Milestones in the 1st Year of Spanish Study: Pronunciation, Conjugation and More
The First Hurdles: All About Being "Agreeable"
The first hurdles a beginning student of Spanish faces include:
1. Pronunciation problems: Students struggle with trilled RRs, vowels, spelling, cognates and false cognates. The key is finding good models to listen to and imitate.
2. Learning Vocabulary: Students struggle with how to learn vocabulary. They need to break up the task into manageable units and practice from English to Spanish in order to build an active, as opposed to a passive, vocabulary.
3. Gender of Nouns -- the concept of grammatical gender. This is coupled with learning the articles, definite and indefinite, as well as the fact that a basic noun phrase is structured: article, noun, adjective, with the article and adjective agreeing with the noun in gender and number.
4. Conjugation of Verbs in the Present Tense, with certain irregular patterns. The very concept of conjugation is foreign to English speakers. If this is not mastered early, there is really no hope of success. Regular -AR, -ER and -IR verbs, modeled by hablar, comer and vivir, are the only way to start. Irregular verbs follow patterns -- not many, but enough that they need to be consciously sorted out and examined analytically, as students would study math or chemistry.
5. Common Idioms with Hacer and Tener, Ir + a + infinitive and the concept of helping verbs + infinitive. For many students, this comes instinctively -- because English also uses helping verbs and infinitives. The key is getting students to see the parallels -- the similarities and differences. This is the main reason that the grammar-translation method has great strengths, despite its unpopularity among textbook writers (because, perhaps, if it isn't fun, it doesn't sell?)
5. How to Form a Basic Spanish sentence (statements, questions, negation). Not being able to distinguish a grammatical subject from the topic of a sentence is often the first cause of confusion. John runs in the park: John is the grammatical subject. The topic could be John, but it could also be running, or the park. Knowing that John is the doer and that run is the action he performs will help clarify subject-verb agreement... see next item
6. Subject/Verb agreement. The best method for learning subject/verb agreement is to randomize the process.
7. Reflexive Verbs -- the first taste of object pronouns -- leading to the Subject-Object Pronoun-Verb word order.
Most of these issues come at students a little faster than they should. The learning curve is often longer than the academic term in which they are confronted with them. However, a diligent and organized student who is truly engaged in the class can master these concepts -- or come very close before the next hurdle need to be faced.
Hurdle Number 2 - Learning the Preterite and Imperfect
How We View Past Events
Your next challenge to face involves learning the preterite and imperfect tenses.
1. The two simple past tenses of Spanish are: the preterite and the imperfect. In grammar-ese, simple does not mean easy, it means one-word form. These tenses should be and could be easier than they are. In terms of form, there are only three irregular verbs in the entire language, in the imperfect. There are many verbs which are quite irregular in the preterite -- having new stems. The fact that a student knows the present well, even perfectly, will not help him or her derive the form of a verb in the preterite. You may become discouraged at this point -- so you must learn to keep things straight and reference everything to and from the infinitives.
2. Command forms of tú, usted and ustedes, affirmative and negative. You may not know it, but if you do not learn the Ud. commands, you will likely fail the next portion of your classes. The present subjunctive forms are all based on the form of the usted command! The placement of object pronouns is related to commands, since they must be attached to affirmative commands at the end of the verb, but must come before the verb in a negative command.
3. Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns and pronoun placement. The placement of object pronouns in Spanish is more flexible than English but there are only two possibilities -- after and connected to an infinitive or gerund, or just in front of a conjugated verb. This word order can be confusing for English speakers, but it is easily overcome if they reduce it to formula and consciously compare the two languages
3 - Did You Learn the 'Ud' Commands?
When I am about to introduce the present subjunctive, I often begin with the question at the head of this section - followed by the observation or reminder (because I always have told them to listen to my warnings...): "If not, they all your grammatical chickens are about to come home to roost." The Dalí-esque image aside, the Ud. command is the base for the present subjunctive in form, being the first-person singular of the present subjunctive. Likewise, the third-person plural of the preterite is the basis for deriving the first-person singular of the imperfect subjunctive.
The subjunctive is often the make-or-break moment for most people who study Spanish. The English language almost doesn't have the subjunctive any more -- but it abounds in Shakespeare and older literature.
For the purposes of this article, the problem with learning or teaching the subjunctive is that it needs to be approached systematically and few textbooks really handle it efficiently.
First, students need to understand the difference between a tense and a mood. Tense refers to time -- when an action happens. Mood is the way that the action is viewed -- almost like an attitude. A command form is said to be in the imperative mood. An infinitive is a mood that reflects the "infinite" possibilities of the verb in that raw state-- before it is assigned a subject (person and number) and a tense. There are four forms of the subjunctive -- that is, the subjunctive exists in four tenses, but they are all equally subjunctive in mood.
Once students are willing to see the subjunctive as not being a tense in itself but a concept that has four tenses, they begin to open up and warm to the idea.
The subjunctive is not only about doubt or uncertainty. I like to show my students that the subjunctive is simply a form that is required in four different situations. Those situations each have their respective rules as to whether or not the subjunctive needs to be used. They are: Subordinated noun clauses, subordinated adjective clauses, after certain adverbial clauses and lastly in the "if" clause of hypothetical statements.