Spanish Fluency in Five Not-So-Simple Steps
What does it mean to be fluent in a language? Does it mean that you can read, write, speak, and understand everything in the language with no mistakes? Or is getting by with most day-to-day conversations good enough? This question has been the topic of much debate, and I don’t believe there is just one answer. I constantly remind my students that language learning is a life-long journey – I still learn new words in my first language every day! However, I have come to the conclusion that in regards to Spanish fluency, there are five main areas to master. If you are using these five aspects in your everyday Spanish without having to put much thought into it, my bet is you sound like a pro!
Ser vs. Estar – Two verbs for “To Be”
There are two different forms of the verb “to be” in Spanish. Confusing, right? To make matters worse, SER is one of the most irregular verbs in the whole language. The conjugations and the differences between these two verbs can take a long time to perfect. But in general, SER is used for characteristics (“he is tall”), and permanent states (“this is a book”), while ESTAR is used for conditions (“the cup is dirty”), and temporary states like feelings and location (“I am tired”, “we are at the store”).
Por vs. Para – Two words for “For”
There are also two different ways to say “for” in Spanish. In general PARA is used for destinations (“he left for Madrid”), recipients (“this is for you”), and purpose (“a chair is for sitting on”). It can also mean “in order to”. POR is used for all exchanges (“she gave me $3 for the book”), lengths of time (“we worked for 3 hours”), to mean “by” or “through”, and in all kinds of idiomatic expressions (“por favor”, “por supuesto”, etc.)
Preterite vs. Imperfect – Two past tenses
Just in case you aren’t feeling confused yet, there are also two forms of the past tense in Spanish. In general, the Preterite (or simple past) is used for single events that are completely over (“I went to the store and bought some eggs”), and the imperfect is used for ongoing or habitual events in the past (“I would always go dancing on the weekends”), as well as all descriptions in the past because they do not have a clear beginning or end (“the sun was shining”, “she was a strong woman”). The conjugations have to be memorized, and there are of course various irregulars…
The subjunctive, with its own set of conjugations, is a tense that we don’t really have in English. It’s used when there are two verbs in a sentence and the first verb expresses doubt, desire, emotion, recommendations, or hypothetical situations. Essentially, it is used when there is any doubt that the idea spoken about will come to pass. I have explained the Spanish subjunctive in more detail here with several examples.
Pronoun use and placement
A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun in a sentence. For example, instead of saying “I have the book“, we can say “I have it“. In Spanish, there are several rules about which pronoun to use (those who have learned them will probably have felt confused between “se”, “le” and “lo”), and about their placement in a sentence. If there is only one verb, pronouns come before the verb (equivalent to “I it have” in English), but in a command, they come at the end (“tómalo” = “take it“). And if there are two verbs in a row (“I want to see it“), you can put the pronoun before the first verb or attached to the end of the second, but never in the middle!
So, feeling confident about your Spanish? If not, don’t worry! These are some of the hardest aspects of the language to wrap your head around, let alone master. I consider myself fluent but I still have to stop to think about some of these things sometimes. It takes patience and practice. Often, we hear or use these aspects of the language without even realizing it, and they begin to stick. A good example with subjunctive is “que tengas un buen día!” which means “have a good day!” It is a shortened version of “espero que tengas un buen día” or “I hope you have a good day”. We use the subjunctive form of tener (tengas) because we have expressed a hope or desire that is not guaranteed to happen.
If you haven’t mastered these five aspects yet, don’t let that stop you from chatting away in Spanish! While studying grammar can help build the foundation for language learning, there is no better way to learn than through trial and error, through hearing these things used in everyday speech, and trying them out for yourself.