Foreign Language Filter: Why is it so dang hard to learn verbs?
May 29, 2019 9:57 PM   Subscribe

I am currently studying a foreign language (Spanish), and I have a pretty good noun vocabulary and I don't have too much trouble getting nouns and adjectives to stick in my brain. But I cannot seem to make verbs stay in there, I cannot come up with them when speaking, like verbs I know I know, I stumble on. WHY IS THIS HARD? And how can I make it easier?

This is the fourth foreign language I have studied and I have had this problem in ALL of them. I don't have much trouble learning quantities of nouns and adjectives, adverbs go okay, but I have always struggled with verbs, and it's REALLY TOUGH to make sentences when you can never find a verb. And I'm not talking hard verbs -- tener and querer are falling out of my brain when I'm trying to speak to people or to write. It's insanely frustrating, and from prior experience I know it's not going to improve for me doing what I do now. Are verbs just hard for everybody? Or is there a way to make them stick better that I could learn to use?

(I do okay READING the verbs when I'm reading a story in Spanish, and to a lesser degree hearing them when someone else is talking, but I absolutely cannot generate them.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I think it’s really easy to find another word for a noun when you forget it. Use a pronoun. Say “that thing.” It’s a lot harder to fudge verbs. Generally, if you’re lucky, in a foreign language you’ll know one alternate verb that miiiight work. Can’t remember the verb to run? Er.. walk fast might work. Maybe the pressure of knowing you’re stuck if you forget it just gets to you?

I don’t have a problem remembering verbs - like in infinitive form. But the correct conjugation? Yeah, I’m pretty embarrassed by that correct/incorrect ratio.
posted by greermahoney at 10:29 PM on May 29, 2019

And how can I make it easier? Watch telenovelas. First with the subtitles, if it's not too distracting, then without them.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:43 PM on May 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

The reason it's harder is because you may be understanding nouns as different labels for objects you don't have to reconceptualize. But these verbs more explicitly ask you to reconceptualize concepts from the naturalized assumptions of your own language. In English you do not have 38 years, you are 38 years. You do not touch a guitar in English, you play a guitar. There is a different conceptual break between "want" and "like" in English than "querer" expresses. In English you "are" a woman and you "are" in the house, but this concept shifts in Spanish (whereas you can just translate both "house" and "woman" without the same kind of reconfiguration of how you understand "being".) Etc.
I don't think it's necessarily harder for everyone to learn verbs in a second language, but if this is your specific hurdle, then the way to make it easier will have to shift away from memorizing verbs the way you probably memorize nouns and think about how to reconceptualize the actual different ontologies they express. And that of course is the mind blowing, wonderful part about getting more fluent in a new language: starting to see the world a bit differently, not just substituting different labels for the same categories.
posted by nantucket at 11:45 PM on May 29, 2019 [23 favorites]

If it helps, the way schoolchildren in Spain learn verbs is by rote memorization of verbal forms. You start with regular verbs (three endings: like cantar, beber, vivir) and then you go "yo canto, tú cantas, él canta, nosotros cantamos" and so on until you do all the tenses plus infinitive, past participle and imperative. You start learning the verbs at home, but it's at school where you link tenses to verbal forms.

And I'm not talking hard verbs -- tener and querer are falling out of my brain when I'm trying to speak to people or to write.

Well, yes, tener can mean "to own", "to hold" or "to must" and querer means "to love" and "to want" but want as in desire, not as in lack of something. You'll have to translate the intended meanings with practice, I'm afraid.

Conversely, the most trouble I had when learning English verbs is when I had to memorize phrasal verbs, because the meaning often has nothing to do with the meaning of the components. You basically get handed a list of phrasal verbs and are expected to memorize them straight.
posted by sukeban at 12:25 AM on May 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

I wonder if it's just that verbs are presented so much more quickly than nouns?

I just had 6 weeks of intensive conversational Hebrew. We spent like, two lessons on "ani gara ba'dirah ba'eer" (sorry we never learned to type) so I know 'gar' and 'dirah' and 'eer' really quite well, but we basically got a page of pa'al verbs (I get the idea this is like the first conjugation) and were told, "HERE YOU GO let's make some sentences with all of these verbs at once!"

And it's natural to introduce verbs this way, right? You learn one conjugation, suddenly so many verbs are unlocked, except there's been no soak time. Like, the advantage of learning Spanish from 2nd grade onwards as an American schoolchild is that teachers take their merry time with everything because there is so much time to discuss el comprar de billetes en la ventanilla or los mariscos son muy frescos.
posted by batter_my_heart at 12:29 AM on May 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Just coming in to say you’re not alone. I’ve studied Spanish past tenses on three separate occasions over the past 10 years and I still don’t think they’ve stuck (see this Ask).

I actually think batter_my_heart has it - even one set of conjugations can have a whole heap of irregulars and it’s a lot of learning yet they’re often put across in just a few classes. Which is enough for the teacher to deliver the material, but not enough for you to learn it. And then they move onto the next set of verbs, which start to sound like noise and just confuse your attempts to retain the first lot.

I’ve had some success with drilling them on apps, but it seems short term. I’ve decided to switch classes and find one with a much greater speaking component because that does seem to help me cement them more, and my current classes have offered very little spontaneous conversation practice. What’s strange is that the present tense stuff I learned more than 10 years ago does seem fluent - I don’t know if that’s because I learnt it when my brain was younger and more plastic, because I had more Spanish-speaking friends then, or because I’ve just forgotten how hard it was to learn.

Anyway. Solidarity!
posted by penguin pie at 2:17 AM on May 30, 2019

What have your learning strategies been so far?

For learning conjugations I'd recommend what sukeban suggested - just straight up drilling each form of the verb - though I'd actually leave off the personal pronouns: you get a better chanting rhythm that way (canto cantas canta, cantamos cantáis cantan), and you more often don't use them while speaking.

But for learning the verbs themselves and how to use them, I'd recommend learning them in context. So:

- if a verb takes direct objects, learn it together with some common or memorable ones. Leer libros, cantar Despacito, comer la comida, beber agua.

- Ask yourself questions with the verbs: Quién viene? Cuándo vas? Dónde trabajo? Por qué trabajo cuando quiero dormir??

- Pick some object in your vicinity whose name you know in Spanish. What can you do with it? Eat it? See it? Hide it? Disguise it? Jump on it? etc. Focusing on just one object, practice saying (or writing) and imagining all the things you know how to do with it in Spanish. There'll obviously be a lot of overlap in what you can do to different things, which is fine since the point is to build up a great amount of practice, but you want to really imagine yourself doing those things with respect to those objects. And trying to think of unique things you can do with something is a good way of expanding vocabulary.

- While reading metafilter comments, look them over for verbs you've learned and practice translating just them (not the rest of the sentence, or maybe just the direct object)

Also, this is important: especially for the last two items above, you want to pay attention to prepositions. Like in English, using different prepositions with verbs can change the meaning or be un-idiomatic, and learning the prepositional contexts of a verb is an important part that a lot of learners tend to skip. It can feel daunting because there's so much more involved in learning all the different ways to use a verb than there is with most nouns or adjectives. But on the other hand, having all these extra bits of context that stick to verbs can also help them stick better in your mind: learning how to use a verb with "por" can reinforce your memories of how to use it with "con", just like learning "look through the book" in English can reinforce "look for the book" and "look up the book" and "look at the book" and "look" in general. Of course learning all those usages at once is a bear and there's no reason to stress about it - take it step by step, but when you find a verb that just won't stick in your mind, look up all the different ways to use it and see if some of them stick better for you.

One final suggestion: use the connections between English and Spanish to help you remember words. Comer - in English you eat comestibles. Tener - a tenacious person holds on to stuff. Etc. (And even when you can't find an obvious connection, use mnemonic devices. Querer - query your heart for what it desires, or carry your desires in your heart.)
posted by trig at 3:14 AM on May 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

One final suggestion: use a good general dictionary, idiom dictionary, or relevant website (I'd suggest one but I've got nothing) to find idioms you like using the verbs you want to learn, and learn them by heart. This has the added bonus that you can then trot them out sagely at apropos occasions, often to the annoyance of those around you.
posted by trig at 3:23 AM on May 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

One final suggestion: use the connections between English and Spanish to help you remember words. Comer - in English you eat comestibles. Tener - a tenacious person holds on to stuff. Etc.

That's because those are Latinate words in English so they're etymologically cousins. FWIW, learning Latin will help you understand a good % of Romance languages. In this case, compare the Latin verb sum with the Spanish verb ser. Both are extremely irregular but you can see how the Spanish verb evolved from Latin.
posted by sukeban at 3:26 AM on May 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Okay actually final this time: since you say you don't have as much trouble learning nouns, you can try to connect the verbs you learn to the nouns they're often related to. Querer - you love your querido. Tener - tenencia (and tenedor?). Pensar - pensamiento. This also has the nice side effect of increasing your vocabulary, because when you learn a new verb, noun, or adjective, you can look up related words and learn and practice them all together.
posted by trig at 3:32 AM on May 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Personally, my theory is that it's because you see the infinitive form so rarely; most of the time, you're seeing conjugations. So while a noun might have a masculine and feminine form, and can be pluralized, often that's just accomplished by changing the final -o to an -a, or adding an -s (sometimes -es). It's still basically the same word. Whereas the various conjugations of a verb are numerous. And learning more about the language doesn't help, because you just learn more tenses to conjugate.

There's the language-teacher stereotype of making students incessantly run through conjugations, but I think that's the difference between learning in school and learning on your own. I only took one year of Spanish in high school 20 years ago, but I still speak it better than I speak German, which is a language I've been trying to learn on my own (fairly successfully, I should say) for 4+ years now.

That would be my suggestion. Conjugate verbs until you're sick of it. Fill entire sheets of paper with the present tense of one verb. Spend a lot of time with each conjugation, and a lot of time thing each conjugation back to the infinitive.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:43 AM on May 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Agreed: conjugation is a pain in the ass. I have trouble learning languages and High School Latin was, for me, 34 years ago but I put so much effort into learning it that it's still sort of with me. I'm learning Spanish and the ghosts of Latin verb conjugations are still with me.

FWIW, Chinese doesn't seem to have conjugation. Just verbs in context. "Do you have" is "have-not-have". But then there are thousands of ideograms to memorize.
posted by kalessin at 5:28 AM on May 30, 2019

Part of the problem is the overwhelming number of tenses. In English, for everything except "be", there are only three forms to remember: the present, the past and the participle (e.g., Eat: eat, ate, eaten). Almost everything else is done with helping verbs like do and have. Latin languages have dozens of tenses, and each of these has six forms. Some of these tenses don't even correspond to anything in English (for example, in Italian there is a recent past tense and a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT distant past tense, and no one can tell me where the dividing line is!) And on top of that, the more frequently used verbs tend to be irregular. It really is a lot to remember, and because of the irregular forms, memorization is all that helps.

I've been taking Italian once a week from a tutor, and almost all the review I do is verb memorization. I do find that using another method helps, so I've been using (free) DuoLingo on the side, but there's no substitute for just memorizing those damn verbs.
posted by ubiquity at 7:42 AM on May 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't actually have a difficult time with the conjugations -- those are easy to remember because they're rhythmic and musical -- and if I can come up with ANY form of the verb I can usually conjugate it on the fly. I struggle to come up with a word for "to run" -- ANY word for it, like to run, I run, you run, they all ran backwards, nothing pops up in my mind.

I think the idea that storing nouns is like storing synonyms but verbs don't match as neatly has something to it? Or maybe that nouns I can look at a table and think "la mesa" but I don't have someone running handy to thing "to run"?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:43 AM on May 30, 2019

It may be relevant that verbs aren't naturally limited to a specific context. You only need animal names if you're on a farm. You only need food words if you're shopping or eating. But you need querer and tener and dozens of other basic verbs in every single context imaginable.

Also, a lot of verbs are very broad in meaning. The ones that take an object often mean very different things depending on what the object is: giving a donation, giving a shit, giving blood, giving someone an idea, and giving someone a physical object are really different situations.

So ok, here's a study strategy. Let's say you're grocery shopping. You can't just call up your mental list of Grocery Store Verbs, because really you need every single one of the most basic verbs. And you can't just visualize the verbs you need in isolation, because in isolation they're abstract and hard to visualize. So make them concrete. You can think of something you'd find in a grocery store, and then apply as many basic verbs as you can to it. Quería un aguacate. Buscaba un aguacate. Encontré un aguacate. Dejé caer el aguacate. Recogí el aguacate. Compré el aguacate. Ahora tengo un aguacate. Me gusta el aguacate. Espero comer el aguacate. Etc etc etc. And then when you're at work, pick another object and look for applications for those same verbs. And when you're at home, pick another object and look for applications for those same verbs.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:50 AM on May 30, 2019

So you're having trouble remembering the vocabulary content of the verb and recalling it? What I would suggest then (as a language teacher) is TPR methods -- total physical response. This will *definitely* help with action verbs. Pick a gesture to go with the verb -- make little running motions with your arms for correr or mime writing with a hand for escribir, etc. Then say the word out loud while doing the motion. Have a study partner (if you have one) say the word, and then make the gesture with them. What you want is to strengthen the association between the word and a mental representation (that isn't the English meaning, because that isn't working). Then recall by starting the motion (or even thinking about it without doing it, eventually!) They will move into your memory eventually. These gestures can even be somewhat arbitrary, but the idea is to have something mentally to trigger the Spanish word.

You can also draw pictures of someone doing the action. Also, as mentioned above, try learning them in a phrase -- leer el libro, rather than just leer.

And yes, nouns are by far the easiest vocabulary category for people to recall. After that is usually the politeness phrases repeated with a teacher a lot (¿Como estás?, etc.). You are not alone struggling with the verb recall!
posted by lysimache at 8:28 AM on May 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think the idea that storing nouns is like storing synonyms but verbs don't match as neatly has something to it?

Yes. English only has two forms of a verb in each tense for all six voices; most other Romance languages have a unique verb form for each voice *and they change all six again in a different tense.* English has nothing that compares to this.


I eat
You eat
He/She/It eats
We eat
You all eat
They eat

All of them are exactly the same ("eat") except third person singular.


yo como
él/ella/Usted come
nosotros comemos
vosotros coméis
ellos/ellas/Ustedes comen

No form repeats. There's nothing to "grab onto" because there's no multi-usage form of the verb. And we get six entirely new forms of the verb for each tense we use in these languages, while in English the variation drops from two forms to one form.


I ate
You ate
He/she/it ate
We ate
You all ate
They ate


yo comí
él/ella/Usted comió
nosotros comimos
vosotros comisteis
ellos/ellas/Ustedes comieron

I agree with those above who say rote memorization is the way to go on this one. Flash cards, even.
posted by tzikeh at 12:15 PM on May 30, 2019

Related to your visualization update: if you're making your own flashcards, make them with images, even the ones with verbs. If you're a more advanced student (and clearly as a learner of multiple languages), you could combine this with full sentences, but basically what you want is a picture (video if they're digital flashcards) of someone running on one side and your Spanish verb on the other. Easier for visual actions like running or eating or sleeping. Harder for abstract things. In the same vein, it is useful for cultural context and acquiring the multiple meanings of a single verb if you use images that a native speaker would use. Approximate this by doing searches in a Spanish language image search or using images from Spanish media. Sentences with gaps or closed deletions can also help, but the visual is really useful for me.

Music is another great way to learn. Lyrics Training uses sentence gaps to help you learn vocab through music. I don't know how fine-tuned the control over it is--you may be stuck with the words they chose to delete. I know there's another resource out there aimed at language teachers that lets you select exactly what kind of gaps or deletions to use, but I can't find it right now.

Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner has a lot of good information on how to structure your language learning to tackle issues like this. I think it's where I first found the visual flashcard advice, too. He also has an app/flashcards/word lists and other resources that tie directly into his language learning method. Spanish is one of the languages he does have resources for.

Finally, practice. practice. practice. Speaking a new language is hard, especially when you're a beginner with that language. Knowing that you will make mistakes is hard. But find somewhere to practice. Language table at your local college or library? Italki? Trade languages with someone who wants to learn a language you already know? The more you speak, especially if you have a sympathetic audience who will offer gentle corrections, the more you will internalize the verbs.
posted by carrioncomfort at 12:25 PM on May 30, 2019

"But find somewhere to practice. Language table at your local college or library?"

That's actually where I discovered my incredible difficulty producing verbs! At a local Spanish-learner conversation meetup, with some very generous native speakers who also attend. It's much more motivating than drills. :D
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:51 PM on May 30, 2019

One other idea that's helped me a lot: if you can, try to build mnemonic sentences using a noun from the target language (or that could plausibly be from the target language, like an adapted name).

So for example, nadar, swim, try building sentences using the name Nadia, or the word nada.
No puedo nadar en nada. - I can't swim in nothing.
Nadia nadaba. - Nadia used to swim.
Nadie nada. - Nobody swims.

For correr, run, try
Corría en Corea. - I used to run in Korea.
Correr es bueno para la corazon. - Running is good for the heart.

This gives you a picture in your head of the movement, with a mnemonic noun that can prompt your memory for the full word.

It's worked really well for me with Japanese verbs lately.

¡Buena suerte!
posted by kristi at 2:14 PM on June 2, 2019

For me, it's listen, listen, listen, especially for verbs. At a certain point, my ear acclimates to the verbs in speech, almost as if the other parts of speech (nouns, adjectives, adverbs) recede into the background.

I especially like the recommendations to associate a verb with associated actions ~ comer legumbres, papas, tortas; leer novelas, libros, etc. Associations bind verbs better for me.

Listening to speech in telenovelas or other formats with english translation is powerful. Also check out the excellent German site, Linguee because it uses current sources for its translations.
posted by lometogo at 5:35 AM on June 4, 2019

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