Tips and tricks supplemental to Duolingo to improve Spanish?
November 29, 2014 7:51 PM   Subscribe

Spanish newbie filter. I'm teaching myself Spanish with the help of Duolingo and am having trouble with a few particular problem areas. Specifically, I would like some sort of handy way to recall present tense conjugations of the three types of verb. Something similar to differentiate the questions would be good as well. Also, if you use the app or found any handy methods while learning Spanish that aided recall, I would love to hear them. I'm enjoying this a lot and plan to stick with it.

To be more specific about what I need:

Are there any handy rules of thumb to put conjugation in to an easy to remember form? Is there something I can practice now that will make the other varieties of verb easier or more intuitive to conjugate down the line? I feel like there has to be something since Spanish is such an intuitive language (for me anyway). I've messed around online looking for resources but there's a lot out there and I'm fresh enough and basic enough that I don't know where to turn for sound advice.
Learning the questions shouldn't be as hard but they sound really similar and I just need some easy way to distinguish between them. I know once I have this down it'll be easy to carry on, but I'm struggling just enough to get frustrated and I want to enjoy this process. Thank you in advance.
posted by Ephelump Jockey to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm not sure I understand your question. Do you remember remembering the suffixes for verb conjugations, or remembering irregular verbs, or what? If it's remembering the suffixes, when I took Spanish in high school, I remember chanting "-o, -as, -a, -a, -a, -amos, -ais, -an, -an, -an" and etc for -er and -ir verbs.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 8:22 PM on November 29, 2014


The traditional method of 5th-grade Spanish teachers everywhere is to take hablar, comer, and vivir, and force students to memorize and recite at high speeds the regular conjugations.

I think it works because it's been 25 years since I took Spanish and I can still fire off the three regular present-tense conjugations.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:26 PM on November 29, 2014 [4 favorites]


I got really good at verb conjugations because I had a crap Spanish teacher in high school and I sat in the back of the class and wrote out conjugations for a whole year. Dunno if that's helpful but I sure am good at it now!
posted by chainsofreedom at 8:29 PM on November 29, 2014


Yeah, it's remembering the suffixes that I'm having trouble with. And overachiever that I am, I looked ahead and saw that the process only becomes more intensive the further in you get. The charts help, but I'm looking for something like a mnemonic device or heuristic that will help it penetrate my stupid calcified adult brain. I'm lazy and don't want to brute force this if I don't have to.
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 8:40 PM on November 29, 2014


-ER verbs and -IR verbs are the same for all regular conjugations. Memorize one, memorize the other, automatically.
posted by BadgerDoctor at 8:49 PM on November 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


An instructor once taught me about the BOOT model for memorizing the conjugations of stem-changing verbs. For example, volver = to return (and the title of a great Almodóvar film!)

yo vuelvo nosotros volvemos
vuelves vosotros volvéis
él/ella/usted vuelve ellos/ellas/ustedes vuelven

Does that image make sense? It's a rather pointy boot.
posted by smorgasbord at 10:52 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


The way we learn the verbs, you read a big-ass table with all the tenses of indicative and subjunctive, and start learning the regular conjugations by reciting pronouns + verbs:

Yo canto, tú cantas, él canta, nosotros cantamos, vosotros cantáis, ellos cantan.
Yo cantaba, tú cantabas, él cantaba, etc
Yo canté, tú cantaste, él cantó, etc

And so on. (I am from Spain so we use vosotros instead of ustedes and so on. Usted/ustedes is a courtesy treatment here rather than a pronoun.)

After learning the regular conjugations and some basic irregular verbs like ser (for the passive voice: yo soy llamado = I am called) and haber (for all composite tenses: yo he cantado = I have sung) you can mostly pop to the pages in your dictionary that list irregular conjugations.

It makes sense when you remember that when Spanish goes
Yo soy, tú eres, él es, nosotros somos, vosotros sois, ellos son

It's because Latin was
Ego sum, tu es, il est, nos sumus, vos estis, ei sunt.

...And Latin conjugation tables are pretty much the same as Spanish conjugation tables.
posted by sukeban at 4:55 AM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


There's not really a mnemonic for the regular conjugations. Try making it into a singsong chant that gets stuck in your head. You will actually need to memorize present, and past preterite and infinitive.

However, the weirder tenses do tend to follow logically from other tenses, and most of the irregular verbs fall into one of a few common groups. So there are useful mnemonics for those.
posted by vogon_poet at 7:03 AM on November 30, 2014


"(I am from Spain so we use vosotros instead of ustedes and so on. Usted/ustedes is a courtesy treatment here rather than a pronoun.)"

In most South American countries (maybe in all of them, but I can't say that for sure) people don't use "vosotros" ever. It's just "ustedes" and it's both formal and informal.
posted by divina_y_humilde at 8:37 AM on November 30, 2014


I hate to say it but you have to just work through memorizing the conjugations and eventually they become natural to use.
posted by Che boludo! at 9:36 AM on November 30, 2014


In most South American countries (maybe in all of them, but I can't say that for sure) people don't use "vosotros" ever. It's just "ustedes" and it's both formal and informal.

Hence the "here"... I should have elaborated but I didn't want to derail the comment with vos vs. ustedes and so on. I trust Ephelump Jockey will choose the set of pronouns he'll find more affinity for.
posted by sukeban at 9:40 AM on November 30, 2014


Your comment was very clear, sukeban, I just mentioned it because I have no idea if they make that sort of clarifications for Spanish learners in the lessons.
posted by divina_y_humilde at 10:08 AM on November 30, 2014


Spanishdict is wonderful. Try the grammar section, under "Verbs".

The charts help, but I'm looking for something like a mnemonic device or heuristic that will help it penetrate my stupid calcified adult brain. I'm lazy and don't want to brute force this if I don't have to.

Your adult brain is not calcified (speaking as another adult brain, close to finishing a third language on Duolingo). Language learning, in my experience and it seems to me in general — for children and adults — is brute force. Except not nearly as hard as that sounds. You can learn rules that save yourself some time in places, but it is mostly repetition and reinforcement.

I'm sure you've seen in many of the comment sections on Duolingo, English speakers arguing over why certain translations don't sound "natural". It is often hard for us to spell out what exactly those rules are — but we just know, what sounds right and what sounds wrong. We pick up the rules, from the ridiculous number of repetitions that is everyday use.

It's the same I think, with Spanish verbs. It'd take me a moment and some effort to think of what rules I'm following exactly to conjugate verbs; but when Duolingo gives me a question, I just know the answer now. It's just time. You don't have to force it: just let it wash over you, let yourself make the mistakes, and give it the time and regular attention and reinforcement it needs. There's also Mi Vida Loca, and Destinos. When you're done with Duolingo (or maybe alongside), Anki helps, in addition to of course immersing yourself in all kinds of Spanish media. It's fun, and feels like a whole parallel universe opening up to you.
posted by catchingsignals at 10:14 AM on November 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


So I think the advice above about how you're going to have to push through and memorize verb conjugations is true. But I also think one thing about being an adult learner, especially self-directed, is that it's hard to recreate the playfulness of child/classroom learning, but that built-in experimentation is super helpful.

Do what you can to goof around with the language you're learning, especially if you're on your own. vogon_poet's recommendation of reciting in a singsong chant is in this vein, and will help you remember better than just saying them aloud. If you can get yourself laughing about how the word hablabamos sounds, that's even better (admit it, to the English-speaking ear it's ridiculous: hablablablablabamos). Be playful! My best Spanish teacher would "verb words" in front of us. I think it started when a colleague of his had a student write the word "lata" (Spanish for tin can) instead of "puedo" (I can) in a homework problem: "yo lata hablar español. Thus was the fake Spanish verb "latar" born, and I still remember its conjugation to this day.
posted by deludingmyself at 10:55 AM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


Thanks everyone for the advice.

I guess I was looking for an easy answer where one doesn't really exist. And maybe I was asking the wrong question anyway. I think more efficient study habits are what I actually wanted. But some of the suggestions really do help, especially finding ways to enjoy the process.
So if anyone's got ideas for more efficient ways to study a new language generally or study tips for aiding memorization, I'd be glad to hear them. I'll give it a day or so and if nothing comes up I'll just mark the question resolved.

Thanks again for the input.
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 6:44 AM on December 3, 2014


If efficiency's what you're looking for, Anki and spaced repetition in general (of which Duolingo offers a form, although whatever algorithm it uses doesn't seem to be as efficient as Anki's) are about as efficient as it gets I think. If you mean efficiency specifically with verb conjugation, it's probably studying the tables themselves like multiplication tables, and taking the time to memorise them.

But that's so dull, isn't it? I much prefer learning in the context of sentences, trying to spot the patterns myself from the correct examples I've been given. That's one of the things I like about Pimsleur, which is also quite efficient (and quite demanding) in that it often doesn't spell things out, and expect you to join the dots yourself. Which, when you do, is very satisfying! (And when you don't, you can feel very lost.) I tend to find it much easier to remember a rule that I figured out myself, than trying to learn it from some description of the rule. Plus it's usually one small piece of insight at a time, and in context — rather than this big table to try to cram into my brain.

One thing I've been doing with Duolingo in terms of efficiency: with the German tree I'm doing, I've pretty much stopped going over old material, as (at least with the German tree, I can't remember if it was the same with the other ones) Duolingo is really good at incorporating earlier words and phrases into new material, which means you get to learn new stuff and reinforce old material in one go. But if you do it that way, you'd have to be prepared to get things wrong, a lot, and to pay for the repetition that you skipped, by needing to repeat some of the new material many times until you get all of it right. I don't actually know if that is faster, but it feels faster, because you're always working on interesting new material, and you feel much more of a sense of rapid progress as you move through the tree. (And any gaps are fine as I'm going to go back to practise everything when the tree's done anyway.)

But yeah, it's going to take time. I am still far, far from fluent, though I do understand quite a bit and that in itself is already very satisfying. (Subcribe to some Twitter feeds in the language you're learning, and watch as over time they become comprehensible to you! Watch interviews and standup comedy sets and listen to music in the language you're learning, and in the midst of all the incomprehensible rapid-fire syllables, find yourself somehow naturally picking out more and more words and phrases over time — until you have entire whole sentences and, it's almost as if they're speaking a language you understand! It feels kind of amazing.) But languages are vast, y'know? As much as I want it to happen sooner, I know it is going to take years. Might as well take our time and enjoy the journey :)
posted by catchingsignals at 6:33 PM on December 4, 2014


Well I'm new to the concept of spaced repetition entirely. Matters academic have always come really easy to me. This is the first self-directed learning I've done where I haven't had a point of reference from my past. Like for instance if I was learning some obscure computer-related skill, I always had old knowledge to branch from. While that's true of Spanish in the sense that it's Latin-derived and that I took it in high school (so sorry I didn't pay much attention now) you're absolutely correct in that it's vast. I'm not even having that hard a time in general honestly. I just feel like I'm learning rote phrases rather than grasping underlying concepts. But maybe I'm rushing things and the rote phrases will lead to a better grasp of the rules beneath. I just don't think Duolingo does grammar very well. It kinda expects you to intuit the structure through repetitious practice. Like I'm passing lessons all the time, but I'm afraid I'm going to hit a point where I'm out of my depth. It's like imposter syndrome, but not quite since there aren't any other people involved. I dunno. Just sorta spitballing here and I'm probably overthinking the whole thing. As I said already, there were lots of wonderful answers here, even if they weren't precisely what I was looking for. And I think maybe thinking less about it and just carrying on is the right answer. I just want to make sure there's real ironclad retention there. I'm finding that this is a lot more fun than I expected it to be and it's sparked a real desire to become fluent.
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 9:11 PM on December 4, 2014


I just feel like I'm learning rote phrases rather than grasping underlying concepts. But maybe I'm rushing things and the rote phrases will lead to a better grasp of the rules beneath. I just don't think Duolingo does grammar very well.

Oh Duolingo really doesn't — more often than not we have to look elsewhere for explanations (if we're lucky, someone may have posted explanations or links in the comments) — so I do understand your concern. I would encourage you to use Duolingo not just on its own but with other resources, such as the Spanishdict link I posted earlier. (Really, that Spanishdict grammar section covers a great deal and would give you plenty to get on with, and help you grasp those underlying concepts). Other than that, I can only tell you that having finished the Spanish tree, I'm very glad I did it, even though I was nowhere near fluency by the time I finished it. I think the main value of Duolingo is in getting you past the early stages of learning a language where nothing seems to be sticking. By the time you finish the tree, enough will have stuck that you will have the confidence to know you can do this yourself, and all it takes is time, attention and repetition. The rest is up to you, you can branch out from there to just about anything in Spanish that looks interesting to you, and know that you can note down any new words or phrases you come across and learn through repetition in the same way. Armed with that knowledge, the thousand or so words Duolingo has taught you, and a decent dictionary (Spanishdict is really good for a free one), you can pick up just about anything in Spanish that you are interested in. In that sense, when you say "This is the first self-directed learning I've done where I haven't had a point of reference from my past", Duolingo can be that point of reference for you in language learning, and give you the experience to know that you can do this. But it doesn't get you to fluency at all, so know that even after Duolingo, there's a long way to go.

Like I'm passing lessons all the time, but I'm afraid I'm going to hit a point where I'm out of my depth.

You will. And that's okay! Learning challenging things feels like that. The best way to learn a language as everyone knows is immersion — and that's pretty much dropping yourself somewhere where you'd be very much out of your depth.

I just want to make sure there's real ironclad retention there.

Ironclad, no — even native speakers lose much of their language if they don't use it (though I think you never forget the language as such, but much of it becomes inaccessible). So whether there is retention is up to you, and how much time and attention you give it :)
posted by catchingsignals at 4:55 PM on December 7, 2014


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