Battling Irregular Verbs on Tuesdays

September 20, 2019

Two or three of us get together on Tuesdays to practice our Spanish dialogue. We have what people here call Survival Spanish (“A kilo of beans, please; doctor, I think I’ve broken my finger; where can I catch a bus home?”) but deeper non-English conversation is a rarity for us. We end up hanging out a lot with other expats, and feel a touch guilty for doing so. But otherwise, we’d hardly have a real conversation with anyone. By and large, expatriates here are educated people, and we’re used to nuanced discussions and well-phrased arguments. Unless our Spanish is top-rate, we always feel frustrated and disappointed in how a talk goes.

A few people I know have been around long enough that they’ve mastered Mexican Spanish to the point that they can converse for minutes on end, or more. A lot of us, though, choke on the irregular verb endings, and even the regular ones. And don’t get me started on the “por” and “para” business; two words, both of which can mean “for,” that seem almost interchangeable but have clearly different connotations to native Spanish speakers.


Then, there are the vowel sounds. English abbreviates its vowels, and a lot of words have the nondescript short er sound, as in “the,” or the second vowel sound in “forward” as it’s commonly pronounced. Spanish, by contrast, extends its vowels, giving the lips a workout. I imagine lip-reading Spanish is far easier than doing it with English-speakers.

You have to train your lips and mouth away from whatever regional English or North American accent you have to express yourself comprehensibly. Midwestern accents, in particular, subject Spanish vowels to horrible abuse, because (I think) of the need to switch to using the lips and tongue, not the throat, to make sounds. For English people, the need is to bring sound production out of the nasal cavity.



Tenses in Spanish were, I realised long ago, designed in an unrecorded sub-circle of Dante’s Inferno:  a sort of Area 51 of the Underworld, except it chose to release its grammatical aliens, not keep them a secret. For example, a present-tense English verb like ‘make’ is identical in all parts except the third-person singular: I make, you make, she makes, we make… It changes to ‘made’ in the perfect (past) tense, but then every individual takes the same ending: I made, he made, we made, etc. There’s no “mades” in the third-person. Our spelling, admittedly, was probably put together in a linguistic assembly hall situated next to the infernal Spanish tense-designers, but we’re talking speech here, not reading and writing.

Then there are extra tenses in Spanish, such as the conditional, that we don’t have in English. People also drop the person, so one doesn’t say “Yo soy,” (“I am”) but merely “Soy,” the “I’ being implied by the verb ending. This is deeply disconcerting at first. And later on, as well.

Often, it becomes easier to cheat and default to present-tense verbs. People will understand essentially what we’re trying to communicate, and we won’t accidentally change our intended meaning from one verb to another because we wrongly guessed an ending or perhaps misused a stem-change, where the middle part of the verb becomes something different.

Then, not everyone who lives in a Mexican village produces grammatically perfect speech. Some people never learned good grammar from their parents or friends. And there are local abbreviations: “hasta luego,” or “see you later,” sometimes becomes “hasta logo.” Or “por favor” (“please”) becomes porfa. Grasping such details is a separate learning process on its own.

We end up smiling and nodding a lot, and wishing we could do better, but we can’t. When I first settled here in 2010, a friend of mine chastised me for not just plunging in and picking it up like a thirty-year-old acquaintance of hers had done. But memory doesn’t work as well after your forties, and won’t absorb complex new information easily. I’ve learned some constructs a half-dozen times, yet they’ve not stuck in my brain. And if you don’t use an expression, then you don’t really learn it, so you become stuck on a hamster-wheel, going round and around again, but not making any progress.

It frustrates me that while my French wasn’t great in school, I still have more of it today than I do Spanish. One time I had to interview a businessman from Paris who wasn’t able to speak much English. But his Sorbonne-educated French was grammatically perfect, and I understood almost all he said to me in a forty-minute conversation, as he understood my own halting constructs. In Paris a few months ago, I found I was still at least as fluent in French as I was in Spanish. Not that says much, but it was still noticeable.

There is no alternative to trying, though. You can’t move to a foreign country and expect the locals to speak English. There are 440-million native Spanish speakers in the world, compared to an estimated 360-million native English speakers, so there’s no assumption that “I know my language is obscure,” as Danes or Dutch people have said to me. Sure, more people have English as a second language, while there are under 100-million who know some Spanish, but after Mandarin Chinese, Spanish is regularly used by more people in everyday life than any other language.

So, we’ll get together on Tuesday with our dictionaries and my tattered old book of irregular Spanish verbs, and muddle our way through for an hour or so. Sometimes, one of us knows a word or phrase that the other does not, and we can share that. Sometimes, we can clarify a point of grammar that was previously obscure. And sometimes we just stall, because of what we don’t know, then work around the problem with simpler or clumsier phrasing.

We’re stubborn, though, and we’ll stay here. We like bright colours, savoury foods and the collective acceptance that a person can be twenty minutes late without society collapsing. We like not freezing our butts off in the northern U.S. or Canada, we like being able to eat out regularly even though we might have under thousand dollars a month, and we appreciate that this place has mountains, green trees all year round, and a graciousness that isn’t always available elsewhere.

But oh, those irregular verbs… those irregular @#$&ing verbs ….






Forked Tongues

My response to French grammar in high school was to play the class clown. Both bored and frustrated by the gender of tables and cups and pencils, and befuddled by the complexity of the pluperfect and the future imperfect, I protested by being obstructive.

When later on I moved to Canada, which is officially bilingual, I used my schoolboy French once or twice a year on business trips to Quebec. As each three- or four-day visit wound down, I’d find I was starting to recall grammatical constructs and the vocabulary I’d spurned years before, and regretted my poor learning skills in my teens. I sometimes thought about living in Quebec for a couple of months, to make my French more serviceable, but never followed through on this.

When, therefore, I decided to try Mexico, almost fifteen years ago now, I realised I’d have to follow through with a new tongue, and master enough Spanish to survive on my own. The Spanish Centre in Toronto offered the best options, I found, after trying two other places first. But once again, the pointlessness of gendered nouns and adjectives, as well as the long lists of irregular verbs, brought out echoes of my old sense of despair. This time, I couldn’t tell myself I’d never need to know this stuff, because I knew I would, and soon.

This kind of ambiguity, I think, plagues almost anyone apart from a few natural linguists. A native language is one that we acquire at the same time we become independently mobile, and learning to make our parents understand us is one of the challenges and triumphs of early childhood. Having to reconfigure the way we use words is not just hard, but sometimes actively distressing. There are times I manage to sustain a conversation in Spanish for several minutes, and times when I can’t even remember the response to a simple question.

The English language, I read, has about two hundred irregular verbs. Spanish has more than twice that. Worse, while an irregular English verb like ‘to teach’ has ‘taught’ as its past participle, and uses ‘teaches’ in the third person, there are no other variants to be learned. I teach; she teaches; we taught; you taught; he taught; they taught. That’s it. No ‘teached,’ or ‘taughted,’ or ‘taughting’ or ‘teaughted.’ Spanish, however, has not only a variety of different endings, depending who is speaking, but the stem of the verb can change as well.

Further, because the ending already demonstrates whether I, you or they is/are the subject of the verb, the subject is usually dropped. There is no I, you, he or they employed as the subject in everyday conversation, only as an object. Translated literally, an enquiry about whether I’m going to the bakery would be:

“Go to the bakery?”

“Yes, go.”

“Open today?”

“Yes, believe so. Is closed only on Sunday”

It’s not that difficult a principle to learn, once you set out to accept it, but for a long time, it sounds odd. I think Latin has similar constructions, but not French or German. Or English.

Some of my expat friends are relatively fluent in the language. Others are confident despite weak grammar skills; and often, confidence communicates what correct but mumbled grammatical formations would not. Then there are perfectionists like me, who stumble over our desire to ace each sentence.

We learn our Spanish more or less in waves. We develop an ear for it, and gradually begin to tame our obdurate accents; to utter longer vowels, and to place the stress on the ‘wrong’ syllables in words. We go past the present, perfect (past) and future tenses, and begin to use the imperfect, the conditional, and one or two other of the thirteen tenses Spanish has acquired. All with their varying endings and changing stems.

Part of my own plight is that I earned my living for four decades from writing English. I’ve now acquired what’s called ‘survival Spanish,’ and manage most everyday situations. But since I’m used to using a wide vocabulary in my native language, I have to fight frustration when I stumble through three or four Spanish sentences. Irony can be impossible, and humour is notoriously hard to translate. Some days, the words come to me when someone addresses me, and some days I go blank. It can be hard to adopt a positive attitude to a language that constantly poses mystery and frustration.

I tried the teaching at one local school here, run by a woman who was a good-natured martinet. She would have us there three times a week for five hours of instruction, on the immersion theory: if you speak Spanish all day, something will go in. Alas, I would just leave stunned. When I finally squirmed out from under her controlling attitude, it took me months to rebuild the confidence to speak anything more than five-word sentences.

Age of course, is a factor in all this. I said I still had some of my high school French – or I did, until Spanish replaced it. But I learned French, albeit reluctantly, when I was still able to absorb immense amounts of information. I began with Spanish in my fifties, when there’s no learning on the sides, so to speak. I either get it, there and then, or the expression or verb gets lost in the gutters of weak memory.

The reality, for an expat, is that many of us lean on our own community a lot, where we half-guiltily use English. We save our Spanish for the landlord, the grocery store, the waiter or the bus driver, and we often feel envy towards the people who can sustain a spontaneous conversation without effort.

But we don’t give up. We came here, we weren’t dragged, and we appreciate the welcome we’ve received. Speaking in the local language is an obligation but also, despite what I’ve said above, sometimes a pleasure. The whole point of moving to a different country and culture is to experience that culture, and the small successes we have are little triumphs that sometimes we privately celebrate out of all proportion to their actual significance.

But I would love to know how Spanish acquired so many irregular verbs. And do something nasty to the person or people who persuaded the people of Spain to adopt them all.