Second Language Strategies to Master Conjugation
Welcome, aspiring polyglot! Most people struggle when learning a new language, the bulk of this difficulty usually comes down to conjugation and mastery of the alphabet. While it is important to master every aspect of the alphabet, conjugation is a bit more forgiving. That said, there are some things you can do to make things easier on yourself. You should not under any circumstances avoid speaking simply because you are not perfect with your conjugations. At the end of the day, most people will understands you even if you using the improper conjugation.
First thing to focus on, though, is the present tense. It is normal to feel constrained, especially if you are only able to speak in the present tense, but you have to start somewhere and people are very understanding. Language skills take time to develop, but when you master one tense you will find that the others come easier. There are, however, patterns to everything and leveraging these patterns will allow you to progress at a far more reasonable rate. Before any of that, though, master the present tense.
The present is a gift for language learners
The reason people always start with the present tense is it is invariably the one you will be using the most often. Of course it will feel like you are constrained when you are starting out on your second language acquisition, but when you get a month in you will be happy to have built a strong foundation.
The average language learner is so eager to jump to more complex things that they forgo laying a strong foundation. It is impossible to build something incredible upon a weak foundation. Focusing your energy on the present tense and using the confidence you gain from that mastery will make every future tense more simple.
Perhaps more important than taking advantage of the simplicity of the present tense is the ability to begin speaking sooner. When you speak early and often you will be forced into situations where you are at a loss for words. This is a good thing, though it may be a blow to the ego.
When you are starting out, almost everything will be confusing, but over time you will be able to recognize more and more words. If you wait until you are perfect to try speaking in your target language, you likely will be waiting for years. What separates a good language learner from a great language learner is the focus on patterns. For this article, Spanish will be the example:
Verbs ending in -ar
Yo (I) camin-o = drop the -ar add -o
Tu (you) camin-as = drop the -ar add -as
El/ella/usted (he/she/you formal) camin-a = drop the -ar add -a
Nosotros (we) camin-amos = drop the -ar add -amos
Ellos/ellas/Ustedes (they/you all) camin-an = drop the -ar add -an
This is what it will look like for almost every verb that ends with -ar. Drop the -ar and add the appropriate ending for the pronoun, or people, about whom you are speaking. So rather than focusing on which word should be conjugated in which way, all you need to do is memorize the suffixes that correspond with the person or people you are addressing. The same goes for the -er/-ir verbs. Here is what that looks like:
Verbs ending in -ir/er
Yo (I) viv-o
Tu (you) viv-es
El/ella/usted (he/she/you formal) viv-e
Nosotros (we) viv-imos
Ellos/ellas/Ustedes (they/you all) viv-en
This is what it will look like for almost every verb that ends with -ir/er.
Again, knowing who you are addressing and the corresponding suffix is all that is necessary for most of the verbs in the Spanish language. When you remember that adding an -s usually means you are referring to "tu" and that adding an -en or -an usually means you are talking to a group of people, the rest falls into place. Remember, drop the ending and add the appropriate suffix. It is always the same, but beware of irregular verbs.
The power of irregular verbs
One of the most frustrating things about irregular verbs is they tend to be some of the most frequently used verbs in any given language. To go, to do, to make, to be, are just a few examples of the irregular verbs in romance languages. Fortunately, mastering the irregular gives one a strange sense of pride and by doing it early you will set yourself up for a long line of wins. The primary reason for this, aside from them being used so often, is that you will open yourself up to a new tense without ever having to learn a conjugation that is not present tense.
This works in most romance languages, but it works in English as well and most people use it every day without realizing it. The tense is called the "near future" and is used to indicate things you plan to do in the immediate future. However, there is no limit to "immediate" in this sense which means you can essentially use this tense until you are able to master the future tense conjugations. Not only is it a simple way to add a new tense to your lexicon, it is also the perfect introduction to one of the most used irregular verbs. In Spanish, that is the verb "ir" which means "to go" but the conjugations are a bit different. This is what it looks like:
Entering the near future
To go = ir
Fantastic! But how can you use this to enhance and accelerate your second language learning? Simple, in English we say, it is going to help you. That is an example of the near future in English. Something is "going to" something. Let's look at an example or five.
Remember, in most Spanish you do not need to add the pronoun. The conjugation and context will tell the people you are speaking to who the subject is. Finally, when using the “near future” you will need to add “a” before the infinitive of the verb you are “going to” be doing.
I am going to eat at the restaurant.
(Yo) Voy a comer al restaurante.
You are going to travel.
(Tu) Vas a viajar.
He is going to drive the car.
(El/Ella/Usted) Va a conducir el coche.
We are going to walk together.
(Nosotros) Vamos a caminar juntos.
They are going to give us a present.
(Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes) Van a darnos un regalo.
Now, by merely learning the present tense conjugations and expanding your vocabulary every day you will be able to speak about the present and the future. There are many language learning strategies out there, but some things will simply move the needle more than others. Paying attention to the patterns you see, jumping ahead in time, and speaking early and often will help you build momentum to sustain yourself when things slow down. If you are interested in the other patterns available to you, check out this romance language pattern guide we put together:
Self evaluation through direct and reverse translation
Once you have had a chance to work on this for some time, you will probably begin wondering whether or not you have actually mastered anything. The best way to evaluate this for yourself is by reading more and more complex books and articles. Translation is a powerful tool, if you want to leverage it check out this article:
Aside from translating the works of others, you should constantly be asking yourself if what you are saying, or thinking, makes sense when you translate it back to English. Often people get so in their heads that they over complicate the sentences they are trying to make which results in incorrect speech. If you are really questioning whether or not you are saying something correctly, try to translate it back into the language you speak natively. Does it still make sense? Great! You are probably on the right track. If it does not make sense, re-evaluate and see whether or not you are overcomplicating things.
While doing this, try to pay attention to the times when the words you are learning do not follow the standard rules. Exceptions are often just as important as the rules and since there are, generally speaking, less to remember than rules, you can work to apply them across everything you know.
Exceptions have rules of their own as well and by learning how to navigate them you can, eventually, learn how to use them. There are patterns everywhere and you will make the most progress by leveraging them, though you likely will not lose out on anything, other than rapid progress, if you do not. Whether you choose to learn the patterns or not, you need to be speaking early and often.
Speaking early and often will provide you with something most language learners miss out on which is actual, practical experience. Irrespective of how many mistakes you make, learning to speak with confidence is important. You will never stop making mistakes, but as with a master musician, if you continue on as though you have made no mistakes few people, if any, will notice and even fewer will take the time to point it out. The biggest step anyone takes towards fluency is speaking and, unfortunately, it is usually the step people take last. By forcing yourself to speak, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you, you will be able to pass other language leaners with ease.
Theory will never beat practice. The more you do something the better you will be at it. However, you need to be building from a strong foundation and the only way to do this is to master the alphabet and the present tense conjugations. As your vocabulary expands you will be able to use what you know to expand your base and build on the foundation you spent all that time and effort laying.
Listening comprehension is important, reading is important, learning grammar rules is important, but nothing will move the needle for you more than speaking and writing. When you are forced to think in the language, you will discover more key words and their correct usage irrespective of your learning style.
Learning foreign languages is no easy feat, it will be difficult irrespective of how you approach it. Using the strategies listed here can and will enhance and accelerate your language learning experience, it will not be easy. But you can do difficult things and be great, so continue to do difficult things and be great. I will be here by your side endeavoring to do the same.
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