Learning Spanish? Fear Not the Subjunctive!

When I threw myself into Central America, after having lived a monolingual childhood in Tennessee, I attacked the subjunctive. It’s the conjugation that twists up the English-speaking mind. You first learn that “I talk/you talk/she talks” is Yo hablo, tú hablas, ella habla. Simple enough pattern to memorize. Then along comes the subjunctive, takes the hablo, slices off the o and replaces it with an e. So now it’s Yo hable, tú hables, ella hable.

subjunctive 1
Conjugating verbs, mid 1980’s, Nicaragua

What the hell? I just learned to say “I talk,” and you’re telling me there’s another way to say the same thing? Isn’t that redundant? Superfluous? Unnecessary?

It’s not, at all. It is, to me, the DNA of the Spanish language, and reveals the linguistic, cultural differences between the gringo and Latino minds.

It was a challenge to learn. I’d walked in English-Land for most of my life. I thought in English, which meant I thought in concrete terms. “I go to the bathroom” is the same as “when I go to the bathroom,” with only when setting the time.

“I go to the bathroom” is Yo voy al baño. But “When I go to the bathroom” is Cuando yo vaya al baño. The change, from voy to vaya shows that I know life better than a monolingual English speaker does. I know that life is chaos.

When I go the bathroom, I’ll wash my hands afterwards. Sounds like a good plan, and by God I’m gonna to do it! No room for doubt. But in Spanish, when I say Cuando yo vaya al baño, voy a lavar mis manos, the vaya is saying, “When I go to the bathroom—that is, if nothing happens, if the bathroom’s not locked, or I don’t die along the way—I’ll

subjunctive 2
I became a bit…obsessive. Michelle says, “possessed.”

wash my hands.”

Once I started making these connections, of how we speak dictates our perception of existence, I recognized how trapped I had been, speaking only one language. To have two, or three, or a polyglot’s amount of languages in your head at once, opens up the globe. You’re thinking more widely, and more in-depth. It cultivates empathy. Because, if you can speak another person’s tongue—and I mean more than talking-to-your-maid speech; I mean being respectfully fluent—you just might end up understanding their lives, their struggles, and their triumphs.

I did what most of us in high school Spanish avoided, even our teacher: I dove into the subjunctive and swam as deeply as I could. I conjugated verbs right and left, in my journal, on bar napkins, receipts, banana leaves. I became a subjunctive junkie, from the present tense to the pluperfect. I had to; in Spanish, we use the subjunctive every ten seconds.

If you’re an English-only speaker working on Spanish, I applaud you. You’re preparing yourself for an America that in a few short years will be more brown than white, more multilingual than not. Once you get to the subjunctive Cuando usted llegue al subjunctive (which means you might not; anything could happen; you might get tired and

subjunctive 3
Note the error, Hazle, instead of hazlo. Qué pena.

stop your studies; you might have a stroke), don’t flinch! Study it. Obsess over it. It’s tricky at first, but it’s worth every drop of sweat. And when you dive deep enough, oh the beauty you’ll find! You’ll even encounter a new way of dealing with this thing called life: In English, we say, “Life’s a bitch then you die.” In El Salvador, it’s La vida está jodida y alegre, “Life is fucked up and fun.” I prefer living the latter.





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2 responses to “Learning Spanish? Fear Not the Subjunctive!”

  1. Don Pedro Avatar
    Don Pedro

    Nice work. I too am the white kid that learned Spanish and ended up living in Colombia 3 years teaching English. it has opened my ability to have relationships with so many people. I actually am now in my 13th year as a Spanish teacher at a Southern California High School.
    With that being said, just want to clear up about your couple examples of subjunctive with Cuando. The reason it is subjunctive is not because there is doubt but only because you are talking about Cuando with the future.

    Cuando mis abuelos vienen a mis case, me traen regalos
    pero este fin de semana cuando vengan mis abuelos (talking about the future) me van a traer regalos.

    Cuando muchas personas llegan a ser viejas, se vuelven agitadas pero cuando yo sea viejo, (in the future) voy a ser alegre.

    Paz y Amor…..

    1. Marcos McPeek Villatoro Avatar
      Marcos McPeek Villatoro

      I love your note, thanks so much, and also for the clarification.

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