, it’s just the Spanish verb “haber” (which means “to have”) + the past participle of a verb. Now, “haber” can be conjugated differently in order to impart different meaning, and it is (sorry) irregular, so you’ll have to learn its conjugation. I left it off my list of the most important irregular verbs below because I didn’t want to make you bother with it until you got to this point since it’s rarely ever used for anything other than this (forming compound tenses) and a few common expressions (“hay que”) you can treat individually, plus it’s basically getting its own section here.
Learning how to form the past participle is relatively very easy, by the way, not a big deal at all. It’s the easy part of this.
Level 4, for advanced beginners who have covered all material in previous levels:
Learn the conditional and future tenses along with the imperative mood
This is relatively minor, sort of just a bit of mopping up we can do before we get to biggest nasty of them all (the subjunctive). The conditional and future are how you express that you would or will do something, e.g. “I would be glad to fly to your home and teach you Spanish if you would pay me a million dollars”, or “I will be in Spain this fall”. The conditional indicates that you will do something in the future if a certain condition (hence the term) is met, and the future indicates that you will do something regardless (without conditions).
The imperative mood is what many of you know as the “command form”, that is how you give a command or order, how you tell somebody to do something, e.g. “Bring me the book that’s on the table, please.” This, like the conditional and future tenses, is relatively simple and easy to learn, it’s just a matter of getting around to and doing it, and it simply isn’t warranted in my opinion until you have all the previous stuff out of the way because these aren’t used as much as the preceding tenses.
Level 5, for advanced beginners who know all the previous material and really need just this to tip them over the edge into “Intermediate” territory:
Learn the Subjunctive Mood
Oh yes. It’s this. “Intermediate level” in Spanish (in terms of a student’s ability), in my opinion, is where you’ve got the issue of verb conjugation down and pretty well settled and now you’re working on other minor grammatical and syntactical issues, less common vocabulary, and speeding up your listening comprehension and speaking abilities (meaning that you’re practicing listening and speaking such that you can understand and properly speak faster and faster Spanish until you get to native-level competency in these areas). If you don’t have the subjunctive down, you’re not intermediate, not yet.
Plan to spend a bit of time on this one. It’s not so much that there’s so much information/material you need to learn, it’s that you need to give yourself time to process and understand a mostly foreign grammatical concept, a way of speaking that you’ve rarely ever used before. Really, you’re just not used to this…concept, this way of communicating (it’s very alien feeling to most students), and in my experience it takes English speakers a while to really “get” this.
I have a good basic introduction article to it, called The Spanish Subjunctive Explained + W.E.I.R.D.O System (awesome little mnemonic device for dealing with the subjunctive in Spanish), if you’re interested in getting started right away.
List of the Most Important Irregular Verbs
Here’s my list of what I think are the 11 must-learn irregular verbs that beginners absolutely have to know and have to know how to conjugate (which tenses/moods you need to learn depend on what level you’re at as per above). I mostly took these from here, that’s an up-to-date list based on solid, modern data. Each one links to its definition on SpanishDict (which links to its conjugation table, just click “Conjugation” at the top to the right of “Dictionary”):
Lastly, a great free website is Conjugemos that uses a simple but effective interactive quiz with countdown timer where you have to fill in the blank with the correct verb conjugation for the verb given to help you review (they also include verb charts if you don’t already know the tense/mood in question).
That should get you started for now, I’ll add more later!