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Thursday, July 25, 2013 (read 714 times)

Some insanity for understanding the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish

by Lauris

In previous weeks, we have been discussing some unconventional, mnemonic methods designed to smooth the path a bit on our students’ rocky road toward understanding and using the subjunctive tense. Hopefully these tips will eliminate as many rocks as possible that may stand in the way to trip up your students as they boldly venture onward toward their goal of mastering Spanish.

Understanding the Imperfect Subjunctive

We know that these tricks are not a definitive solution but they can serve to encourage us that, a smile can at times lift the cloud of apprehension and fear of “not-being-able-to-understand-it” that hovers over our classrooms like a vulture waiting for his intellectual carrion.

We have tried to show how the present subjunctive basically works by focusing first on its use in the imperative, as the imperative offers the advantage of being used in pretty much the same way in many western languages. So the only issue that could come up here would be its morphology, a minor problem I’ve suggested trying to reduce by stressing the notion of recycling the forms of the present indicative.

After last week’s presentation of the phrase “Less alcohol and more Egypt”, which firmly, and absurdly roots in the minds of our students how to conjugate the imperfect subjunctive, we just need to address one small question:

- “Okay, now that I know its conjugations…when do I use it?

Using the Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish

As always, we are going to try to find a shortcut. We already know that the present subjunctive is used in the contexts of the present or the future. Therefore, by process of elimination, we can say that:

“The imperfect subjunctive appears when we need a subjunctive but we cannot use the present.”

Using the simplest logic we can say that, if the present subjunctive appears, as we have just said, in present/future contexts, the only thing which remains for the imperfect is the past (remember that although this tense is called the imperfect, it mustn’t be confused with the imperfect indicative) and something that is not easy to explain given our bad habit of expressing all of our ideas chronologically: that which lies outside of the realm of time, or better yet, that which is timeless.

A good example which I sometimes use in the classroom to make this idea comprehensible is asking the students to translate the title of a famous Pink Floyd album into Spanish (Yes, I now know that it is a group long ago, but I´m no longer a child…)

“Wish you were here”

On the board I write the sentence “Ojalá estés aquí” and in a group we think about the fact that this sentence revolves around a wish which is cast into the future (I wish you to be here always from now on) and this is not the meaning of the record title. This is when, in my opinion, students clearly see the need for the imperfect tense: “Ojalá estuvieras aquí”, comes much closer to the original meaning in English, as a generic wish that lies outside of time.

I hope these words of advice concerning the arduous path of the subjunctive serve as an example of how we can focus our attention on the fun that can be had when learning a language if we introduce a little bit of imagination to difficult grammatical material.

Keywords: spanish subjunctive,conjugation spanish verbs,imperfect subjunctive,imperfect subjunctive spanish,subjunctive spanish tenses


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» Previous Article: A bit more Help with Understanding the Spanish Subjunctive