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The Witchcraft Of Spanish Vocabulary

The very first step to conquering a language is to tame its vocabulary. And sadly, that's the part that puts off most novice learners because memorizing strange-sounding words is too darn boring! A never-ending chant of rote rehearsal and a nervous prayer can see you through an upcoming test, but the process just won't cut it if your goal is to actually use the language in the street. It's a mystery how this incredibly inefficient method has survived this long and still continues to be perpetuated by schools and educators around the world. So is there any nirvana around this assault of monotony in our miserable lives? Anything that could make learning foreign words less painful?

Six Words That Rule The Streets Of Mexico

Having more Spanish speakers than any other country on the planet, Mexico naturally holds the lion's share in vernacular creativity. Mexican slang lexicon is not only matured and complex but also as colorful and diverse, if not more, as any of its counterparts. Given the proliferation of Mexicans in not only entertainment but rather every aspect of life and trade in the Western world, we already enjoy a healthy exposure to its slang vocabulary. Although an exhaustive study of any country's colloquialism would be overkill, learning some of the most common expressions is mighty fun and useful. Here, we explore ten of them from Mexico.

So Many Ways "To Pull" In Spanish!

Languages don't always work in predictable ways. They have rules and they break their own rules. They have more than one word for the same thing and the same word for more than one thing. This makes them frustratingly complex and it is this complexity that makes them beautiful. This complexity is the very hallmark of an organic language setting them apart from the likes of Klingon and Dothraki. One such fun aspect of Spanish is its translation for the English verb "to pull." If you've just started out with the language, it's a no-brainer: halar. But there's more than meets the eye. Turns out, Mexicans and their neighbors don't even like the word!

Comprender Vs. Entender: Do You Understand?

These are words that get mixed up by even native speakers, let alone noobs like us. Going by the dictionary, both are synonymous and have the same translation in English. However, the two have quite dissimilar connotations. Now the good news here is that mixing up comprender and entender is not a exactly deal-breaker like mixing up, say, ser and estar or por and para. So depending on how far ahead you are in your Spanish learning program, this might be a non-issue. However, if you're like me and suffer from an itch for perfection, knowing where to use one instead of the other is surely the difference between a rookie and a native.

Decode Mexican Place Names Like A Native

When the Spaniards first arrived in Mexico, they asked the indigenous locals for directions and that's where this story begins. The Indians, you see, didn't speak Spanish (duh) and named their cities in ways only they could pronounce. First line of defense, maybe? Who knows. But the Spaniards did their best to learn. And in the process, wound up thoroughly messing up those names. This is what happens when you try to write a word that not only doesn't exist in your language but is also nearly impossible for you to pronounce. The mistakes, however, stuck and with time gave Mexican place names their unique tongue-twisting character.

Tricks To Instantly Recall The Spanish Imperfect Conjugations

The Spanish language, like its other Romance cousins, is notorious for its myriad spirit-throttling conjugations. The first conjugation set any novice learner memorizes is the one for the simple present tense. While that one was relatively easier, it turns out there are many more such sets to be mugged up – for at least a dozen other tenses – and that’s where it starts to get intimidating. In this article, we’ll see how simple mnemonic cues and tricks can be exploited in committing one such set to memory – the Spanish imperfect tense. This is the tense for habitual or incomplete actions in the past and is quite important.

So what is this imperfect tense anyway?

Imperfect is the tense we invoke in Spanish whenever we are dealing with past actions that were either incomplete or repetitive; basically, anything that could otherwise be expressed into English with a “used to”. Here are some illustrations:

  • I went to Yale (what I essentially mean here is that I used to go to Yale for my studies; a repetitive action)
  • I was eating street food every day (I used to eat street food everyday; habitual action)
  • Juan was sick (he was sick for an undefined period of time; hence, this can be considered an imperfect action like any other statement on feelings or state)
  • We were returning when we saw Enrique (the act of returning is imperfect in nature because it’s incomplete)
  • My father often drove me to school (my father used to drive me to school; a repetitive action regardless of its frequency)
  • Every year, the entire family would come together on the Day of the Dead (This line, again, can be rendered using a “used to” and hence becomes a repetitive action)

Let’s now see how regular Spanish verbs conjugate in this tense. There are two sets of conjugations; one for the -ar verbs and the other for the -ir and -er verbs. The conjugations for the -ar verbs go first (using hablar for illustration):

-aba (hablaba I spoke/used to speak/was speaking)

-abas (hablabas you spoke/used to speak/were speaking)

-aba (hablaba he/she/it spoke/used to speak/was speaking)

-abamos (hablabamos we spoke/used to speak/were speaking)

-aban (hablaban they spoke/used to speak/were speaking)

Here are the conjugations for the -er and -ir verbs (using comer for illustration):

-ía (comía I ate/used to eat/was eating)

-ías (comías you ate/used to eat/were eating)

-ía (comía he/she/it ate/used to eat/was eating)

-íamos (comíamos we ate/used to eat/were eating)

-ían (comían they ate/used to eat/were eating)

Now, while we are sure you have quite understood when this tense is exactly to be used, it’s remembering this usage and the associated conjugations that hurts the butt.

The prerequisites for the trick

There is no need to memorize the names of the many tenses you are going to use in Spanish just as there’s no need to remember which tense you are in when you say, “I wish I had eaten that hot dog.” Memorizing grammar terms and labels is the most unrewarding of all language learning activities and serve you absolutely no purpose unless you want to teach a grammar class or write a grammar test. What you should aim at, instead, is to learn to recall what word and conjugation to use depending on the scenario you are in regardless of what the conjugated form is labelled as.

Is it possible to trick your brain into recalling not only the conjugation tables listed above but also the fact that they are to be used only with habitual, repetitive, and continuous actions without cramming up anything? The answer is, yes, provided you already know your simple present tense like the back of your hand. Let’s review the simple present tense conjugations for a while before we get to the mnemonic. Here’s the table for -ar verbs using hablar:

-o (hablo I speak)

-as (hablas you speak)

-a (habla he/she/it speaks)

-amos (hablamos we speak)

-an (hablan they speak)

The trick!

If you remember and can recall the simple present tense table in a blink, you can use the following mnemonic to cement the imperfect to your brain with absolute ease:

When my dad was young, he lived in India and used to listen to ABBA all day

Not that hard to visualize, is it? If you are familiar with ABBA, chances are you know how big they were back in the 80’s. Now, the first thing to note in this sentence is its tense; without any clue about what it’s called officially, you can instantly recognize that we are talking about habitual and repetitive actions in the past. My dad “used to” live in India and he “used to” listen to ABBA all day. So you know whenever we are dealing with such actions, this is the mnemonic to be invoked. No need to memorize that it’s called “imperfect tense” in grammar.

Who knew ABBA could help you with Spanish grammar!
Who knew ABBA could help you with Spanish grammar!
Photo credit: Spensatron 5000 licensed CC BY 2.0
Next thing to notice is the name of the band itself, ABBA. This should give you a cue to the -aba ending for the singular first person conjugation of -ar verbs in this tense, e.g., hablaba. If you can recall hablaba (I spoke/used to speak/was speaking) for hablar (to speak), the rest of the table easily falls in place as everything else follows the pattern of the simple present tense conjugation based on the -aba ending. Take a minute, try it out. Play with a handful of -ar examples, such as cantar, cocinar, viajar, tomar, etc.

If you are now comfortable with the -ar verbs, take a look at the -ia ending in “India” which is in bold. This is a cue to the -ía ending in the singular first person conjugation of the -er and -ir verbs, e.g., vivía (I lived/used to live/was living) for vivir (to live) or ponía (I put/used to put/was putting) for poner (to put. Again, the rest of the table just follows the simple present tense conjugation pattern based on the -ía ending. Try playing with some verbs, like comer, beber, correr, conducir, crecer, subir, etc. If you still need some further reinforcement to this mnemonic, there is a popular Spanish song by the Latin pop group, Camila, just for that!

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  1. This is so true!
    When we speak (in any language), we simply don't have time to work out which tense to use. The best way to learn, as you say, is to let it come naturally by learning how things are said in context.

    1. Emma, I am glad you second my opinion. Are you learning Spanish?

  2. Emma, I am glad you second my opinion. Are you learning Spanish?

  3. This is extremely helpful! I'm a Spanish major and though I usually know the imperfect tense and when to use it, it's easy to confuse myself and mess it up. I've bookmarked this page to look at when I get confused again! Thank you for writing these, I've read many of these helpful articles and it's only making my Spanish stronger.

  4. Trust me, Erin, it's a whole lot easier to come up with your own mnemonics like these than it seems. Just gotta be a little creative. It's fun, try it. ;)


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