Difficult Spanish: 3 Tricky Aspects Of Spanish Most Learners Struggle With

man with headphones on looking at laptop

Learning Spanish or any a new language is hard.

If it were easy, more people would speak another language (or more)!

That's not to say you can't push past the frustrating parts. You can. You absolutely will be fluent in Spanish if you keep at it.

In this post, I'm going to share with you what I still find hard in learning any language. Yes, some things don't get any easier, even after 8 languages.

And I'm going to share 3 difficult Spanish grammar features that can trip up new learners like you.

While I don't have any magic solutions to make these aspects of Spanish easy, I can break them down. And show you how to get started with them. So you can concentrate on what you're really here for: speaking the language with real people.

What I Still Struggle With In Language Learning

roadblock

Before I talk about a few difficult aspects of Spanish, I'd like to share with you a few things I still struggle with in my own language learning.

Yes, even eight languages in, I still have many of the same roadblocks as you do now:

I Get Nervous Speaking To Strangers

I still feel a jolt of fear when I approach someone to speak to them in a new language.

Even though I know speaking often is the best way I can improve my language skills, I often can't bring myself to start the conversation.

I've learned to push past that fear in order to get plenty of opportunities to speak, but I still lack the natural confidence to just jump right in.

It's Hard For Me To Study Every Day

Doing anything every day is hard.

Ultimately, this is not a problem with language learning. This is a self-discipline problem.

I'm not a particularly disciplined person. But even just realising this about myself has helped. I've learned to push myself to do something in my target language every day to make sure I don't miss out on learning opportunities. 

I Often Try To Skip My Listening Practice When I'm Starting A New Language

Listening is a skill. And like any other skill, it can be learned and practised.

The best way to understand what is being said in a new language is to listen to plenty of audio early in the learning process.

In the beginning of learning a new language, however, I'm generally so keen to begin speaking that I neglect the hard work that needs to be done building my listening comprehension.

I always catch up, partly because I get plenty of experience with real-life listening in conversations. But I still sometimes struggle early on because I haven't taken the time to do the listening work.

Staying Motivated Is Hard For Me Too

Have you ever started to learn a new language—or tried to pick up a new hobby or skill—and gradually felt your desire and motivation decrease until you rarely felt like working on it at all?

I know I'm not alone in this.

Motivation can be tricky, but without it, you won't last long.

If you need a jolt of motivation, read this.

And remember: Just because your motivation lags for a bit, you can still re-energise your language study and feel that passion that drove you to start learning Spanish in the first place.

Three Aspects Of Spanish That Are Tricky For Beginners

Not every person has the same language-learning journey.

Based on my own experience learning and teaching Spanish, however, I do have a decent idea of which parts of Spanish might give you trouble.

For most English speakers learning Spanish, the 3 most difficult concepts to master are: 

  1. past tenses
  2. grammatical genders
  3. the subjunctive

Let's take a look at each of these in turn.

1. The Spanish Past Tenses

old-fashioned pharmacy facade in Madrid

The difference between the preterite and imperfect past tenses can seem daunting to many Spanish learners at first, mainly because English has no perfect equivalent. And most people don't learn advanced grammar in their native language.

When you're speaking English, for example, you don't need to know the names of various past tenses. You can just hear it when something is off.

In Spanish, however, you'll need to learn two past tense forms to be able to talk about the past. (There are more than two past tenses in Spanish, but for most conversations, the preterite and past imperfect will be enough.)

Here's an example:

At its most basic, the difference between the tenses comes down to time.

Spanish Preterite Is For Actions That Were Completed A Single Time In The Past

In English, it's called the “simple past tense” because it is a straightforward way to talk about something that happened once in the past.

As you learn to conjugate the preterite, pay close attention to the accents at the ends of words. Sometimes, an accent is the only clue that a sentence is in the past tense.

For example,

,even though the subject and time are very different.

Spanish Imperfect Is For Repeated Or Continuous Past Actions

In English, there are two ways to to talk about this type of past action. 

Here are two examples:

In these examples, “used to” and “was visiting” tell the listeners that these actions happened more than once in the past.

In Spanish, the verb conjugation does all of the work:

These are both examples of the Spanish imperfect past. 

You can find an in-depth look at the difference with conjugations and examples here.

The good news is that you'll find the past tenses more and more intuitive as you speak and listen to Spanish.

2. Grammatical Genders

girl with cat on her lap

When you're talking about a cat, girl, or map in English, you use the same article (the/a) every time:

In Spanish, nouns and articles are both gendered.

That means you'll need to know which words are masculine, which are feminine, and which are exceptions to the rule:

Unfortunately, there's no real trick or simple rule to remember for grammatical genders. Sometimes you can tell by the end of the word (el gato is male, for example). But even that can be misleading.

Spanish contains plenty of masculine words that end in “a” (el mapa, el día, el agua), feminine words that end in “o” (la mano, la moto, la foto). And some that change depending on the meaning.

Other than context, the only way to know the difference between el coma (coma) and la coma (comma) is to pay attention to the articles or adjectives that denote gender.

Ultimately, you'll need to learn each word on a case-by-case basis. Try to focus on learning the gender of words as you learn them, just as you would the pronunciation.

When I learn vocabulary, I find a way to connect my mental image of the new word to the gender.

For example, “la mesabecomes not simply a table in my mind, but a girl's dressing table or an ornate, Victorian table that just feels feminine.

I actually talked about this for an entire episode on the “I Will Teach You a Language” podcast here.  

I also suggest you memorise some of the most common irregularly gendered nouns so you can speak confidently right away.

3. The Subjunctive

classroom

The subjunctive is not really a tense at all. It describes the mood or intent of a sentence instead of when it took place.

Rather than the conjugation itself, which is no more complicated than any other tense in Spanish, the difficult part of the subjunctive is knowing when to use it.

In general, you use the subjunctive to express: 

La maestra quiere que tú limpies la aula. (The teacher wants you to clean the classroom.)

In this example, there are two verb forms:

  1. one to tell us the teacher wants
  2. and another to tell us what is wanted

Although you will eventually be using the subjunctive in all kinds of circumstances, don't expect mastery at the beginning.

Instead, focus on learning a few situations where the subjunctive is commonly used. That way, you can gain confidence with the subjunctive and add in more ways to use it over time.

The three situations I'd suggest focusing on first are: 

  1. remembering to use the subjunctive with requests
  2. anytime you start a sentence with “ojalá”
  3. and when expressing a hope or desire

You can start practicing the subjunctive right away in these situations without worrying about whether or not you should use the subjunctive or another verb tense.

No Two Spanish Learners Are The Same

woman sitting at desk writing in diary

In the end, your experience learning Spanish will be different from mine (or anyone else's).

You may not struggle with the past tense but find some other aspect of the language much more challenging.

My number one suggestion for mastering any difficult part of any language—whether it made it on this list or not—is to fully commit yourself to the effort and to be persistent.

Keep at it and good luck!

Which aspects of Spanish do you find hard? Have I covered your main learning frustrations here? Let me know by sharing your experiences in the comments. 

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Comments

Andrew Howe says:
15 Jul 2016 08:39

It’s a tremendous honor to be published on your blog! Thanks, Olly 🙂

Olly Richards says:
15 Jul 2016 12:18

The pleasure’s all mine, Andrew! Great post!

Nicolas Papavero says:
23 Jul 2016 02:37

This a great article, thank you Adrew

TalkToMeIn.com says:
3 Sep 2016 03:42

These 6 language-learning strategies are excellent! And how about Strategy Number 7…?

Find practice buddies *for the language you’re learning* even when you’re in a country that speaks a different one. To do that, wear a shirt that says, “I am learning Russian” or “How about we speak in Japanese?”. That attracts people to strike up conversation.

You can print up these shirts yourself pretty cheaply, or you can get professionally-made ones over at https://TalkToMeIn.com

Olly Richards says:
3 Sep 2016 11:48

Just seen your site, and I love it!

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