The concept of verb conjugation in Spanish is the hardest part of learning the language in my opinion, it’s learning how to conjugate the various verbs, what each tense/mood means, how and when to use which tense/mood, and then learning all the irregular verbs in addition to that. It’s a big deal; it’s a big, complex, nonsensical, discombobulated…thing, that is also, much to the beginning learner’s chagrin, extremely important, absolutely integral, to the language. Yes, you have to learn it, yes it’s going to be hard and it’s going to suck. Want to tackle it, get it handled, get it out of the way, and start being able to adroitly use the Spanish language correctly with fluency? Then let’s do that, let’s get going.
How should I learn the Spanish verb tenses?
One at a time, slowly, from the most essential and commonly used ones to the least so, in order.
That’s how I recommend you do it. As many of you know, if you’re familiar with my work, I place great value on using popular media in the language you’re trying to learn in order to learn that language – TV shows, movies, cartoons, books, news articles, etc. (I even wrote a book about it!). The sooner you can learn just enough Spanish (and it won’t take much) to at least get started in understanding those sources and talking to people in Spanish via language exchanges, the better. Once you can start doing those things the rate at which you will be learning Spanish will increase significantly.
I recommend that you already know at least a little bit of the language first before you start in on the Spanish TV shows and music and what-not (you don’t absolutely have to but it makes it a hell of a lot easier), just enough so that you have a clue as to what you’re looking at or listening to – “Ok, that’s a verb, that’s a noun, that word means ‘the’, that word means ‘an'”, etc. – and although you might not know what any particular verb means, more importantly you do know what tense most of them are conjugated in, what that tense means, and why it’s conjugated that way.
If you’ve got this very basic level of competency down (takes a couple weeks max), you can then use that as a jumping off point to dive into the ocean of Spanish-language media out there (TV shows, comics, etc.) and then start rapidly learning enormous amounts of Spanish from those and applying what you’ve learned by using it to talk to native speakers. Get it?
Part 2: Ok, so which Spanish verb conjugations do I need to learn and in what order?
What do I mean by “which”? I mean there are a lot of verb tenses and moods, as they’re called, in Spanish that are rarely used and as such if you’re a beginning or intermediate learner you’re really far better off not spending any time on them (initially – I’m not saying don’t learn them at all) and instead focusing on the ones that are commonly used today by native speakers in speech and print. This is just like my advice to first learn the most commonly used words in Spanish when you’re working on your vocabulary. So here we go, in order…
Level 1, for complete beginners:
Learn the Present Tense of regular verbs and the most important irregular verbs (ser, ver, etc.)
That’s it. One tense, and one tense only, please. Why?
- You’ll have your hands full enough with this: you’ve got 3 completely different conjugation tables to learn of 6 conjugations each (-ar verbs, -er verbs, and -ir verbs) which comes out to a total of 18 different words/endings to memorize, plus the 6-word present tense conjugation tables for each of the irregular verbs you decide to learn (I’ll give you a list at the end of this article, it’ll be short). So that’s already something like 40-80 words and endings to memorize depending on how many irregulars you throw in.
- The present tense is by far the most important, the most common, the most versatile, and consequently the most useful. It’s what you need to learn first. You can do so much with just this one tense – yes, sometimes there are better and more common ways to express something using another verb tense but the point is that using the present tense to do it will work, will be grammatically correct, and most importantly people will understand you and that’s what matters: communicating with native speakers in Spanish, right?
Level 2, for beginners who already know the present tense fairly well, know a few dozen of the most common verbs, and know essential definite/indefinite articles (“el/la” means “the”, “un/una” means “a/an”, etc.):
Learn the Preterite and Imperfect Tenses of regular and the most common irregular verbs
What I mean by this type of beginner is someone who’s still a beginner but not completely so: you can understand very basic Spanish sentences, e.g. “Yo quiero agua” (I want some water) or “¿Cómo te llamas?” (What’s your name?) and you’re already pretty familiar with the present tense and can generally use it and understand verbs conjugated in it without too much trouble. This would probably be somebody with a couple weeks’ to a month’s worth of instruction/study.
Now is where you learn the first half of how to speak about things in the past in Spanish: you’ll learn the two past tenses – preterite and imperfect – what they mean, and how to choose the right one. Level 3 is where you’ll learn the second half of this.
Level 3, for intermediate-beginners who understand most Spanish verb tenses covered in levels 1 & 2 above:
Learn how to use the compound tenses in Spanish as well as how to form the past participles of regular verbs and the most important irregular ones
This is the second half of how you speak about things in the past in Spanish, and yes it is very common (all three ways are, so yes you need to learn all three).
The compound tenses are generally merely this: have or had + past participle (sometimes it’s “have been” or “had been” + past participle). For example, “I have already washed the dishes”, “You had already left when he called”, or “I have been waiting three hours). That’s it, simple.
The way they do this in Spanish is very similar to English, it’s just the Spanish verb “haber” (which means “to have”) + the past participle of a verb. Now, “haber” can be conjugated differently in order to impart different meaning, and it is (sorry) irregular, so you’ll have to learn its conjugation. I left it off my list of the most important irregular verbs below because I didn’t want to make you bother with it until you got to this point since it’s rarely ever used for anything other than this (forming compound tenses) and a few common expressions (“hay que”) you can treat individually, plus it’s basically getting its own section here.
Learning how to form the past participle is relatively very easy, by the way, not a big deal at all. It’s the easy part of this.
Level 4, for advanced beginners who have covered all material in previous levels:
Learn the conditional and future tenses along with the imperative mood
This is relatively minor, sort of just a bit of mopping up we can do before we get to biggest nasty of them all (the subjunctive). The conditional and future are how you express that you would or will do something, e.g. “I would be glad to fly to your home and teach you Spanish if you would pay me a million dollars”, or “I will be in Spain this fall”. The conditional indicates that you will do something in the future if a certain condition (hence the term) is met, and the future indicates that you will do something regardless (without conditions).
The imperative mood is what many of you know as the “command form”, that is how you give a command or order, how you tell somebody to do something, e.g. “Bring me the book that’s on the table, please.” This, like the conditional and future tenses, is relatively simple and easy to learn, it’s just a matter of getting around to and doing it, and it simply isn’t warranted in my opinion until you have all the previous stuff out of the way because these aren’t used as much as the preceding tenses.
Level 5, for advanced beginners who know all the previous material and really need just this to tip them over the edge into “Intermediate” territory:
Learn the Subjunctive Mood
Oh yes. It’s this. “Intermediate level” in Spanish (in terms of a student’s ability), in my opinion, is where you’ve got the issue of verb conjugation down and pretty well settled and now you’re working on other minor grammatical and syntactical issues, less common vocabulary, and speeding up your listening comprehension and speaking abilities (meaning that you’re practicing listening and speaking such that you can understand and properly speak faster and faster Spanish until you get to native-level competency in these areas). If you don’t have the subjunctive down, you’re not intermediate, not yet.
Plan to spend a bit of time on this one. It’s not so much that there’s so much information/material you need to learn, it’s that you need to give yourself time to process and understand a mostly foreign grammatical concept, a way of speaking that you’ve rarely ever used before. Really, you’re just not used to this…concept, this way of communicating (it’s very alien feeling to most students), and in my experience it takes English speakers a while to really “get” this.
I have a good basic introduction article to it, called The Spanish Subjunctive Explained + W.E.I.R.D.O System (awesome little mnemonic device for dealing with the subjunctive in Spanish), if you’re interested in getting started right away.
List of the Most Important Irregular Spanish Verbs
Here’s my list of what I think are the 11 must-learn irregular verbs that beginners absolutely have to know and have to know how to conjugate (which tenses/moods you need to learn depend on what level you’re at as per above). I mostly took these from here, that’s an up-to-date list based on solid, modern data. Each one links to its definition on SpanishDict (which links to its conjugation table, just click “Conjugation” at the top to the right of “Dictionary”):
Part 3: Useful Resources to Learn Spanish Verb Tenses
- The best course I know of that will help you learn how to conjugate Spanish verbs is Rocket Spanish, please consider checking out my Rocket Spanish review here – it’s not all positive and I cover not only who I think the course is good for but also who I think it’snot good for (this may be you, have a look before you consider giving them your money). Speaking of money, I should note that it’s really quite reasonably priced compared to similar courses, you’re looking at less than $100 for a comprehensive video/audio Spanish course.
- A great free website is Conjugemos that uses a simple but effective interactive quiz with countdown timer where you have to fill in the blank with the correct verb conjugation for the verb given to help you review (they also include verb charts if you don’t already know the tense/mood in question).
- In terms of references just to look up the conjugation of a verb, I personally use and recommend SpanishDict and the RAE Dictionary. The RAE site is entirely in Spanish, so it’s more for intermediate/advanced students, and I only tend to use it because at this point I prefer definitions in Spanish for Spanish words that I’m looking up as opposed to an English translation, and then when the word I look up happens to be a verb it’s easier for me to just click the the “Conjugar” button at the top (e.g. see “ver”) than opening a separate tab to navigate to a separate site in order to get that verb’s conjugation (why would I do that?). So I’m not particularly recommending one over the other, if you tend to prefer English definitions then just use SpanishDict’s conjugator, if you prefer Spanish definitions then I recommend the RAE’s dictionary and oh by the way they have a conjugator there on-site, just click the little blue button when you look up a verb. That’s all.
- A good introductory video is one called Overview of Spanish Verb Tenses, Conjugations, and Uses by Professor Jason on YouTube.
Also be sure to check out my post,ABrief Guide to Regional Variation of the Forms of Address (Tú, Vos, Usted) in Spanish, it’s not specificaly about verbs but it addresses how their conjugation can change depending on which form of address you use, which is dictated by where you are and who you’re talking to.
As a beginner, you only need to worry about mastering the three basic tenses: simple present, past, and future. By learning these first, you'll get familiarized with the structures and patterns used to conjugate verbs in Spanish—more importantly, you'll be able to start communicating!Which Spanish verb tenses should I learn first? ›
- The Present (el presente).
- The past (also called the preterite, el pretérito).
- The future (el futuro).
You'd usually want to say a lot about yesterday, about now and about tomorrow, so you need to learn these tenses first: Past Simple, Present Progressive (Continuous) and Future Simple. In addition, there is one more basic tense used in English that describes facts and things in general. This is Present Simple.How many tenses do you need to know in Spanish? ›
In total, there are 14 (7 simple and 7 compound): Present, Imperfect, Preterite, Future, Conditional, Present Perfect, Pluperfect, Preterit Perfect, Future Perfect, Conditional Perfect, Present Subjunctive, Imperfect Subjunctive, Present Perfect Subjunctive, and Pluperfect Subjunctive.How can I learn Spanish tenses fast? ›
- Create Lots of Conjugation Charts. ...
- Write Short Paragraphs with All the Conjugation Forms. ...
- Record Yourself Conjugating Verbs. ...
- Write Your Own Conjugation Song. ...
- Sing Someone Else's Conjugation Song. ...
- Practice Conjugation with a Fluent Spanish Speaker. ...
- Read Plenty of Spanish Books.
This might be one of the hardest things to get. After being bombarded with tens of new tenses (in the indicative), you learn there's a whole other dimension of tenses called the subjuntivo.
The simple tense is the “simplest” way to express past, present, and future events. Present regular verbs are conjugated by adding “-s” to third person singular. Past regular verbs are conjugated by adding “-ed” to all verb forms.What are the 3 main tenses used all the time? ›
There are three main verb tenses in English: present, past and future. Let's look at the different verb tenses in a bit more detail to enhance your English language skills.Why is it important to learn the different tenses of the verb? ›
Why are English verb tenses so important? Without proper use of the past, the present and the future, you cannot express your meaning correctly. The tense shows the time of an action that is shown by the verb. When you master the 12 different tenses in English, you master the English language.Which tenses are most used in Spanish? ›
The present tense in Spanish is the most used of all, so it's necessary that you learn it before the other tenses. The present tense is used to talk about actions that are happening at the moment, actions that are frequently performed (routines and habits), as well as things that are constant, such as characteristics.
In Spanish, as in English, the perfect tense is a verb form used to talk about what has or hasn't happened; for example, I've broken my glasses; We haven't spoken about it. He terminado el libro. I've finished the book. ¿Has fregado el suelo? Have you washed the floor?Do Spanish speakers use all the tenses? ›
The Royal Spanish Academy gathers 17 Spanish tenses. However, contemporary Spanish speakers only use 14 tenses in their daily conversations. The preterite perfect, the future subjunctive, and the future perfect subjunctive are the three tenses that are not common in daily Spanish.How many hours of Spanish lessons to be fluent? ›
How Many Hours Does it Take to Be Fluent in Spanish? If you start out as a beginner and manage to spend an average of 1 hour per day working on your Spanish, you should be able to reach conversational fluency within 8 – 12 months. That translates to about 250 – 350 hours spent.What's the quickest you can fluently learn Spanish? ›
If you start out as a beginner and spend an average of 1 hour per day working on your Spanish, you should able to reach conversational fluency within 8 – 12 months. That translates to roughly 250 – 350 hours of time spent.How can I learn Spanish fluently in 3 months? ›
- Set SMART Goals. Making a plan using SMART goals is an almost fail-proof method for learning anything. ...
- Make a Study Plan. ...
- Choose Materials That Best Fit Your Learning Style. ...
- Practice. ...
- Go to a Spanish-speaking Country (Or Bring One to You) ...
- Leverage Technology to Your Needs.
In a Spanish sentence the verb comes before the subject, and the sentence takes the following form: object + verb + subject.What should I teach before tenses? ›
Introduce the present continuous tense first, then the present simple. For most students, the present continuous tense (“I am drinking coffee”) is the most intuitive verb tense. Since it refers to an action happening at the present instant (“are learning,” “is listening,” etc.), students tend to grasp it quickly.Should I learn Spanish vocabulary or grammar first? ›
The University of North Carolina Learning Center also emphasizes learning vocabulary over grammar at the start. In their tips for learning a second language, they suggest that you can quickly get to know a language if you have a lot of vocabulary under your fingers.