When visiting a country I always try to learn the basic words of the language. I tend to spend so much time in Spain though, that I decided to take it more seriously and tried to get to a decent level. 300 hours of Spanish classes later I’m ready to share the basics of this great language with you.
How to learn any language: learn the pronouns, basic syntax, how to conjugate the verbs, learn some prepositions. After that it’s just memorizing vocabulary.
That’s actually it.
I speak five languages. Three I learned before age seven and three I learned after age 10.
— Margarita (@margaritaevna95) December 3, 2019
Spanish is one of the five most spoken Romance languages, among Italian, French, Portugese and Romanian. For native speakers of those languages it will probably be quite easy to learn Spanish. For me as a Dutch native, which is a Germanic language, it was lot more difficult to learn because the pronunciation differs a lot.
The language is actually often not called Español but Castellano (Castilian) because that’s the region where the language arose. Later when the Spanish empire conquered half the world (read Sapiens if you want to know more about that), it became one of the world’s biggest languages, with lots of varieties, just after Chinese and before English.
In this article we’ll look into:
Personal pronouns can be left out in sentences because the subject is implied by the conjugation of the verb. Every subject has another conjugation. So don’t say yo quiero (I want) but quiero (I want), or eres (you are) instead of tú eres (you are). It’s not incorrect to use them, though.
- First person: yo (I)
- Second person: tú (you)
- Third person: él/ella/usted (he/she/you)
- First person: nosotros (we)
- Second person: vosotros (you)
- Third person: ellos (they)
Other important pronouns are:
- Dónde (where)
- Qué (what)
- Quien (who)
- Cuál (which)
- Cómo (how)
- Cuánto (how much)
The word pattern for basic Spanish sentences is flexible, depending on the situation.
- One-verb sentences: Spanish word order is very similar to English word order, following the SVO (subject-verb-object) pattern.
- Positive: Juan come un bocadillo (Juan eats a sandwich).
- Negative: Juan no come un bocadillo (Juan doesn’t eat a sandwich).
- Two-verb sentences: When using two verbs, the first verb will be conjugated to match the subject, and the second verb will remain in the infinitive.
- Positive: Diego necesita comprar una camiseta (Diego needs to buy a t-shirt).
- Negative: Diego no necesita comprar una camiseta (Diego doesn’t need to buy a t-shirt).
- Questions: When asking questions, the order of the subject and the verb are reversed.
- ¿Cuándo es el cumpleaños de Carolina? (When is Carolina’s birthday?).
- ¿Cómo te llamas? (What’s your name?).
- Commands: There are formal and informal commands, as well as affirmative and negative commands.
- Affirmative, formal: ¡Corra! (Run!)
- Affirmative, informal: ¡Corre! (Run!)
- Negative, formal: No coma tanto (Don’t eat so much.)
- Negative, informal: No comas tanto (Don’t eat so much.)
- Reflexive verbs: These indicate that the action of the verb remains with the subject or they are at least somehow affected by the action.
- Me gusta el fútbol (I like football).
- Nos encanta viajar (We love traveling).
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The conjugation of verbs in present tense is quite easy. All verbs end with -er, -ir or -ar and are conjugated based on this. Here is a spreadsheet with 500 conjugated Spanish verbs I made back in 2015.
-er (e.g. beber – to drink)
- Yo -o (bebo – I drink)
- Tú -es (bebes – you drink)
- Él -e (bebe – he drinks)
- Nosotros -emos (bebemos – we drink)
- Vosotros – éis (bebéis – you drink)
- Ellos -en (beben – they drink)
- Gerundive: -iendo (bebiendo – drinking)
-ir (e.g. sufrir – to suffer)
- Yo -o (sufro – I suffer)
- Tú -es (sufres – you suffer)
- Él -e (sufre – he suffers)
- Nosotros -imos (sufrimos – we suffer)
- Vosotros – ís (sufrís – you suffer)
- Ellos -en (sufren – they suffer)
- Gerundive: -iendo (sufriendo – suffering)
-ar (e.g. hablar – to speak)
- Yo -o (hablo – I speak)
- Tú -as (hablas – you speak)
- Él/ella -a (habla – he speaks)
- Nosotros -amos (hablamos – we speak)
- Vosotros – áis (habláis – you speak)
- Ellos -an (hablan – they speak)
- Gerundive: -ando (hablando – speaking)
But of course there are also irregular verbs that don’t follow these rules completely. Examples you will hear often are ser (to be, yo soy/tú eres/nosotros somos), tener (to have, yo tengo) and ir (to go, yo voy/tú vas/nosotros vamos). You will learn them by doing.
Also note that verbs can’t always be translated one on one. To tell your age you should use “to have” (tengo 36 años – I’m 36 years old) and “to be” can be translated in both ser and estar. Ser is broadly used for permanent things (soy un hombre – I’m a man) and estar for temporary ones (estoy enfermo – I’m sick).
There are about 7 past tenses to be distinguished, one of the most difficult things to learn as a foreigner. To begin with I’d start with using the participle because it is conjugated based on the verb ending and the same for all subjects, using the conjugation of the auxiliary verb haber (to have) + the participle.
- Verbs ending in -er: -ido
- He bebido (I have drunk)
- Has bebido (you have drunk)
- Ha bebido (he has drunk)
- Hemos bebido (we have drunk)
- Habéis bebido (you have drunk)
- Han bebido (they have drunk)
- Verbs ending in -ir: -ido
- He sufrido (I have suffered)
- Has sufrido (you have suffered)
- Ha sufrido (he has suffered)
- Hemos sufrido (we have suffered)
- Habéis sufrido (we have suffered)
- Han sufrido (they have suffered)
- Verbs ending in -ar: -ado
- He hablado (I have spoken)
- Has hablado (you have spoken)
- Ha hablado (he has spoken)
- Hemos hablado (we have spoken)
- Habéis hablado (you have spoken)
- Han hablado (they have spoken)
The future tense is easy. You take the verb and add a suffix based on the subject you are talking about.
- Yo -é (comeré – I will eat)
- Tú -ás (comerás – you will eat)
- Él -á (comerá – he will eat)
- Nosotros -emos (comeremos – we will eat)
- Vosotros – éis (comeréis – you will eat)
- Ellos -án (comerán – they will eat)
There are 12 irregular verbs in this tense, like tener (to have) – tendré (I will have) and poner (to put) – pondrás (you will put).
English speakers don't appreciate how imprecise our language is and easy we have it.
-What happened in the past is the past tense. That's it.
-Things simply exist. Their duration is not a factor in the verb used.
-Our verb inflection is comically low.
-Nothing has a gender.
— Ed Latimore (@EdLatimore) January 10, 2020
I have listed the most important Spanish prepositions below. You can check Wikipedia for a more extensive list.
- A (to)
- Ante (before)
- Alrededor (around)
- Bajo (under)
- Con (with)
- Contra (against)
- De (from, of, with)
- Desde (from)
- En (in, by)
- Entre (between)
- Encima (above)
- Frente (in front)
- Fuera (outside)
- Hacia (towards)
- Hasta (since)
- Por (for, by, through, because of)
- Detrás (behind)
- Según (according to)
- Sin (without)
- Sobre (about, on, over)
- Para (for, to)
Spanish shares a lot of vocabulary with English, which is easy to figure out when you take into account that the pronunciation is slightly different.
Pareto’s principle applies here, with 20% of the vocabulary you can find your way in 80% of the conversations.
Here is a list of common words to help you out:
- Hola (hello)
- ¿Cómo estás? (how are you?)
- Me llamo (my name is)
- Buenos días (good morning)
- ¿Qué tal? (what’s up?)
- Sí (yes)
- No (no)
- Tal vez (maybe)
- Siempre (always)
- Nunca (never)
- No lo sé (I don’t know)
- ¿Qué hora es? (what’s the time?)
- Feliz cumpleaños (happy birthday)
- Buen provecho (bon appetite)
- Bienvenido (welcome)
- Adíos (goodbye)
- Hasta luego (see you later)
- Buen viaje (have a good trip)
- Salud (cheers)
- Bien (good)
- Mal (bad)
- Derecha (right)
- Izquierda (left)
- Aquí (here)
- Gracias (thank you)
- De nada (you’re welcome)
- Por favor (please)
- Todo (all)
- Tiempo (time/weather)
- Spanish developed from the dialects of Roman Vulgar Latin and has more than 4.000 words with Arabic influences because of the Al-Andalus era, like hasta (until), ojalá (I hope) and aceite (oil).
- Spanish has a lot of subtility in it. The subjuntive grammatical mood is used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgement, opinion, obligation or action that has not yet occurred. In other languages this mood is barely used anymore. E.g. quiero que sepas (I want you to know) uses the subjuntive mood because it’s not sure the subject will actually know it.
- Furthermore there are 8 translations of “maybe” in Spanish that all express a different amount of probability, like tal vez, a lo mejor, puede ser, quizás and es possible. I noticed that all natives use them in different ways, which is extra confusing.
- Also with the number of past tenses that exist, in combination with the subjuntive, there are a lot of ways to express things in different levels of probability and perspectives.
- The gender of a noun makes a difference for almost all words in a sentence. Also, several words change when something is singular or plural. E.g. El chico lindo camina en la calle (the nice boy walks on the street), la chica linda camina en la calle (the nice girl walks on the street), los chicos lindos caminan en la calle (the nice boys walk in the street), las chicas lindas caminan en la calle (the nice girl walk in the street); subject, adjective and verb all change.
- There are a lot of varieties of Spanish, especially between European Spanish and Latin America Spanish. There isn’t a lot of differences for beginners, though.