Unit 0 - Introduction
Lesson 0.1 - Getting Started
This lesson relates my language learning experiences and how they led to the development of VerbMaestro. It's optional, so feel free to skip it. If you're tracking your progress with a free account here, you can mark this lesson as completed with the "Mark as Complete" button at the bottom.
The Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City

Learning Spanish the Hard Way

I'm Ken Smith, the creator of VerbMaestro. I began studying Spanish more than 30 years ago, and frankly, I wasn't very good at it for most of those years. I studied the language for brief periods over the decades, learning enough to get by on my travels in Latin America but I still struggled to hold a comfortable conversation.

In the early years of my efforts, language learning resources were scarce. This was before the Internet existed. There were no native Spanish speakers living near me. There were no Spanish TV or radio stations in my area. Using only textbooks and audio cassettes from the old Foreign Service Institute Spanish course, it's no surprise that I didn't learn much.

My Big Mistake

Even after more resources started to become available, my progress remained slow. I think the biggest mistake I made during those years was ignoring the other verb tenses until I felt completely comfortable with the present tense and basic grammar in Spanish. In hindsight, it's easy to see the problem that resulted. While I could use the present tense to form grammatically correct sentences to start a conversation, I was completely lost when the replies inevitably came back in a form I did not yet know.

At the time, I couldn't tell whether my problem in understanding spoken Spanish was a general lack of vocabulary or just an inability to parse the sounds into something meaningful. I later learned that much of my missing vocabulary was simply due to my lack of knowledge about the various forms of verbs. Over the years, I had learned a lot of Spanish nouns but I was still a complete novice with the past tense and future tense verbs.

Motivated by an Upcoming Trip

In 2017, I had a trip planned to Mexico City but I was again feeling frustrated with my abilities in Spanish. I decided to dedicate the three months leading up to my trip to an intense study of Spanish. I studied four or five hours every day using many different resources. I used podcasts, videos, books, and online courses. I was living in Dallas, Texas, and I found some local Spanish language meetups which were very helpful.

During conversations at the meetups, I began to zero in on my fundamental issue. I began to realize that verbs really are the key to unlocking Spanish. As an example of how deficient I was in that area, at the time I would not have been able to read this sentence: ¡No sabía nada del imperfecto! Now, if you're a beginner, you may not yet know that sabía is one of the past tense forms of the verb saber, which is to know.

The sentence says I didn't know anything about the imperfect tense. And for me that was true. After decades of study, I was still completely oblivious to one of the most important past tense forms in Spanish. No wonder I struggled in conversations!

Three Months Makes a World of Difference

I learned more in those three months than I had in thirty years of ineffective Spanish study. For me, it was a revelation as the jumble of sounds that were previously unintelligible to me became meaningful language instead. As a result, I spoke more Spanish during my brief visit to Mexico City than I had during any of my other trips, and it was exhilarating. When I returned home, I kept up the work, although at a much more relaxed pace, still making time each day to do at least a little bit of study or listening. Within a year, I was comfortably having casual and genuine conversations in Spanish with my new native-speaker friends in the meetup groups.

Verb Conjugation Tables, Ugh!

The typical classroom approach to learning verb forms is to learn rules for forming the various conjugations and then learn to repeat the conjugated forms as they might appear in a textbook. The problem with this approach was made clear to me when I attended a three week program in an immersion school.

I was placed in an intermediate level, and many of the other students had previously studied Spanish in high school or college. I was surprised by how many of the students were adept at rattling off the correct conjugations when asked by the teacher, but then struggled to recall the correct verb form during a conversation.

If you want to ace the test on a particular verb form, it's useful to be able to name all the forms in order: Yo hablo, tú hablas, él habla, etc. But that's not how our brains work during conversation. To speak fluidly, using the correct form needs to be automatic, and not require you to go down the list in your head until you find the form you need.

Practice is the Key

A verb conjugation table may be a nice way to summarize verb information, but it is not an effective way to actually learn to use them.

What you really need is practice in translating the stream of conversation in your head into the right verb forms. Nothing works better to internalize the verb forms than translation practice. Given a sentence in English, you need to choose the correct verb form to fit into the Spanish sentence. That is the single task that most accurately mimics what happens during a conversation. Given enough exposure to this process, your brain will eventually form the connections it needs to make this happen automatically.

VerbMaestro is the Tool I Always Needed

During my study, I used lots of different and excellent resources. But I never found a tool that really delivered the experience I wanted for practicing translation using the right verbs. There were a few resources that sort of worked, but each had some kind of shortcoming that I found frustrating. And that was my motivation for building VerbMaestro. It is the tool that I wish I had during my efforts to learn the most important verb tenses in Spanish.

Today, as a more advanced student, I still use the site for practice with the Spanish subjunctive. I hope you will find it equally useful.