I seem to have found a new mission in life. Only a few years ago everyone wanted to know how to buy fruit and veg in the market, how to order food and drink and how to identify cuts of meat.
I was pretty good at the first two, never so good at the dead animal thing, but I managed to make a living out of going over and over basic phrases to help people ‘get by’ in Spanish.
In recent years there has been a dramatic change in my working life on many fronts, but one of them is to do with the type of Spanish language people are now wishing to learn. Most of the people I now come into contact with have managed to get by in Spain for a year or two and are now keen to move forward and understand the language in more depth. I put this change partly down to the shortage of new English speaking people moving to Spain at present, but mostly because the ones who have been here for some time seem to have got themselves into a huge muddle about grammar. Now I spend most of my time trying to sort them out and getting the message across that Spanish grammar isn’t as difficult as it looks – it’s just different!
In view of this, we’re now going to look at one of the most basic aspects of Spanish grammar which is the verb in the ‘Present Simple’ tense. In English this simply means saying things like “I go, you go, he goes, we go, they go” and so on, for every verb you can think of. We mainly use this tense to talk about things that are habitual or part or our daily routine (I get up at 7am. I start work at 9am etc). We also use it to describe general truths about the world. (The sun rises in the east; The world is round; My mother lives in Wales). In Spanish it has one or two more uses, but all I’m concerned about for now is that we all know what we’re talking about.
If you look at our English example again (“I go, you go, he goes, we go, they go”) you will notice that we make no changes to the word ‘go’ at all, apart from “he goes” and “she goes”. To communicate the information about “who goes” we have to place person word, in front – “I, you, he, she, we and they”. In grammar these ‘person words’ are called ‘Personal Subject Pronouns’, although you don’t need to know that to use them.
The Spanish language does all this rather differently, because that word ‘go’, and every other verb as well, changes in form depending on who is performing the action. Because of this change of form, it is not that important to place a person word in front. The form of the verb itself gives us the information about ‘who’ by the way it has changed.
Let’s look at an example we all (hopefully) recognize, so that you know what I mean.
Tengo – most of us know by now means ‘I have’ and ‘tienes’ means ‘you have’ in the familiar form.
If we wanted to be more complete we would say ‘yo tengo’ (I have) and ‘tú tienes’ (you have) as ‘yo’ means ‘I’ and ‘tú’ is the familiar word for ‘you’. However, because the words ‘tengo’ and ‘tienes’ are completely different from each other and recognizable, the Spanish do not usually bother adding the person words as well, unless they want to be particularly emphatic.
This is basically why English speaking people find Spanish verbs so difficult: it is because they function in a fundamentally different way from English. My mission over the next few months is to explain how they do work and hopefully dispel some of those clouds of confusion that have accumulated over the years!
Jane Cronin’s “Step by Step Spanish” articles are available as e-books at www.janecronin.eu where you can also obtain Jane’s “Step by Step Internet Spanish” course.