What is the Hardest Part About Learning Spanish?

Many students find that the hardest part about learning Spanish is knowing when and how to use each tense.
Spanish can be a difficult language to learn, but that shouldn’t scare you away from all the benefits that come from learning it!

“Te lo digo ahora mismo, espero que escuches mi historia. Estaba cruzando la calle cuando un auto se acercó a mí. ¡Ten cuidado al cruzar!”


The above sentences in Spanish uses five different five tenses:

  1. Present: Te lo digo ahora mismo, (I’m telling you right now..)
  2. Subjunctive (technically a mood and not a tense): espero que escuches mi historia (I hope you listen to my story.)
  3. Imperfect: Estaba cruzando la calle (I was crossing the street…)
  4. Preterite: cuando un auto se acercó a mí. (when a car approached me).
  5. Imperative: ¡Ten cuidado al cruzar!” (Be careful when crossing!)


While vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and pronunciation are all challenging in their own ways, many students find that the hardest part about learning Spanish is knowing when and how to use each tense, specifically distinguishing between the Imperfect vs the Preterite. What makes Spanish tenses so hard to master?


Different Conjugations


A ‘conjugation’ refers to how a verb changes to show a different person, tense, number or mood. In English, the verb ‘to go’ is conjugated in different forms depending on what you are trying to communicate – “I am going,” “she went,” they will go.” An English speaker will conjugate the verb in their mind in a split second without thinking. To say the same sentence in Spanish, this person must put in effort to memorize the verb conjugations and know when to use the right tense and how to match the correct person and number. This is especially difficult for irregular verbs, such as Ir (to go):


Present (Indicative) Preterite




Subjunctive (Present) Imperative
Yo (I) voy fui iba vaya
Tú (you) vas fuiste ibas vayas ve
él/ella/Ud. (he/she/you formal) va fue iba vaya vaya
Nosotros (we) vamos fuimos íbamos vayamos vamos
Vosotros (you all) vais fuisteis ibais vayáis id
ellos/ellas/Uds. (they) van fueron iban vayan vayan


Different Situations


In Spanish, the Subjunctive mood is used to refer to a hypothetical situation or to express a wish, demand, or obligation. English doesn’t have a separate conjugation to communicate this mood, which can make it difficult for someone learning Spanish to remember to use the Subjunctive conjugation. 


Secondly, Spanish has two separate conjugations for the two past tense forms, Preterite and Imperfect. Stated in its most simple form, the preterite is used to indicate specific, completed events in the past while the imperfect describes the surrounding circumstances of a past event. While describing past events, these tenses often complement and contrast each other to give a more full picture, and knowing when to use each tense can be difficult for Spanish learners. 


Preterite used in these situations:

  • For actions that can be viewed as single events
  • For actions that were repeated a specific number of times
  • For actions that occurred during a specific period of time
  • For actions that were part of a chain of events
  • To state the beginning or the end of an action


Imperfect used in these situations:

  • For actions that were repeated habitually
  • For actions that “set the stage” for another past action
  • For telling time
  • For stating one’s age
  • For mental states (usually)
  • For physical sensations (usually)
  • To describe the characteristics of people, things or conditions


Ser vs Estar


We are expressing states of being all the time in our communication. I am driving, they were hungry, the remote is under the couch, she will be a doctor soon.


The English verb “to be” is a ‘one size fits all’ verb for states of being of all kinds: who you are, how you feel, what you do for a living, where you are at, what action you are performing, and so much more. In Spanish, “to be” is split into two verbs: Ser and Estar.  


Estar is used to describe HOW something is with a focus on a temporary state. This includes emotions, locations, actions, and conditions. For example, 

  • Mi amigo estaba en el patio trasero. (My friend was in the backyard).
  • Los niños están aburridos. (The children are bored). 


Ser is used to describe WHAT something is, with a focus on permanent states. inherent qualities, the essential part of something or someone, occupations, possessions, . Some examples include:

  • Soy de Colombia. (I am from Colombia).
  • El azul es mi auto. (The blue one is my car.)


What makes these verbs even more complicated is that they are both irregular in conjugation. Spanish learners trying to think through a sentence will have to first think whether Ser or Estar is appropriate, and then they will have to conjugate the verb into an unusual form. 

Spanish can be a difficult language to learn, but that shouldn’t scare you away from all the benefits that come from learning it! If you’re looking for an amazing program that will help you with your Spanish reading, writing, pronunciation, and grammar, all while having tons of fun, check out Cultural Bytes’ One-on-one tutoring classes.

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