“Every time I try to have a conversation in Spanish, I freeze”
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 be able to come up with a specific construction and at the same time having no problem understanding its meaning when somebody else uses 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 sexier, but if it isn’t preceded by lots of deliberate practice it can be painful to watch. If you want to get out of Intermediate Purgatory, you have to get good at writing.
Writing a whole story in Spanish may sound intimidating, but don’t think you have to churn out a 400-page epic saga: to grab the attention of a native speaker, all you need 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 the best strategies to avoid them.
Notice I say 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 section. Not because you will get graded at the end, but because it will minimize your chances of getting a brain freeze next time you’re having a conversation in Spanish.
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.
When telling stories that take place in the past, there are two fundamental parts to keep in mind: 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 taken a different tack:
- Use the imperfect to set the scene: El suelo resbalaba mucho…
- And the preterite to highlight the action: … y me caí de culo.
(For your enjoyment, the verb tenses in this 3-part series have been lovingly color-coded by hand. 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.
Here, 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, the difference between those two examples might feel like hair splitting, but it is significant in Spanish:
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: 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 pasarme varios meses insistiendo, 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 del detalle más 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 the most 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 when you’re starting to write your 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, coming home after 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.
Spanish Workout: Write your own one hundred-word story about a memory from your youth.
As always, I’m more than happy to read your story (if you spellcheck it in Microsoft Word or Google Docs first). Email it to me or post it in the comments below, and I’ll reply with some general comments. For more thorough corrections, I totally recommend HiNative.
What to watch out for: Neglecting your preterite muscle
The preterite has many more irregular conjugations than the imperfect, so you might be tempted to ignore it when you’re picking verbs for your story. However, the preterite should almost always be your first choice. It is by far the most common tense for telling stories about the past in Spanish.
Once you’re ready to accept 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 an 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.