As I’ve mentioned before, I got the wonderful opportunity to study abroad in Argentina for a summer during college. It was an amazing experience for so many reasons, including, of course, my Spanish acquisition journey. Not only did I learn and improve immensely while there, talking about my experience afterwards has also given me numerous chances to practice Spanish past tense conjugation in the context of my everyday life.
When people ask me about my time in South America in Spanish, I obviously talk about it using the past tense since it happened in the past. In English, there is pretty much just past tense, and it’s the same no matter the context. In Spanish, on the other hand, there are two distinct past tense forms: preterite and imperfect. They each have their own verb endings and are used to express different things. Preterite is generally for complete past actions while imperfect is generally for ongoing past actions.
For example, when I say “I studied abroad in Argentina for a summer” in Spanish, I used preterite because the action has a beginning and end and happened once: “Estudié en Argentina durante un verano.” When I describe the weekend we spent at Iguazu Falls, I also used preterite, because it is a complete action: “Fuimos a Iguazu, y ¡fue increíble!” However, when I tell someone that I walked to the university from my host mom’s house for class each day, I use imperfect because it was a habitual, repeated action: “Caminaba a la universided cada día.”
While the Spanish past tenses aren’t terribly difficult to grasp, they do take practice, just like anything else. I’ve found that when I’m writing and have a bit more time to think, it’s not too hard to remember when to use preterite and when to use imperfect. That said, when I’m speaking to or having a conversation with someone, it’s definitely harder to use the correct form every time. I don’t stress about it, and you shouldn’t either, because you can, usually, communicate what you want to say with either tense. Hopefully, the person you are talking to will cut you some slack and just be glad you are trying at all!
There are some times when the use of one form versus the other does make a difference in meaning, such as the verb “querer,” which means “to want.” In the preterite form, “quise,” this verb means you tried to do something. In the imperfect form, “quería,” it means you wanted something for an undefined amount of time. Thus “Yo quise comer todo la ensalada” means “I tried to eat the whole salad,” while “Yo quería comer todo la ensalada” means “I wanted to eat the whole salad.”
I think the key to mastering these tenses (or any grammar topic!) is to connect it to your life, make it more personal and real, less abstract. Set a mini-goal for yourself to use two (or however many) preterite verbs and two imperfect verbs in your next Spanish conversation. Find examples of these tenses on TV, in movies, on the radio, on social media, etc. Talk or write about your past bad habits (imperfect), what you ate for dinner last night (preterite), or your childhood (both, depending on what you’re saying). Connecting the language to your life will make it easier to understand and remember.
To hear native speakers use both past tense forms, download Pars Omni Spanish Voices for free and get access to a library of stories and an array of tools and put them to work for you.