For many people, the hardest part of learning a new language is figuring out where to begin. Conjugations are complicated, familiar-looking letters make unfamiliar sounds, and the internet is full of resources that you could use. It's easy to get overwhelmed.
Today, we're aiming to get you started on the right foot.
This post contains everything you need to know to navigate the early stages of Spanish. It's very detailed, so you'll probably need to read through it a few times before some of the more complicated stuff sinks in.
Alternatively, here's the same content in video format:
Table of Content
- Spanish Alphabet
- Castilian Spanish vs Latin American Spanish
- Stressed Syllables in Spanish
- Singular & Plural
- Subject pronouns
- Ser and Estar
- Conjugation in Spanish
- Present Progressive
- Present Perfect
- Preterite (Simple Past Tense)
- Imperfect Tense
- Future Tense
- Stem-Changing Verbs
- Spanish Reflexive Verbs
- Possessive Pronouns
- Types of Objects: Direct & Indirect
- The Letter "A" in Spanish
The Spanish alphabet consists of 27 letters. They should all look familiar, as with the exception of one letter, the Spanish alphabet is the same as the English alphabet.
Having said that, many of the characters sound differently than their English counterparts. Here are a handful to watch out for:
1) h: is always silent.
- hermana (sister)
- hola (hello)
- hora (hour)
2) ñ: ny sound, as in nyah-nyah
- mañana (tomorrow)
- niño (child)
- año (year)
3) ll: a double L is pronounced like the "y" in you
- ella (she)
- lluvia (rain)
- calle (street)
- milla (mile)
- ellos (they)
4) ch: most Spanish letters stand on their own, but these two combine and make the same sound as English's "ch"
- mucho (much)
- noche (night)
5) rr: "trilled" or "rolled" ⟨r⟩
- marrón (brown)
- párrafo (paragraph)
- barra (bar)
6) j: a strong ⟨h⟩-sound, as in loch
- jefe (boss)
- viaje (travel)
- mujer (woman)
- trabajo (work)
7) b and v make the same sound
- bate (bat)
- vaca (cow)
- vapor (vapor)
- bebida (drink)
When the letter "g" is followed by “e” or “i,” it’s pronounced like a strong ⟨h⟩-sound – as in example #6
- imagen (image)
- general (general)
- elegir (to choose)
- página (page)
When "g" precedes other letters, it sounds like English's hard “g” sound – as in great
- grande (big)
- jugar (to play)
- figura (figure)
Castilian Spanish vs Latin American Spanish
The video focuses on Latin American Spanish, but for the purpose of this article, you should know that it differs from Castilian Spanish (the version of Spanish spoken in Spain) in two main ways.
The pronunciation of Z and C:
- In Castilian Spanish, the letter "z" is pronounced like English's “th” – as in English word thing. In all other regions, it’s pronounced as “s”.
- In Castilian Spanish, the letter "c" is pronounced as "th" when it precedes the letters "e" or "i". In all other regions it is pronounced as “s” in these situations.
Second Person Plural Pronouns:
- In Spain, vosotros is uses as an informal second person pronoun (the pronoun corresponding to y'all), and ustedes is used as a formal version of the same thing.
- In other regions, ustedes is used regardless of formality.
We recommend starting with Latin American Spanish unless you have a particular interest in Spain. Not using vosotros means that there is one less conjugation to worry about, which will make things easier in the beginning. After you've mastered all of the basic conjugations, it's easy to go back and learn one more.
Here's an entire post on European vs Latin American Spanish, if you'd like to explore the topic in more detail.
Stressed Syllables in Spanish
All Spanish words have at least one stressed syllable. Syllables can be stressed and unstressed; the difference is that stressed ones are pronounced with a bit of a punch. For example, the first syllable of student is stressed.
Unlike in English, stress in Spanish is regular. If you know a few simple rules, you'll always know how a word should be pronounced.
First, if a word ends with a consonant other than -n or -s, the stress will be on the final syllable. Here are a few words which follow this pattern:
- animal (animal)
- comer (to eat)
- vocal (vowel)
- universidad (university)
If a word ends with a vowel, -n or -s, the second to last syllable will be stressed. For example:
- casa (house)
- grande (big)
- joven (young)
- comes (you eat)
And that's it! If a word doesn't follow those two rules, the stressed syllable will be marked with an accent.
- país: A word like this would normally be stressed on the second to last syllable, as it ends in an "s", but the accent marker overrides that rule.
- página: A three or more syllable word could not normally have stress on its first syllable, but it's possible with an accent mark.
Another important use of accent marks is to differentiate words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings. You can not hear this difference, but will notice it when reading.
- si – if sí – yes
- esta – this está – is
- tú – you tu – your
In Spanish, every noun is either masculine or feminine. Nouns that end with the letter -o letter are usually masculine, and nouns that end with the letter -a are usually feminine.
The words el and la both mean "the," but el is for masculine words and la is for feminine ones. Similarly, the word un and una both mean "a," but un is for masculine words and una is for feminine ones.
- la manzana (the apple)
- una casa (a house)
- el pollo (the chicken)
- un carro (a car)
Those general rules aside, there are unfortunately quite a few things you simply have to memorize.
Some nouns have both -o and -a endings:
- abuelo (grandfather) /abuela (grandmother)
- perro (male dog) / perra (female dog)
- chico (boy) / chica (girl)
- maestro (male teacher) / maestra (female teacher)
Some nouns don't abide by the above rules:
- Some masculine nouns end in -a, like día (day) or problema (problem)
- Some nouns end in consonants (el) hotel (the hotel) or (la) universidad (the university)
Singular & Plural
If a noun ends in a vowel, make it plural by adding an -s.
|Libro (book)||Libros (books)|
|Plato (plate)||Platos (plates)|
|Bolsa (bag)||Bolsas (bags)|
|Chico (boy)||Chicos (boys)|
|Gato (cat)||Gatos (cats)|
If a noun ends in a consonant, add -es to make it plural:
|ciudad (city)||ciudades (cities)|
|tenedor (fork)||tenedores (forks)|
If a noun ends with -z letter, change it to -c then add -es:
|lápiz (pencil)||lápices (pencils)|
|actriz (actress)||actrices (actresses)|
In Spanish, articles also have plural forms to match the nouns they accompany.
|el gato (the cat)||los gatos (the cats)|
|la casa (the house)||las casas (the houses)|
Note: The feminine plural form is used only for a group of entirely females. If a group has both men and women, the masculine plural will be used.
(There are many more rules and irregularities like these, but for the purposes of this video, this is enough to get started.)
These are the subject pronouns in Spanish:
|ustedes||you all (formal/informal in Latin America)|
|vosotros||you all (informal in Spain)|
Note: Subject pronouns are often omitted in Spanish.
Ser and Estar
The verb ser and estar both mean “to be," but they can't be used interchangeably. Loosely speaking, ser is used for permanent states and estar is used for temporary ones. Both are are irregular verbs, too.
Notice how using ser or estar can change the meaning of a sentence:
|He is bored.||él está aburrido|
|He is boring.||él es aburrido.|
|The apple is unripe (still green)||La manzana está verde.|
|The apple is green.||La manzana es verde.|
|Maria is tired (always tired, a tired person).||Maria es cansada.|
|Maria is tired (at this moment).||Maria esta cansada.|
|Jose is pale (always pale).||José es pálido.|
|Jose is pale (now, a temporary condition).||José está pálido.|
Ser is used when taking about:
- Place of origin
- Time and dates
|I am from Italy.||(Yo) soy de Italia.|
|She is my mother.||Élla es mi madre.|
|He's very tall.||él es muy alto.|
Estar is used when talking about:
- Geographic or physical location
- Conditions and states, such as emotions
- Progressive tenses (-ing)
|I am sad.||(Yo) estoy triste.|
|I am at home.||(Yo) estoy en casa.|
|I am learning Spanish.||(Yo) estoy aprendiendo español.|
|How are you?||¿Cómo estás?|
The infinitive is the pure form of a verb. In English, infinitive verbs start with “to”, for example: to run, to jump, to eat, and so forth.
Spanish infinitives are a single word and fall into one of three categories:
- verbs that end with -ar
- verbs that end with -er
- verbs that end with -ir
|poder||to be able to|
|salir||to go out|
Conjugation in Spanish
To conjugate the verbs in the present tense, we first need get a verb stem by removing the -ar, -er, or -ir endings from an infinitive verb:
|Infinitive||Stem (remove -ar, -er, -ir)|
After obtaining the stem, verbs are conjugated by adding certain endings, each of which correspond to a pronoun and show who is doing an action.
- An action that is being done at the very moment.
- An action that is regularly and habitually done, often at a certain time
- General truths that are not bound by time
-Er and -ir verbs
|I speak Spanish.||(Yo) hablo español.|
|I live in this city.||(Yo) vivo en esta ciudad.|
|We travel a lot.||(Nosotros) viajamos mucho.|
|I am Mexican (male).||Yo soy mexicano.|
Note: We mentioned earlier that ser and estar are irregular verbs. As you can see here, irregular verbs do not follow the same conjugation patterns as other verbs. While most -er verbs take -o in the yo form, ser takes -oy.
Present progressive is used to indicate an action that is being done at the moment.
- ar verbs: add -ando to the stem
- er, ir verbs: add -iendo to the stem
This -ando/-iendo form gets paired with the verb estar:
- Estoy bebiendo
- Estas bebiendo
- Está bebiendo
- Estamos bebiendo
- Estan bebiendo
|Estoy bebiendo agua ahora.||I am drinking water now.|
|Estoy mirando la televisión.||I am watching TV.|
|Él está corriendo.||He is running.|
|Ella está haciendo su tarea.||She is doing her homework.|
|Está lloviendo.||It’s raining.|
|Ella está escribiendo una carta ahora.||She is writing a letter now.|
Present perfect in Spanish is the same as the English present perfect. We use the present perfect to talk about something that was true in the past and is still true now, or indicate an action that was completed recently.
Just like in English, the present perfect in Spanish is formed by combining the verb haber (to have) plus past participle.
haber - to have
|yo||he + past participle|
|tú||has + past participle|
|él / ella/ usted||ha + past participle|
|nosotros/ nosotras||hemos + past participle|
|ellos/ ellas / ustedes||han + past participle|
Past Participle for regular verbs:
|-ar verbs||-er verbs -ir verbs|
|Remove -ar and add -ado||Remove -er or -ir and add -ido|
|I have spoken.
|She has eaten.
We have lived.
|He visitado este lugar antes.||I have visited this place before.|
|Nunca he jugado al tenis.||I have never played tennis.|
Preterite (Simple Past Tense)
- An action that was done in the past. Often accompanied by words like yesterday, last week or last night, which indicate a concrete period in time.
- An action that interrupts another action.
- A general truth that happened and finished in the past.
-Er and -Ir verbs
Let's look at some example sentences:
|Ayer fuí al hospital.||I went to the hospital yesterday.|
|José comió tacos la semana pasada.||Jose ate tacos last week.|
|Compré un carro nuevo hace una semana.||I bought a new car last week.|
This tense is used to talk about something that was happening in the past for a long period of time, or for an unspecified amount of time, similar to used to in English.
It is also used to talk about times, dates, or ages in the past, and can be used for talking about feelings, conditions, and characteristics in the past.
-Er and -Ir verbs
Let's look at some example sentences:
|Él tenía solo 7 años cuando llegó a México.||He was only 7 years old when he arrived to Mexico.|
|Nosotras vestíamos blusas rojas.||We wore red blouses. (Fem. Plural)|
Soler : to use to (in past tense), to tend to
|Yo solía trabajar como profesor.||I used to work as a teacher.|
|Ellos solían estudiar juntos.||They used to study together.|
|Ella entristecía en días lluviosos.||She used to be sad on rainy days.|
This tense is used to describe actions that will take place in the future. It's a little unique in that, instead of taking a verb stem, you add the verb ending directly onto the infinitive form of a verb.
|Iré mañana.||I will go tomorrow.|
|Ella comprará la casa.||She will buy the house.|
|No dormiremos esta noche.||We will not sleep tonight.|
|Mañana comeremos pasta.||Tomorrow we will eat pasta.|
|Él caminará hasta la iglesia.||He will walk to the church.|
Spanish has three stem-changing patterns, a term referring to the process in which the vowel in a verb stem changes during conjugation. The ending is unaffected, but due to this vowel change, the conjugated form of the verb will look different than the unconjugated form.
There are three patterns in the present tense:
- e → ie
cerrar (to close)
empezar (to begin)
- o → ue
poder (to be able to)
dormir (to sleep)
- e → i
pedir (to ask)
medir (to measure)
While a bit difficult to put into words, this concept is much easier to apply in practice and will quickly become second nature.
We learned above that the yo (I) form of an -ar verb ends in -o. Based on that, you would expect that cerrar becomes cerro – but it actually becomes cierro. Similarly, poder becomes puedo and pedir becomse pido.
Cierro los ojos, y pienso. – I close my eyes, and I think.
Note: Stems do not change for the nosotros and vosotros forms. While "I start" is empiezo, "we start" is empezamos.
Spanish Reflexive Verbs
Reflexive verbs are a special type of verb used when the subject and object of a sentence are the same – that is to say that the subject does something to themselves.
For example, in the sentence I wash myself, you are both the person being washed and the person doing the washing.
In English, we use the pronouns myself, yourself, himself, herself, ourself/ourselves, and themself/themselves to communicate this idea.
Common Reflexive Verbs:
- sentirse (to feel)
- sentarse (to sit down)
- bañarse (to take a bath)
- despertarse (to wake up)
- ducharse (to take a shower)
- levantarse (to get up)
- ponerse (to put on)
As you probably noticed, they all end in -se. This is a tell-tale sign that you've found an infinitive verb. Thankfully, this does not effect the conjugation at all. You simply conjugate it as you would any other verb, but place the correct reflexive pronoun in front of the verb once you're done. (The reflexive pronoun also tacks onto the end of the verb when making commands, but that's a bit beyond the scope of this post.)
These are the reflexive pronouns in Spanish:
And here they are in action:
|Me siento bien.||I feel good. (sentirse)|
|¿Cómo te sientes?||How do you feel?|
|Me levanto temprano.||I get up early. (levantarse)|
|Ella se pone un abrigo.||She puts on a coat. (ponerse)|
|Nos preocupamos demasiado.||We worry too much.|
Note: If you're feeling a bit confused, you're probably onto something important! Some verbs that are reflexive in Spanish are not (or at least, don't appear to be) reflexive in English. You'll get a feel for this as you go, but for now, it's something you simply have to remember.
Several verbs also work in tandem with these reflexive verbs.
|Quiero bañarme.||I want to take a shower.|
|Necesito sentarme.||I need to sit down.|
|Tenemos que levantarnos temprano.||We have to get up early.|
Many verbs have both reflexive and ordinary forms. Oftentimes, one form is more common than the other, and sometimes each form has a slightly different meaning.
For example, ir means "to go," but the reflexive irse means "to go away."
It's okay if that was confusing – many students struggle with reflexive verbs at first. They're complicated, so much so that we have an entire post dedicated to sorting them out.
Possessive pronouns are words that show who owns something. They function as adjectives, and match the possessed entity, not the possessor.
For example, I say mis libros (my books) because there are multiple books, even though there is only one of me. The word mis agrees with libros, not with me.
For this reason, my brother and I would say nuestra abuela (our grandmother) because our grandma is a girl, even though we are both men.
Short-Form Possessive Adjectives
|nosotros||nuestro, nuestra||nuestros, nuestras|
Short-form possessive adjectives are always placed before the noun they modify.
|mi libro.||my book.|
|mis libros.||my books.|
|mi nota.||my note.|
|mi notas.||my notes.|
Long-form possessive adjectives are placed after the noun they modify (describe).
|yo||mío, mía||míos, mías|
|tú||tuyo, tuya||tuyos, tuyas|
|usted||suyo, suya||suyos, suyas|
|él, ella||suyo, suya||suyos, suyas|
|nosotros||nuestro, nuestra||nuestros, nuestras|
|ustedes||suyo, suya||suyos, suyas|
|ellos, ellas||suyo, suya||suyos, suyas|
Using "de" to show possession:
article + noun + de + name
|El libro de maria.||Maria's book. (The book of Maria).|
|La casa de José.||Jose’s house. (The house of Jose).|
Long-Form Possessive Pronoun Example:
|la casa mia.||The house of mine.|
|el libro mío.||The book of mine.|
|las casas son mías.||The houses are mine.|
|los libros son míos.||The books are mine.|
Types of Objects: Direct & Indirect
In grammar, direct objects show the recipient of an action while indirect objects show the direction of an action.
- I'm eating dinner. → Dinner is the direct object, or what is being eaten.
- I'm writing a letter to you. → You are the indirect object, the recipient of the letter.
A direct object answers the question what? or who?
In the examples below, the underlined word is the direct object of the sentence:
- I see you. (What do you see? I see you.)
- They helped me. (Who did they help? They helped me.)
- He's writing a book. (What is he writing? He's writing a book.)
- She cleans the house. (What does she clean? She cleans the house.)
If you don't want to state the noun, you could replace you, me, a book or the house from the above sentences with a direct object pronoun.
|Direct Object Pronouns||English|
|lo||him, it, you (formal)|
|la||her, it, you (formal)|
|los, las||them (masculine)/them (feminine)/you (plural)|
|Lo compro.||I buy it.|
|¿La amas?||Do you love her?|
|(Yo) la ayudo.||I help her.|
|Compré un libro. Quiero leerlo.||I bought a book. I want to read it.|
|Estos libros nuevos, los compré ayer.||These new books. I bought them yesterday.|
|Estas flores nuevas, las compré ayer.||These new flowers. I bought them yesterday.|
As with reflexive pronouns, direct object pronouns also attach direcetly onto the end of a verb's infinitive form.
|Quiero ayudarla.||I want to help her.|
|Quiero ayudarlo.||I want to help him.|
Some verbs take two objects, a direct object and an indirect object.
An indirect object answers the question "to whom?", "for whom?"
In the sentence: "I send you a book." a book is the direct object, and you answers the question, "To whom do you send the book?"
Indirect Object Pronouns
|le||him, her, it, you (formal)|
|les||them (masculine), them (feminine), you (plural)|
Changing Le to Se
When followed by the direct object pronouns lo, la, los or las, the indirect object pronouns le and les become se.
- Compro la mesa: I buy the table .
- Le compro la mesa: I buy the table for him/her.
- Se la compro: I buy it (the table) for him/her.
The Letter "A" in Spanish
The letter “A” has many functions and uses in Spanish. Here are a few of the especially common ones.
As a preposition: to, at, in.
|Voy a la escuela.||I go to school.|
|Nosotros viajamos a México.||We travelled to Mexico.|
|¿Cuándo vuelves a casa?||When do you go back (to) home?|
|¿Fuiste al museo ayer?||Did you go to the museum yesterday?|
Note: when a precedes el, they combine and become al.
The Personal "a"
If the direct object of a Spanish sentence is a human being or a pet that the speaker has personal feelings for, then the letter “a” must be put between the verb and the direct object.
Here are some examples:
|Veo mi libro.||I see my book.|
|Veo a mi madre.||I see my mother.|
|Ayudo a mis padres.||I help my parents.|
|Tom ama a su novia.||Tom loves his girlfriend.|
|Ella llamó a su amiga.||She called her friend.|
|Veo a mi perro.||I see my dog.|
In the first sentence, book is the direct object but is not a person, nor a pet, so we don’t need to use the personal “a” here.
In the second sentence: veo a mi madre, the person we see is my mother, which is the direct object of the sentence. Because my mother is a human being, we need to place the personal "a" between the verb ver and the direct object mi madre.
Note: The personal “a” is not used when the direct object doesn't refer to anyone in particular.
|Necesito a mi amigo.||I need my friend (you have someone particular in mind).|
|Necesito un amigo.||I need a friend (in general).|
|Tengo dos hermanas.||I have two sisters.|
|Hay tres personas aquí.||There are three people here.|
Also the personal “a” is not used with the verb “tener” and “haber” even when the direct object is a person, as shown by the next two example sentences.
Connecting a verb to an infinitive
The letter “a” can be used to connect a conjugated verb to an infinitive.
verb (conjugated) + a + infinitive
This is actually another way of forming the future tense. Simply conjugate ir , then place "a" and an infinitive verb after it.
|Voy a dormir ahora.||I am going to sleep now.|
|Ella va a visitar a sus hijos.||She is going to visit her children.|
|Nosotros vamos a limpiar la casa.||We are going to clean the house.|
Most adjectives in Spanish end with the letter -o.
Opposite of English, Spanish adjectives tend to come after the noun they modify (describe).
|el coche rojo.||the red car.|
|el hombre alto.||the tall man.|
Then, adjectives have four possible endings in Spanish. As with the prounouns we discussed above, adjectives change to show gender and plurality.
- El coche rojo (the red car) → masculine, singular
- Los coches rojos (the red cars) → masculine, plural
- La falda roja (the red skirt) → feminine, singular
- Las faldas rojas (the red skirts) → feminine, plural
Then, some adjectives end with the letter -e, or a consonant. These adjectives only change to show plurality; they do not have unique masculine and feminine forms.
|el chico interesante.||the interesting boy.|
|la chica interesante.||the intelligent girl.|
|los chicos interesantes.||the intelligent boys.|
|las chicas interesantes.||the intelligent girls.|
A small number of adjectives come before the noun they modify.
- Numbers (one, two, three, first, second, third)
- Possessive adjectives (my, your, her)
- Possessive adjectives/ordinal numbers (first, second, third)
- Alguno (some/someone)
- Mucho (much)
- Poco (little)
An even smaller number can be placed both before and after their noun, and the meaning changes according to which position the adjective takes.
Before: Newly acquired
After: Brand new
|Mi nuevo trabajo||My new job|
|Necesito zapatos nuevos||I need new shoes|