“Every time I try to have a conversation in Spanish, I freeze”
Also, notice that in the last example, we’re referring to something that will happen later tonight. We’ll talk more about this next week, when we discuss the upcoming.
That’s the number one complaint I hear from intermediate Spanish speakers.
You have no problem understanding what the other person is saying, but when it’s your time to speak, you draw a blank. Why does this happen?
The answer is that the part of your brain that gets activated when you’re consuming Spanish is very different from the part that’s responsible for producing Spanish. It’s perfectly normal to not know how to say something and have no problem understanding what it means once you hear it.
The single most effective thing you can do to overcome this communication gap is to practice telling stories in Spanish. Or rather, practice writing stories in Spanish.
You might say that you prefer speaking to writing, but that’s like saying you prefer playing live concerts to rehearsing in your basement. Yes, improvisation is undeniably sexy, but without deliberate practice it can be painful to watch. If you want to get out of Intermediate Purgatory, you have to get good at writing.
If writing a whole story in Spanish sounds intimidating, don’t think you have to churn out a 400-page epic saga: all you need to grab the attention of a native speaker is a single sentence. As long as you clearly indicate who the protagonist is, what happened, and when it happened, you have a story. Time is usually the most important component, so I’m going to use it as the backbone of this 3-part series. Most of the stories you will ever tell in your life will belong to one of these three camps:
After working through this article series, I hope you will come away with a good understanding of the fundamental differences between English and Spanish storytelling, the most common pitfalls, and best strategies to avoid them.
Notice the use of working through rather than simply reading. To avoid falling into passive consumption la-la land, I recommend grabbing pen and paper right now (or keyboard and text editor), and giving yourself the mental space to attempt the Spanish workout at the end of this part. Not because you will get graded at the end, but simply to minimize the chances of getting a brain freeze next time you’re in Spanish freefall.
This week we’ll cover stories about the past. Next week, we’ll do the recent, and the one after that, we’ll focus on the upcoming. Subscribe now if you want to get notified when the next article comes out.
There are two fundamental parts to keep in mind when telling stories that take place in the past: setting the scene and describing the action.
The English world has chosen to use the simple past for both tasks: “The ground was really slippery (setting the scene) and I fell on my butt (describing the action)”.
The Spanish world, however, has chosen to use a different tense for each:
- The imperfect describes the scene: El suelo resbalaba mucho…
- And the preterite highlights the action: … y me caí de culo.
(Don’t ask me why, but the verb tenses in this entire series have been color-coded. Make a mental note that light blue means and orange means )
The challenge now is to figure out what is context and what is punchline. Let’s look at another example:
Yo me senté mientras Marcos me lo explicaba.
I sat down while Marcos explained it to me.
In this case, the spotlight is on the act of sitting down, and the explanation is in the background. In this case (not always), we can easily reverse this:
Marcos me lo explicó mientras yo me sentaba.
Marcos explained it to me while I sat down.
Now the focus is on the explanation, and the act of sitting down is in the background.
In English, those two examples might feel like hair splitting, but in Spanish they feel significantly different:
The preterite is what I’m paying attention to (where things happen).
The imperfect is in my peripheral vision (a backdrop frozen in time).
Instead of painstakingly covering each of the factors that might influence the preterite-imperfect decision, let’s do something much more useful and reverse-engineer them by going through a real story.
Cuando tenía seis años, mi familia se mudó de San Fernando a Madrid. Nuestra casa madrileña estaba en el último piso de un edificio de seis plantas. Desde la ventana de mi habitación se veía un parque enorme, con césped, tierra, árboles, un tobogán y una cancha de baloncesto en la que solo había una canasta. Después de insistir durante meses, conseguí lo que quería: un balón. Cuando mis padres me lo dieron, bajé corriendo los seis pisos de escaleras y crucé el parque hasta llegar a la cancha. Estaba tan contento de poder jugar al baloncesto que tardé un rato en darme cuenta de un detalle importante: a la canasta le faltaba el aro.
When I was six years old, my family moved from San Fernando to Madrid. Our Madrid house was on the top floor of a six-story building. From my room window, I could see a huge park, with grass, sand, trees, a slide and a basketball court. After insisting for months, I got what I wanted: a basketball. When my parents gave it to me, I flew down the six flights of stairs and ran across the park until I made it to the court. I was so happy about being able to play basketball that it took me a while to realize an important detail: the backboard was missing the hoop.
- Context + punchline: In – and –, the context (background: this is how things were) comes first followed by the punchline (focus: this is what happened). – shows the same pattern, but the order is reversed (first the punchline: I got it, then the context: I wanted it).
Context without punchlines , , , This pattern is very common when describing the scene where the action will take place. They’re pretty handy as the opening sentence in a novel: Era una noche oscura y tormentosa. (It was a dark and stormy night.)
Punchlines without context , , This pattern works great when multiple events happen in sequence. For example, the aftermath of a night out: Salí del bar, me metí en un taxi, abrí la puerta de casa y me quedé dormido en el sofá. (I left the bar, got into a cab, opened the front door, and crashed on the couch.)
Okay, enough reading. Time for writing. Feel the resistance, and do it anyway. That’s how mastery is forged.
Spanish Workout: Write your own hundred-word story about a memory from your youth.
As always, I’m more than happy to read your stories (if you spellcheck them in Microsoft Word or Google Docs first). If you email them to me or if you post them in the comments below, I’ll email you back with some general comments. If you want thorough native corrections, check out HiNative or Lang-8. They’re incredibly useful resources.
What to watch out for: Neglecting your preterite muscle
The preterite has many more irregular conjugations than the imperfect, so it’s tempting to try to sweep it under the rug and replace it with other tenses. However, that’s avoiding the inevitable: the preterite is by far the most common Spanish tense for telling stories about the past.
Once you’re ready to face this difficult truth, tackle it head on: become obsessed with mastering it. The moment you feel zero hesitation when choosing between dije and dijo, empiezan and empezaste, or propusimos and propusieron is like seeing The Matrix. You’ll never go back.
If you’re looking for a challenging preterite workout, grab a bunch of paragraphs from your favorite Spanish book, replace the preterites with infinitives, and try to change them back into their original preterite form. Here’s what that could look like:
El miércoles pasado viVER a Dolores al salir de clase y la invitéINVITAR a ir al cine, pero me dijoDECIR que tenía cosas que hacer, así que me fuiIR yo solo. Al final me lo paséPASAR muy bien porque la chica que estaba haciendo la cola detrás de mí me preguntóPREGUNTAR qué película iba a ver. Yo se lo dijeDECIR y ella me respondióRESPONDER que iba a ver la misma, así que nos pusimosPONER a hablar y después del cine nos fuimosIR a dar una vuelta. La verdad es que me cayóCAER genial. Hemos vuelto a quedar hoy, así que ya te contaré cómo me fueIR.
Last Wednesday I saw Dolores after class and I invited her to the movies, but she told me (she said) that she had things to do, so I went by myself. It turned out that I had a lot of fun (I passed it very well) because the girl that was waiting in line behind me asked me what movie I was going to see. I told her (I said it to her) and she replied that she was going to see the same one, so we started talking (put ourselves to talk) and after the movie we went for a walk. I actually really like her (she fell to me great). We’re meeting again today, so I’ll let you know how it goes (went).
Your ability to speak fluid Spanish depends on your ability to think fluid Spanish. If you’re not happy with your Spanish thinking speed, try writing your thoughts down: it will free up your working memory, and you’ll get better at internalizing the patterns of Spanish storytelling.
When you’re talking about experiences that are not connected with your present experience, you have two weapons of choice: the imperfect and the preterite. The imperfect is used to describe the state of things before, during or after something happened in the past. The preterite is used to shine a spotlight on the important actions. They can work independently, but they’re even more effective when they do the alley-oop: the imperfect sets it up, and the preterite slam-dunks it.
Next week, we’ll cover the subtle distinction between the past and the recent. The preterite will continue playing a prominent role, so the more you practice it this week, the better prepared you’ll be. You can train by doing the infinitive-to-preterite drill from above, or any other exercise you decide to inflict on yourself. Don’t worry too much about prepositional verbs, direct objects and subjunctives for now. This week is preterite/imperfect week. Master that and you’ll start getting native winks left and right.