We are well on the way to understanding one of the most fundamental things about Spanish verbs and that is that a subtle change of a couple of letters makes a big difference to the meaning. This is so alien to us English speakers and really explains why we develop such a phobia about them.
Another reason for our angst about verbs is that unlike the Spanish, who study their own language in a very conventional way at school, most of us have little grounding in English grammar, therefore we are at a complete disadvantage if someone starts to teach us Spanish in a grammatical way. There’s also a third reason! When you are born into a particular language community your brain develops according to the language that you are brought up speaking, so trying to convince your brain to put words together differently is a bit like trying to make a computer use a programme that it is not designed for.
These reflections are supposed to encourage you rather than make you want to give up! It is my belief that if someone really wants to learn and has the language explained to them in a way they can relate to, then they will slowly grasp it and start to make progress. This requires patience and also a certain amount of self-belief and self-confidence. If you say you’ll never learn it, you never will. If you are positive and determined to go forward, you will, in your own way and at your own pace.
The fact is that in English we hardly make any changes to verbs. Take a verb like ‘play’ – it can only change to ‘plays’, ‘played’ and ‘playing’ – that’s it! Any other information we want to communicate, about who plays or when they play, has to be done by adding other words, such as people words: I, you, he, she, we, they and other little words like : do, did, does, will, won’t, be, am, are is etc. So in English we make combinations like: ‘he plays’, ‘they will play’, ‘I have played’, or ‘she will be playing’.
In Spanish we can indicate the same information of who and when by changing the endings of the verbs themselves. Whereas ‘play’ in English only has four possible forms, its equivalent in Spanish will have about 50 variations!
The good news is that we have already started to see and accept this gradually, as in the course of these articles we have learnt some of these subtle variations. For example we now know all of this about the verb ‘to speak’:
hablar – to speak
hablo – I speak
hablas – you speak (informal)
habla – you speak (formal)
Now to what I promised you this month – how to change verbs so that they mean ‘he’ or she’ does something. This is just so easy! All we have to do is take the informal ‘you’ form and remove the letter ‘s’. If this operation looks familiar to you it should do, as it is identical to the way we produce the formal ‘you or usted version.
As usual, some practical examples are needed:
Hablo inglés – I speak English
Hablas inglés – You speak English (informal)
Habla inglés – You speak English (formal)
Habla inglés – He/she speaks English
Voy a dormer – I’m going to sleep
Vas a dormer – You are going to sleep (informal)
Va a dormer – You are going to sleep (formal)
Va a dormer – He is going to sleep, she is going to sleep.
In the sincere hope that you are still with me and that all this is meaning something – I will now anticipate another question that you might ask, as people often do. If the same form is used to mean ‘you’, ‘he’ and ‘she’, then how on earth do we know which one is meant in a sentence?
The answer to this is easy! It is the real life context that tells us. Just as in English, if I say ‘He speaks English’, I assume you know who ‘he’ is, otherwise I would add the person’s name – ‘Bill speaks English’. Similarly in Spanish, we assume knowledge of the person otherwise we have to add that information – Bill habla inglés. If however I am referring to ‘you’ in a polite way and not to a ‘he’, or a ‘she’, then if necessary I can add the word usted just to make this clear.
Jane Cronin’s “Step by Step Spanish” articles are now available as e-books at www.janecronin.eu where you can also obtain Jane’s brand new “Step by Step Internet Spanish” course.