San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The Spanish Student’s #*&! Verbs Syndrome

Nothing gets a language learner crazier than grappling with verbs.

Take the beleaguered Spanish student, for example. First of all, he finds that there are what seem like countless verb endings, according to who is doing the action. Why? It’s so easy in English. It practically stays the same all the time: “I talk, you talk,” etc.

But Spanish – it changes so much. They don’t even have to say yo or usted. It’s all built into those wretched endings. Not only this, there are three different kinds of verbs: those whose infinitives end in -ar, those that end in -er, and those that end in -ir. This is way too many. What’s worse, these endings make a difference in the other endings, the ones that are already driving our student to distraction.

In time, our student finds he can accept this. He may not agree with it, but, yes, he can handle it. He can even forgive. Then he finds out some other things – some very disturbing things.

He finds out, for one thing, that the spelling and pronunciation of the verbs can change if there is an “o” or an “e” emphasized – oh, but not always.

It seems logical to say “moro” for “I die,” because the verb is morir. Nope. It’s muero. “I run,” however, from correr, is corro, as it should be. Then there’s sentir, “to feel.” “I feel” is siento, but if we want to use meter to say “I insert,” we say meto. Not only this, it turns out that a verb such as conocer, “to be acquainted with,” becomes conozco in order to preserve an “s” sound caused by a “c” and turned into a “z,”which is also an “s” because Spanish speakers can’t even say “z.” There’s a whole bunch of this nasty stuff.

It gets worse. Now, our student finds that some of the endings he worked so hard to learn get reversed in the past. Hablo means “I speak,” and habló (with the stress on the final -o) means “he spoke,” or maybe “she spoke.” Whatever the case, the whole matter seems to be set up to thwart anyone who simply wants to have a decent conversation.

Speaking of the past – it’s so unreliable, so appallingly irregular. How did they ever come up with fui to mean both “I was” and “I go”? Anyway, the verbs, ser and ir haven’t a trace of an “f” anywhere.

That’s not even the worst thing about the past tense. It turns out there are two past tenses, the perfect (or preterit) and imperfect, depending on what you mean. What’s the sense in that? The past is the past, isn’t it? But, no. One past, the perfect, is for when something is finished, and one, the imperfect, is for when something is not finished.

Of course, that doesn’t make any sense at all. Everything in the past is finished, isn’t it? Of course, if you went back in time, you’d find that the imperfect was, in fact, not finished at the time. But so what? It’s finished now.

No wonder they call it imperfect.

About the time our cheerless Spanish student thinks he can’t take anymore, some dink of a teacher comes along and tells him that these are the “simple” tenses. Simple? Never mind that the other kind are called “compound,” there is nothing remotely simple about these, and calling them so makes the poor boy feel thicker than he was already feeling.

Then they hit him with the future and the conditional. In English, all we have to do is stick in a “will” or a “would,” and, voilà, instant future and conditional. But Spanish has to complicate the issue and give us a whole other series of changes and – what else? – endings.

At this point, our language learner is seriously considering becoming one of those ridiculous Gringos who speaks in infinitives.

Hola.Me llamar Andy. Ayer yo ir a Arenal. Mañana, yo visitar Manuel Antonio.”

And what does the language do to save the poor boy? Does it offer him a crumb of consolation? A ray of hope?

No. It offers him the final blow. It offers him death and taxes. It offers him the SUBJUNCTIVE. The subjunctive, which is a whole system with separate forms for present and past. The subjunctive, which turns all of the rules for changing infinitive forms into mush. The subjunctive, for crying out loud, is about mood, about whether something is real or not. This isn’t language. This is metaphysics.

So our student says, “No! I won’t, I can’t, I just refuse to do this. I refuse to believe that little Spanish-speaking children do this. I don’t know. Maybe you are all a nation of geniuses. Or maybe you are lying to me. That’s it! You’re making up the subjunctive to upset me. It doesn’t really exist. Ha! Ha!”

This reaction is popularly known as “The #*&! Verbs Syndrome.” In professional circles, it is more accurately termed “Acute Paranoid Verbomania exacerbated by Subjunctivitis.”

With enough time and Prozac, of course, our boy eventually recovers. Then, miracle of miracles, he begins to use the Spanish verbs. He doesn’t always use them correctly. He probably doesn’t even bother with the subjunctive, but he manages to communicate his meaning. With more time and practice, he uses them ever more correctly. One day, he finds he is even using the subjunctive once in a while. Finally, the day comes that he uses most Spanish verbs correctly without even thinking about it, and he sometimes dreams in Spanish.

He looks back on his despair and laughs. How silly he was to think that he had been expected to study, understand and then immediately take correct action.What stress! All the time, it was only a matter of striving to understand, then relaxing, absorbing and slipping into it. He never had to struggle with it all by himself. Some mysterious part of his mind was doing it for him all along.


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