Admítelo (Admit it): we’ve all tried to memorize Spanish verb tenses, only to end up in an actual conversation thinking “should I use pretérito now or pretérito perfecto… or what’s the difference again?” And then, you haven’t even started conjugating the verb!
Result: brain meltdown, and you’re completely tongue-tied! Your conversation partner is staring at you in confusion, not understanding what’s going on… Frustrating, right?
So, wouldn’t it be nice to have a quick overview of the Spanish tenses in your head that allows you to speak without having to think about all these rules, so fluent sentences just roll off the tongue?
Say no more! That’s exactly what you’ll have after reading this article! We’ll walk you through conversations in Spanish where you need different tenses and show you the “thought process” you’ll have while speaking Spanish… it’ll make it really easy to choose the right tense every single time! Without thinking about conjugation tables, of course!
1. Present Tense
Most conversations start… in the present, right? So, let’s start with this first.
¿Para qué se usa? (What is it used for?) Basically, to talk about hábitos y rutinas (habits and routines), as well as things that are always true.
So, when you first meet someone, the conversation starts, and one of the first things they ask you is, ¿cómo te llamas? (what’s your name?), they’re using the present tense, and they’re asking about something that is always true (your name), so you should use the same tense to respond.
- Me llamo Mariana. (My name is Mariana.)
- Mi nombre es Mariana. (My name is Mariana.)
Another question often made in conversations is ¿de dónde eres? (where are you from?). Your response will be in the present tense because it is an absolute truth that you are from the US, the UK, Australia, or Nigeria.
- Soy de los Estados Unidos. (I’m from the United States.)
- Soy australiana. (I’m Australian.)
- Vengo de Reino Unido. (I come from the United Kingdom.)
Yet another question is ¿qué haces en tu tiempo libre? (what do you do in your spare time?) In this case, we’re talking about routines or habits, right? So, again, we need the present tense:
- Me gusta ir a caminar. (I like hiking.)
- Suelo leer un libro. (I usually read a book.)
- A veces veo una película. (I sometimes watch a movie.)
A veces is a perfect example of a chunk: a fixed word combination native speakers use all the time. Since it’ll never change, you can just learn a veces de memoria (by heart).
Now, another question people might ask you (especially over the phone) is ¿qué haces? (what are you doing?) or ¿qué estás haciendo? (what are you up to?)
In this case, you have two options:
- Veo un video de Spring Spanish.
- Estoy viendo un video de Spring Spanish.
Both translate as “I’m watching a Spring Spanish video.” The difference is that the first sentence (Veo un video de Spring Spanish.) is in the present tense, while the second sentence (Estoy viendo un video de Spring Spanish.) is in the present progressive.
The present progressive is not used as often in Spanish as it is in English. In Spanish, it is used only to talk about algo que está pasando en ese preciso momento (something that is happening right then and there).
To form it, you need the verb estar (to be) in the present tense (estoy), plus the Spanish version of -ing verbs: -ando and -iendo.
- Estoy comiendo. (I’m having lunch.) Right here, right now that’s what I’m doing.
- Estoy dando clase. (I’m teaching a class.) Right here, right now that’s what I’m doing.
2. Future Tense
Now, if instead of asking you ¿qué estás haciendo?, your friend says, ¿qué vas a hacer mañana?, the conversation is no longer in the present tense; instead, it has moved to el futuro (the future).
Once again, you have two options:
- ¿Qué vas a hacer mañana? (What will you do tomorrow?)
- Iré al super. (I’ll go to the supermarket.)
- Voy a ir al super. (I’m going to the supermarket.)
Voy a is another chunk you may learn by heart! It’s always followed by an infinitive, so you don’t even need to worry about conjugation. De hecho (Actually), you’ll use it very often because you’ll hear native speakers using it todo el tiempo (all the time).
You may use it for the immediate future (as in within five minutes), or to talk about something you’ll do the following day, the following month, or the following year! It’s super handy and easy to use!
- Oye, ¿qué vas a hacer cuando acabe la pandemia? (Hey! So, what will you do once the pandemic is over?)
- Voy a viajar. (I’m going to travel.)
- Voy a visitar a mi familia. (I’ll visit my family.)
- Oye, ¿qué vas a hacer al rato? (Hey! So, what are you doing later?)
- Voy a llamarle a mi mamá. (I’m going to call my mom.)
- Voy a suscribirme al canal de Spring Spanish. (I’ll subscribe to the Spring Spanish channel.)
Is your head spinning from all the examples yet? That’s normal! You don’t have to memorize them all right now. We actually have flashcards with all the sentences and chunks from this lesson (and all our other hundreds of lessons) that you can use to commit all the chunks to your brain in just a few minutes each day. They’re available to Inner Circle members on our website!
3. Past Tense
Okay, now that we’ve talked about the present and the future tenses, we need to talk about el pasado (the past tense)!
I know! We all want to forget those embarrassing mistakes we made when we were fifteen… Wait! No, ese no es el pasado del que hablo (that’s not the sort of past I’m talking about)…. Well, not entirely!
So, in a conversation, people could also ask you, ¿qué hiciste ayer? (what did you do yesterday?) or ¿qué hiciste la semana pasada? (what did you do last week?)
Your response, depending on where you are, may be:
- Ayer vi una película en Netflix para practicar español. (Yesterday, I watched a movie on Netflix to practice Spanish.)
- La semana pasada he visto una película en Netflix para practicar español. (Last week I watched a movie on Netflix to practice Spanish.)
Both sentences are in the past tense, pero hay una diferencia, ¿cierto? (but there’s a difference, right?) I said, “ayer vi” and “la semana pasada he visto”.
The first formula (vi) is what we call pretérito, while the second formula (he visto) is known as pretérito perfecto compuesto. In Latin America people use the preterite to talk about things that were started and completed in the past, but in Spain, people use the present perfect to do just that.
I know it’s confusing! I personally find it quite odd —because I’m Latin American, but that’s just how things are! In any case, here’s a little trick for you: if you plan on traveling mainly in Latin America, just use the pretérito all the time.
Quiz & Practice
Okay! Time to test what you’ve learned today! Complete the answer to the question. ¿Listo?
- ¿Qué estás haciendo?
- __________ un video de Spring Spanish. (I’m watching a Spring Spanish video.)
- ¿Qué hiciste ayer? (Respond as if you were in Spain.)
- __________ una película en Netflix. (I watched a movie on Netflix.)
- ¿Qué hiciste la semana pasada? (Respond as if you were in any Latin American country.)
- __________ una película en Netflix. (I watched a movie on Netflix.)
- ¿Qué vas a hacer cuando acabe la pandemia?
- _______ ir al cine. (I’m going to the movies.)
- ¿Qué vas a hacer al rato?
- _______ al canal de Spring Spanish. (I’ll subscribe to the Spring Spanish channel.)
How many did you get right? Let me know in the comments!
Now that you have an overview of the tenses it is time to look at the present tense in detail. I have prepared another article for you that will show you exactly how the present tense works and how you can use it with ease through chunking, of course!