So you studied Spanish in high school for years, you’ve got a solid vocabulary foundation, but you’re still having problems maintaining a conversation?
This article will give detailed instructions on a Spanish language conversation hack that I found extremely useful when I was starting to try and speak Spanish here in Medellín.
Focus on Two Verb + a Pronoun Phrases and Questions
Complex sentences are nice, but if you are just trying to get going conversationally, these are simple, yet totally sufficient to maintain a conversation in the formative parts of your Spanish-speaking career. I’ll start with a few examples and then explain the hack and why it is useful.
- Puedo hacerlo? (Can I do it?)
- Vas a llamarla? (Are you going to call her?)
- Quieres ayudarme? (Do you want to help me?)
This Spanish hack can be summarized in three simple steps:
Step 1: Get really, really good at the conjugation of super high frequency verbs.
Step 2: Learn a bunch of other verbs, but don’t get stressed about their conjugation because you won’t need to conjugate the second verb.
Step 3: Learn how to include the pronoun.
Step 1: Get Really, Really Good at the Conjugation of Super High-Frequency Verbs
Unless you’re literally coming across Spanish for the first time in your life, you’ve seen these verbs before and know what they mean. But can you conjugate them quickly and fluidly? To progress in Spanish, you need to have the conjugation of these verbs memorized inside and out, forward and backwards. They should be automatic and natural and the sole focus of your Spanish studying until you have them down, especially in the present tense.
Tener: tengo, tienes, tiene, tenemos, tienen
Hacer: hago, haces, hace, hacemos, hacen
Ir: voy, vas, va, vamos, van
Poder: puedo, puedes, puede, podemos, pueden
Poder: (condicional) podría, podrías, podría, podríamos, podrían
Deber: debo, debes, debe, debemos, deben
Gustar: me gustaría, te gustaría, le gustaría, nos gustaría, les gustaría
Querer: quiero, quieres, quiere, queremos, quieren
Note that while deber is not necessarily a high frequency verb like the others, I include it here because of how often English speakers use ‘should’.
Step 2: Learn Many Other Verbs, But Don’t Get Stressed About Their Conjugations
Start a word document with two columns (or email firstname.lastname@example.org and ask me for mine): one with the English verb and then the corresponding Spanish verb beside it. Gradually add new verbs as you learn them. You can practice memorization by covering one column and trying to recall the other. Something that will help you greatly in this endeavor is that there are many English/Spanish cognates (words that are similar between languages). The English meanings of words like dividir, combinar, and aceptar are obvious, given their similarity to English words. Studying cognates is an excellent way to expand your vocabulary. Here’s another dozen verb cognates, to show you that, regardless of your Spanish level, you already know a bunch of Spanish verbs: conversar, resolver, contrastar, evangelizar, incentivar, inventar, cooperar, analizar, interactuar, justificar, infectar, calcular
Regardless, you should start to have a good understanding of the most commonly used 100 or 200 verbs in Spanish. However, by using this Spanish conversation hack, you don’t need to focus on the conjugation of the second verb, something that limits the fluidity of your speaking greatly. Why? Because, as you may already know, when you use two verbs in succession in Spanish, there is no need to conjugate the second verb.
Thus, for example, if you want to say “I measure” in Spanish, you have to know that medir is an irregular verb, and that the proper conjugation of this would be yo mido. However, with this conversation hack, simply use one of the verbs from Step 1 first, and there is no need to conjugate.
So instead of “I measure”, say:
voy a medir
Use whichever is most natural, depending on the context. Again, the key here is that there is no need to know / understand the conjugation of medir to properly say this. This will save you lots of time and mental energy. Additionally, it will have you speaking more fluidly quickly, because what takes time is thinking of the proper conjugations. Learning a few hundred Spanish verbs, especially when many are cognates, is very doable. It is a much, much larger undertaking to learn the same verbs AND all of their conjugations.Let’s look at another example:
The verb to invest is invertir. You want to ask a Colombian friend about investing in a project.
You must either:
- know that invertir, when conjugated (irregularly) in the tu form, is inviertas (and how to pronounce that), or
- use the hack, and include one of the very common verbs from Step 1
Thus, you can say:
vas a invertir?
te gustaria invertir?
and if it’s a great opportunity, you could insist:
Using this hack, the memorization of the conjugation of a less common, but still important, verb like invertir is not necessary.
Step 3: Learn How to Include the Pronoun
le, lo, la can be added to these two verb “sentences”, to give you the ability to express more complete thoughts. Let’s look at the previous examples. Are you going to invest? Well, without the benefit of context, we might ask: invest what? Let’s invest…the money.
As you may know, there are two common ways to refer to money: la plata, y el dinero
La plata is feminine, so the pronoun = la
El dinero is masculine, so the pronoun = lo
In these two verb successions, the pronoun can go:
- before the first verb, or
- after the second verb in its infinitive form
So the question, ‘are you going to invest the money?’ could be written in four different ways. The difference is whether you put the pronoun before or after, and whether you use lo for el dinero or la for la plata.
Vas a invertirla? (plata)
Vas a invertirlo? (dinero)
Lo vas a invertir? (dinero)
La vas a invertir? (plata)
SIDE NOTE: Keep in mind, that when there are two verbs and a pronoun, you have the option of where to put the pronoun – before or after. However, if there is just one verb, you need to put the pronoun first – and this going to seem backwards when compared to English.
I’ll call you = te llamo
I love you = te amo
I hate them = los odio
He gave us = nos dio
They told us = nos dijeron
I did it = lo hice
Notice how ‘I love you’, when translated word for word, is really ‘you I love’. And ‘they told us, when translated word for word, is really ‘us they told’. It’s a bit tricky to wrap your head around at first, but when you start to focus on the backwardness of these short sentences, you’re ability to communicate will improve.
Another Tip: Use “Tener + Que + Verb” The Same Way To Avoid Conjugating the Second Verb
Another super common phrase to get you speaking in no time, is using “tener + que + verb” to refer to an obligation. It follows the same structure as the previous examples, but we are including the word que between the first and second verb. The same hack, that of not having to conjugate the second verb, applies.
Let’s look at an example to illustrate this. You’ve mustered up the courage to go on a date with a Colombian, and the food has arrived and you want to make a little conversation. You remember that the verb to try (food) is probar but you don’t know, or don’t want to try and remember, how to conjugate it.
Probar is irregular in tu form, so you could say “la pruebas”? (la because comida is feminine)
However, until you’re an expert in conjugating these less common verbs, you could use this conversation hack and phrase it as follows:
Tienes que probar (you have to try)
Tienes que probarla (you have to try it)
Quieres probarla? (Do you want to try it?)
Let’s look at another handful of examples of how you can use tener + que to say some common things:
tengo que estudiar = I have to study
tengo que practicar = I have to practice
tienes que hacerlo = You have to do it
tienes que llamarme más tarde = You have to call me later
tenemos que salir = We have to go out
tenemos que vernos = we have to see each other
Again, take note of the fact that you only need to focus on the conjugation of the first, common verb, and that the second verb in this succession is in the infinitive (non-conjugated) form.
I was months and months and months living in Medellín and just using these two verb + a pronoun sentences to get by – and its totally workable. Complex sentences are nice, but if you are looking to just start the basics of having a conversation, I recommend using this Spanish hack to have you speaking in no time.
I hope these tips have been useful. Leave a comment below about your struggles and successes with Spanish and check out some of these other articles.