This article is by Amit Schandillia from Always Spanish where he writes great articles on improving your Spanish. Be sure to follow him! – Jared
Learning the 10 most common verbs is certainly a good starting point as you begin to learn Spanish. Also just memorizing the verbs means little in the way of any practical application – you need to nail them with their conjugations, at least the present indicative, imperative, past imperfect, and the preterit, if not all of them.
That being said, learning and memorizing the verbs still comes before dealing with conjugations. And if you’re like me, you hate the über-mundane rote-rehearsals it takes to do the job.
What I do is take the shortcut and use clever mnemonics and etymology tricks to make the words more memory-worthy, thus eliminating the rote process entirely. This is neither rocket-science, nor my personal invention but I’m surprised how underutilized the method still is!
Let’s see how this works with the top 10 verbs of the Spanish language.
Quick Mnemonics to Nail the Top 10 Spanish Verbs Instantly
This is one translation of to be in Spanish. One because there are two! But before you start cursing Spanish for complicating life needlessly, let me assure you that all Romance languages share this feature. Ser means to be but only in the context of permanent traits. “I am Mexican,” “She is my aunt,” “We are men” – all these scenarios qualify for ser. Don’t worry about exceptions at this stage. Now that you’ve learned it, how to make sure you don’t forget it? Ser sounds very much like the English word sir, the title you’re entitled to only if you’re a knight. And knighthoods are permanent. I mean, they don’t “un-knight” you, do they? So, just remember “Sir John ser a knight.”
Estar is another way to translate to be in Spanish but relates mostly to temporary stuff such as location, mood, etc. The best way to remember this verb is to relate it to state, as in a temporary state. Actually, the two words do share a common Latin heritage. If this doesn’t cut it for you, try the stars in the night sky. They’re there when it’s dark but gone by sunup. Doesn’t that sound kinda temporary? Of course, stars are more permanent than you and I but let’s not get pedantic here. The rhyme between estar and star should help you never forget the verb.
Ir means to go. The verb seems to have nothing in common with its English translation looks-wise. So how does one memorize it? One way is to build a bridge. It doesn’t matter if the bridge connects them on pronunciation or on spelling, what matters is that it connect them well. Ir looks like the first syllable of Ireland despite the drastically differing pronunciations. So, just imagine packing your bags and telling your folks that you’re “going to Ireland” to enjoy some of their ale. Wouldn’t that be fun. Even if you can’t make it, at least you’ll remember ir, so there’s that.
Tener means to have or to hold and if you’re an American, the easiest way to memorize this is to imagine always carrying a ten-dollar bill, a tenner, in your wallet. I have a tenner, I have the power! Other lesser mortals like me might not find tenner that useful though. So, let’s try some history. Tener comes from the synonymous Latin verb tenēre which has spawned words like tenure, tenet, and tenor in English. Of these, consider tenure. That’s the time for which one holds or has one’s office. See a connection? Remember tenure as having an office and you’ll remember tener.
Haber means to have and I doubt you’ll need any sorcery to memorize this one given how the two words already sound almost similar. What’s very important here is that haber is NOT synonymous to tener even though they both translate into have. Why? Because haber does not imply possession. You see, English uses have in two ways: 1) as a verb of possession, and 2) as something known as an auxiliary verb. “I have some food” is not the same as “I have eaten” even though both use have. See what I mean? The second sentence is where you take haber. The first one would go with tener.
Hacer is to do or to make. Many Latin words starting with an f switched to h while entering Spanish. This is exactly what happened with facere too. Facere meant to do and entered English as factor, manufacture, and several other derivatives. Facere remained relatively intact in Spanish as hacer. So, manufacture and hacer are actually cousins! And the two words don’t imply very different things either, do they? If etymology is not your poison, try some wacky imagination. Think of a laptop manufacturing unit someplace deep in the boonies of China. What brand are they making? Acer!
Querer means to want but has other applications too, so don’t let an expression like te quiero creep you out. Querer has an interesting past. It descends from Latin quaerere. This mother-word also gives us English speakers words like query, quest, and inquiry. Come to think of it, you wouldn’t inquire about something unless you want it, don’t you think? I mean you have to be even remotely interested in it to go asking around for it. So the analogy between querer and query kinda works, if you ask me.
Deber means to have to or ought to. The word is a not-so-distant cousin of our very own debt in English. Both spawned from the Latin verb dēbēre which kinda meant the same thing. The analogy is easy to draw: you ought to pay back what you owe. A debt must be paid. Thus, whatever must be done takes a deber in Spanish since there’s an implied obligation, just as there is with a debt. I doubt you will need any other trick to avoid forgetting this very useful verb.
Poder means to be able to or can. You can imagine how versatile and important this verb must be in everyday conversations. To remember poder, all you have to do is consider its Latin origins. Don’t bother with the details though; just enough to know that poder of Spanish and potent of English are family. And you don’t need me to tell you how. When you’re potent, you can. When you’re impotent, you can’t. Easy-peasy? If you are a little more creative, you can also use power as another bridge. Power and poder are almost twins, looks-wise!
Decir is to say although it sounds more like decide. The verb has more cousins in the English lexicon that one might realize at first. To begin with, we have dictate. Dictation involves speaking, so the correlation isn’t that far-fetched after all. Both decir and dictate descend from a common Latin source and the same source also gives us other related ones in English, such as diction and dictionary. To further fortify your memory, think of decir as the act of dissing someone and being quite vocal while doing so. Think this helps? I sure do.
So there we are, all those pesky verbs safely tucked away in our heads for an eternity…and all that in a matter of minutes instead of days. That’s the power of imagination for you. Go ahead, try it out with a bunch of other words and see how fun memorization actually is. Oh and do share with the rest of us if you come up with something wacky and awesome of your own. Every single one of your comments will make Spanish a little more accessible to the rest of the world!
Too busy to make up your own “word-bridges” like those shown above? Then you might want to check out my e-book titled “Spanish Vocabulary Bible: Memory Tricks for the Lazy Learner” available for purchase over at my Spanish learning blog. In it, I have painstakingly assembled (took me 3 long years to put it together) mnemonics, etymology, word-link… possibly every trick imaginable to memorize the top 2,002 words of Spanish. That’s enough word-power to have you comprehend more than 80% of all the Spanish you hear or read wherever you go. But it’s over a thousand pages long, so read it only if you’re truly serious about Spanish.
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