Easy Ways to Talk about the Past in Spanish

“At one point, I thought I was not going to be able to learn Spanish. There just seemed to be so many words and so many things to learn. I didn’t know how to get started” said Sonia one day while we were having lunch.

Then I asked: “Remember when we reviewed the past tenses in Spanish?”

friends-having-lunch

She replied: “Yes, the way you explained it helped me get unstuck. Before, I used to think the past tense was completely random and illogical and difficult to memorize. But after understanding the patterns I could use; it was much easier. It made sense.”

Then, we continued to have lunch and had a few laughs as she told me a few fun stories about her unusual coworkers. Good times! =)

What’s this about?

In this article, we will cover some of the main tools that helped Sonia (as well as other students) so she could talk about the past in Spanish quickly, without having to memorize dozens of difficult conjugations.

This simplified approach makes things much easier, and although there are a few grammar terms thrown around, don’t feel intimidated by them; read the entire post and by the end you will no longer feel that talking about the past in Spanish is a difficult topic (things get fun when they become easy.)

The key is focusing on the verbs that are used most frequently, and understanding highly predictable patterns that reduce the amount of memorization required.

In other words, you will learn how to use a “versatile wrench” that can be adjusted to fit a large majority of the “bolts” used most often in everyday life.

These shortcuts focus on quick results and not on speaking perfectly. If you want to pass a test, go back to Google and look for a different site. This is not for you. However, if you want to speak Spanish quickly to be understood starting today,  and continue to improve as you practice; then keep reading. You have come to the right place.

So, keep an open and playful mind. It’s results that matter.

Let´s begin by reviewing a few conversational shortcuts that will make things easier for beginners who want to learn to speak about the past in Spanish quickly.

 

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1- Using “antes” before a verb in infinitive (Quickstart for Beginners)

This is one easiest ways to talk about the past in Spanish without having to learn several conjugations.

It is simple, you only have to add the word for “before” in Spanish (which is “antes”) between a personal pronoun and a verb in infinitive.

Let’s review a few examples to see how it works.

  • Yo antes comer – I eat before (This can be used to express the idea “I ate”)
  • Yo antes vivir en Canadá -I live in Canada before (It conveys the idea “I lived in Canada”)
  • Yo antes visitar Francia -I visit France before (It refers to the idea “I visited France”)
  • Yo pensar en eso antes – I think about that before (It conveys “I thought about it”)
  • Yo antes ir a ese restaurante – I go to that restaurant before

Although this sentence is not perfect in terms of traditional grammar; native Spanish speakers can understand it without a problem. It is simple, easy to use and constitutes an effective tool for beginners who want to speak basic conversational Spanish quickly.

friends-talking-spanish-at-cafev3-2

 

2- Using verbs in present tense and words that talk about the past.

If you already know how to conjugate verbs in the present tense in Spanish, you can use them in conjunction with simple adverbs (such as “yesterday”) and easy phrases to talk about the past.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Yo estudio ayer en casa – I study yesterday at home
  • Yo hablo por teléfono en la mañana, antes de venir a la escuela – I speak on the phone in the morning, before I come to School
  • Yo como en la escuela antes de regresar a casa – I eat at School before coming back home
  • Yo camino a casa esta mañana – I walk home this morning
  • Yo compro zapatos la semana pasada – I buy shoes last week

Although this is not the way native speakers usually talk, it is a simplified way to refer to events that happened in the past without having to learn several verb conjugations in the past tense.

It’s a shortcut you can use to express yourself when you are getting started. The important thing is that you have tools you can use to practice as you continue to improve your Spanish.

This is not about passing a test, it’s about helping you to express yourself so you can improve and have fun as you go along.

studying-spanish-at-home

 

Let’s take a moment to go over a list of words that can be useful when talking about the past:

  • Antes – Before
  • Más temprano – Earlier
  • Antes de venir aquí – Before coming here
  • Antes de ir ahí – Before going there
  • En la mañana – In the morning
  • En la tarde – In the afternoon
  • En la noche – In the evening
  • Ayer – Yesterday
  • La semana pasada – Last week
  • El viernes pasado – Last Friday
  • El mes pasado – Last month
  • Hace seis meses – 6 months ago
  • Hace tres días – 3 days ago
  • Hace dos horas – 2 hours ago
  • Hace veinte minutos – 20 minutes ago

 

3- Using simplified conjugations to talk about the past

In Spanish, the conjugation of verbs in the present perfect is much simpler and predictable than the conjugation of verbs in preterite, and it can be used by beginners who want to learn how to express ideas about the past without having to learn several conjugations.

Although preterite is often used in conversational Spanish to talk about things that happened before; the conjugation patterns are more difficult to learn and there are several irregular conjugations, and this often frustrates and discourages students who are just getting started.

girl-with-rubik-cube

 

However, we can use the present perfect to express a similar idea, and it is easily understood by native speakers and most importantly, it is much easier to learn because it follows highly predictable patterns that make things much easier for beginners.

Because of this, using conjugations in present perfect to talk about the past is an easier way for beginners who want to speak conversational Spanish quickly.

Let’s see a few examples in both tenses to illustrate the difference. Pay attention to the endings and try to identify the patterns:

 

Preterite of hablar (to speak):
Yo hablé con mi amigo ayer (I talked to my friend yesterday)

Past Participle of hablar (to speak):
Yo he hablado con mi amigo ayer (I have talked to my friend yesterday)

 

Preterite of comer (to eat):
Ella comió una hamburguesa en la cafetería (She ate a burger in the cafeteria)

Past Participle of comer (to eat):
Ella ha comido una hamburguesa en la cafetería (She has eaten a burger in the cafeteria)

 

Preterite of dormir (to sleep):
Tú dormiste en el hotel (You slept at the hotel)

Past Participle of dormir (to sleep):
Tú has dormido en el hotel (You have slept at the hotel)

 

As you may have noticed, the preterite does not seem to follow a predictable pattern and the present perfect looks more consistent.

Now, let’s review the full conjugation of the same 3 verbs. Once again, pay attention to the endings and try to identify the patterns.

 

Preterite of hablar (to speak):

  • Yo hablé (I spoke)
  • Tú hablaste (You spoke)
  • Él / Ella habló (He / She spoke)
  • Nosotros hablamos (We spoke)
  • Ustedes hablaron (You spoke)
  • Ellos hablaron (They spoke)

Present Perfect of hablar (to speak):

  • Yo he hablado (I have spoken)
  • Tú has hablado (You have spoken)
  • Él / Ella ha hablado (He / She has spoken)
  • Nosotros hemos hablado (We have spoken)
  • Ustedes han hablado (You have spoken)
  • Ellos han hablado (They have spoken)

 

Preterite of comer (to eat):

  • Yo comí (I ate)
  • Tú comiste (You ate)
  • Él / Ella com (He / She ate)
  • Nosotros comimos (We ate)
  • Ustedes comieron (You ate)
  • Ellos comieron (They ate)

Present Perfect of comer (to eat):

  • Yo he comido (I have eaten)
  • Tú has comido (You have eaten)
  • Él / Ella ha comido (He / She has eaten)
  • Nosotros hemos comido (We have eaten)
  • Ustedes han comido (You have eaten)
  • Ellos han comido (They have eaten)

 

Preterite of dormir (to sleep):

  • Yo dormí (I slept)
  • Tú dormiste (You slept)
  • Él / Ella durm (He / She slept)
  • Nosotros dormimos (We slept)
  • Ustedes durmieron (You slept)
  • Ellos durmieron (They slept)

Present Perfect of dormir (to sleep):

  • Yo he dormido (I have slept)
  • Tú has dormido (You have slept)
  • Él / Ella ha dormido (He / She has slept)
  • Nosotros hemos dormido (We have slept)
  • Ustedes han dormido (You have slept)
  • Ellos han dormido (They have slept)

 

You may have noticed the preterite tense does not follow a highly predictable structure when compared to the present perfect in this small sample of 3 verbs.

Although there is a logic behind the preterite conjugations, using the present perfect to talk about things that happened in the past is a much simpler and easier way for beginners to get started.

Let’s take a moment to examine the predictability of the present perfect in more detail.

If we look at the 50 verbs most commonly used in spoken Spanish, we will see that approximately 9 out of 10 will follow 2 simple conjugation rules:

  • For verbs whose infinitive ends in “ar”, remove the “ar” ending and replace it with “ado”.
  • For verbs whose infinitive ends in “er” and “ir”, remove the “er” and “ir” endings and replace them with “ido”.

Out of the 50 verbs most commonly used in conversational Spanish, only 5 have “unstructured” conjugations that must be memorized, and they are:

  • visto (ver, to see)
  • muerto (morir, to die)
  • supuesto (suponer, to suppose)
  • hecho (hacer, to do)
  • dicho (decir, to say)

In other words, by using the present perfect to talk about the past; 90% of the 50 verbs most commonly used in spoken Spanish have highly predictable conjugations that are easy to learn and only 5 verbs (10%) need to be memorized.

 

You can find useful conjugations of the 10 verbs most commonly used in conversational Spanish over here: Top Verbs in Spanish

 

On the other hand, if we reviewed the preterite conjugations for the 50 verbs most commonly used in conversational Spanish, most beginners would feel discouraged with the amount of work learning them would require.

Because of this, and because our goal is to learn basic conversational Spanish quickly while making things simple (and avoiding unnecessarily complex subjects that usually delay and discourage most beginners,) we will focus on using the present perfect to talk about things that happened in the past from now on.

 

The Present Perfect Structure:

Using the Present Perfect is relatively easy. You only need to learn the present tense conjugation of the auxiliary verb “haber” (to have) and the endings for the verbs in past participle (they are easy and predictable, don’t worry).

In other words, this is the formula:

Present Perfect = “Personal pronoun” + “haber in present tense” + “verb in past participle”

Example: “Yo he comido” (I have eaten)

A quick note here, although it is always advisable for beginners to include the personal pronouns when writing sentences (such as “yo”) in conversational Spanish they are often neglected. Because the conjugation of the verb (in this case “haber”) implies the personal pronoun associated with the sentence.

Therefore, if you say “he pensado” (I’ve thought) the conjugated auxiliary verb “haber” which is “he” in this case, implies that we are referring to the first person of singular “yo.”

Don’t worry about this for now, just know about it. As you gain confidence and move from “beginner” to “intermediate”, you will find yourself omitting the “yo” and “tú” in most sentences. This will happen naturally with practice, just be patient and don’t force it.

Now, let’s get back to the conjugations. In Spanish, you can form the past participle of most verbs by dropping the “ar”, “er” and “ir” ending from their infinitive form and adding the following endings:

  • Most verbs whose infinitive form ends in “ar” have the “ado” ending in past participle
  • Most verbs whose infinitive form ends in “er” and “ir” have the “ido” ending in past participle
  • and there are a few exceptions that end in “to” “so” and “cho

 

The Auxiliary Verb “Haber”

Let’s take a moment to review the present tense conjugation of the auxiliary verb “haber” (to have) before moving on.

Present Tense of “Haber” (Auxiliary verb “To have”)

  • Yo he – I have
  • Tú has – You have
  • Él/Ella ha – He/She has
  • Nosotros hemos – We have
  • Ustedes han – You have
  • Ellos han – They have

 

Examples of Past Participle Conjugations:

Let’s begin by looking at the past participle conjugation of 5 important verbs in Spanish:

  • Past Participle of “ser” (to be): sido
  • Past Participle of “estar” (to be): estado
  • Past Participle of “ir” (to go): ido
  • Past Participle of “saber” (to know): sabido
  • Past Participle of “poder” (to be able to): podido

 

Now, let’s look at the Present Perfect structure in Spanish one more time:

Present Perfect = “Personal pronoun” + “haber in present tense” + “verb in past participle”

 

Next, we will review 7 examples that use the Present Perfect to talk about the past:

  • I have been = Yo (personal pronoun) + he (haber in present tense) + sido (verb “ser” in past participle)
  • You have gone = Tú (personal pronoun) + has (haber in present tense) + ido (verb “ir” in past participle)
  • He has been = Él (personal pronoun) + ha (haber in present tense) + estado (verb “estar” in past participle)
  • She has talked = Ella (personal pronoun) + ha (haber in present tense) + hablado (verb “estar” in past participle)
  • We have known = Nosotros (personal pronoun) + hemos (haber in present tense) + sabido (verb “saber” in past participle)
  • You have been able to = Ustedes (personal pronoun) + han (haber in present tense) + podido (verb “poder” in past participle)
  • They have eaten = Ellos (personal pronoun) + han (haber in present tense) + comido (verb “comer” in past participle)

 

Now, let’s review a few additional examples of  present perfect that you may find useful in everyday life:

  1. He pensado en eso – I thought about it
  2. No he pensado en eso – I haven’t thought about it
  3. Lo he encontrado – I found it
  4. He ido ahí el mes pasado – I went there last month
  5. He llamado a mi amigo hace una hora – I called my friend an hour ago
  6. He comido pizza anoche – I ate pizza last night
  7. He bebido agua en casa – I drank water at home
  8. ¿Cuándo has comprado eso? – When did you buy that?
  9. No sé dónde lo he dejado – I don’t know where I left it
  10. No estoy seguro de cuándo lo he encontrado – I’m not sure when I found it

 

In summary, using the Present Perfect to talk about the past is a simple tool students can use to avoid feeling overwhelmed with conjugations and finally be able to relax.

relaxing-at-home

 

In order to use the Present Perfect tense to talk about the past you need to know:

1- The present tense conjugation of the auxiliary verb “haber” (to have)
2- The past participle conjugation of the verb you want to use

 

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