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How to remember Spanish verb conjugation

My recent holiday to Cuba was so luxurious that it came with a butler service. I confess that this didn’t quite live up to my expectations. The butler refused point blank to wear the outfit that I’d brought for him, and I had to do all my own wiping. I would have been upset, but the never-ending supply of drinks brought to my sun lounger provided a remarkably calming experience. So much so, that I had to occupy my mind or risk falling into a vegetative state.

To stop my brain turning into mush and dribbling out of my nostrils, I started learning Spanish. If I was going to bark orders at minimum wage staff, I would at least have the decency to deliver my commands in a broken parody of their noble language.

Memorising the various verb conjugations has been a struggle, so I’ve created mnemonics to help. In Spanish, the ‘to’ version of verbs end in one of three ways: ‘ar’, ‘er’ and ‘ir’.

I started by creating sentences that contained the same sounds as the verb endings. So, for verbs that end in ‘er’, the phrase ‘we run’, ‘we sell’, or ‘we learn’ would use the ’emos’ verb ending and my sentence to remember this was ‘We read memos‘. This is super simple, but these sentences aren’t particularly memorable, so I’ve switched to using mnemonic images. This has required a little more effort. It’s experimental, but I thought I’d share it.

In my mnemonics I use general locations for each of the three groups (er, ar, ir): an art gallery, an emergency room, and an ice rink. For each general location there are three specific locations, which allow me to create images in the past, present and future.

Art Gallery (AR)

Past tense: An old masters collection
Present tense: An art class
Future tense: A modern art gallery

Emergency Room (ER)

Past tense: An abandoned old hospital
Present tense: A hospital
Future tense: The sick bay from Star Trek

Ice Rink (IR)

Past tense: A frozen lake
Present tense: The ice rink at the Rockefeller Centre
Future tense: An ice rink on the Moon

I’m using characters to represent who the verb relates to:

Cast of characters

I: Me
You (informal): A sheep (ewe)
You (formal)/He/She/It: He-man from the Masters of the Universe
We: Wee man from Jackass
You (many): A flock of sheep
You (formal, many)/They: Aliens from the film ‘They Live’

My previous example ‘We read memos’ relates to the present tense of ‘er’ verbs, so I’d picture Wee man reading memos sat at the reception desk of a hospital.

ER verb conjugations

Past Present Future
I í
I folded origami
o
I play with a yo-yo
eré
I will be here
You (informal) iste
You skied the piste
es
You have herpes
erás
You will watch operas
You (formal)/He/She/It
He sang on the radio
e
He juggles fire
erá
He will steal your camera
We imos
We drove limos
emos
We read memos
eremos
We will grow ear moss
You (many) isteis
You all said he stays
éis
You surround senseis
eréis
You will all marry an Aries
You (formal, many)/They ieron
They killed a heron
en
They run a coven
erán
They will salute a veteran

Picturing these sometimes requires a little lateral thinking. For example, I picture a flock of sheep outside a boarded up old hospital, carrying protest signs with the slogan ‘he stays’.

I’m not convinced that explicitly memorising verb conjugations is a good long term strategy as it’s not how we naturally learn language. I think there’s probably a tipping point when you can piece together the meaning of most sentences. After that, your exposure to the language can increase exponentially through books and audio, and it’s that exposure that allows you to tell when something ‘sounds right’, rather than a conscious knowledge of all the grammatical rules.

So, whilst I might flesh this out further in the future to include more verb forms, for now I’m keeping it simple. I’ll post the AR and IR forms if there’s a lot of interest, but they should be easy enough to create yourself.

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