What’s the key to speaking Spanish fluently, spontaneously, and effortlessly? Mastering core Spanish grammar. To learn how to speak Spanish fluently, we need to start by mastering the structures and elements that make Spanish different from English. Today we’ll learn some essential Spanish grammar and do some spoken grammar exercises to make it stick. After this foundational work, Spanish grammar will get easier and easier — and Spanish fluency will be all downhill!
Let’s start laying a solid foundation for Spanish fluency.
Intro: Join us on a rigorous, step-by-step journey to fluency. I’m Timothy and this is LearnCraft Spanish.
Most Spanish podcasts and courses start by teaching you some fun words or phrases that will get you rattling off a little bit of Spanish right from Episode 1. But on this show we do things differently. In our experience coaching language learners all the way to fluency, it’s super important to get started on the right foot. And the MOST important part of the language to cover right at the beginning is not words or phrases, but some deep, foundational grammar.
Now if you’re impatient, don’t worry, we WILL finally start learning some Spanish in this episode… I’m not gonna spend this whole podcast preaching about language learning methodologies. But still, as I mentioned yesterday, it IS essential to start from the right mindset, and so there will be a bit of theory of learning intermingled with our Spanish throughout this show, just enough to help keep your learning on track. And since this is the first week on the show, we have to start with a bit more theory than usual. As the show progresses, we’ll move into more and more Spanish very quickly.
Now, what is deep, foundational grammar? Well, let’s think about the foundation of a house. At first glance, a house looks like it’s made of windows, doors, some bricks, and a roof. But as most people know, if you try to build a house from scratch, in that order, you’re going to end up with a mess. To build a livable house, you have to start with a solid foundation; you can’t just throw some flashy pieces together.
And it’s the same thing with language learning. At LearnCraft Spanish, we believe that to learn Spanish well, you have to start at the core of what makes it different from English. And that’s why on this show, you won’t learn things like greetings, numbers, and colors for quite a while.
Because in deep, serious language learning, we have to do the hard stuff first. Laying a solid foundation for fluency means starting with grammar, not vocabulary. So during these first two weeks on the podcast, we’re going to completely rebuild your Spanish syntax and grammar skills at their roots. Even though we’ll only learn a few Spanish words in the next few episodes, we’ll do some of the hardest work. In fact, some of the most advanced coaching students that we work with end up getting the most value out of these first few lessons. That’s because we’re NOT teaching “basic Spanish” here. Instead, we’ll be working on some grammar fundamentals that you might still be struggling with even if you’ve studied Spanish for years.
This means digging deep and spending a lot of time on just a few words during these first two weeks. That’s because not all words are created equal—there are about 100 words that make up 50% of the Spanish language, and just 20 of those account for 30% of all words ever spoken. In the next few episodes, we’re focusing on those first 20. Not just what they mean, but how to use them in a sentence like a native speaker would.
After those first two weeks, we’ll move from the foundation of the house up to the mortar. What do I mean by mortar? A language appears to be made up of words, just like a house might appear to be made up of bricks. But when you start building a house, you can’t just pile bricks on top of the foundation. You have to add mortar between the bricks to hold everything together and build functional walls. Most language-learners THINK that in order to learn a language, all they have to do is accumulate words. If you’ve ever taken this approach, you know that this doesn’t lead to fluency. You end up with a collection of new words but no structure to hold them together.
So after we’ve laid our foundation of deep grammar, we’ll be focusing on syntax: the words that serve as the mortar that holds the Spanish language together and gives the language structure, words like “is,” “are,” and “have to” — which don’t have a lot of meaning by themselves but are used frequently in everyday conversation. We’ll even be learning complex grammar that isn’t typically taught until Spanish III or above, like subjunctives and impersonal verbs. So within a few weeks, instead of a loose pile of bricks, you’ll have a Spanish structure that will hold together for the rest of your life.
And then, once we’ve laid the foundation and mixed the mortar, it’s time to start laying some bricks. This is where it starts getting really fun. We’ll begin with some specific vocabulary words that will get you confidently expressing yourself in Spanish. At that point in the process, we’ll focus on mastering the most versatile and frequently used Spanish words — words that you’ll use and hear all the time in conversations with native speakers. Within a few months, you’ll be able to start conversing about a virtually unlimited number of topics in Spanish, despite only having learned a short list of words.
Now, here’s a little warning: As I mentioned yesterday, you’ll see amazing results from this podcast IF and only if you stick to the system. At times, it’s going to feel slow. And sometimes you’ll be frustrated by the assignments. But no matter what level of Spanish you’re coming from, the pacing of this podcast and the accompanying assignments that we’ll give you are essential for making this whole thing work. We’ve worked with thousands of Spanish learners and have seen firsthand what our program can do—IF you stick to the system, day by day.
And that begins with mastering the core grammar we’re going to go over in this episode. No matter how advanced you are in your Spanish, the foundational grammar in this episode is super important to master, and the rest of the entire podcast is going to reference the foundation we lay here.
So let’s dive in and learn some foundational grammar, starting with the absolute basics of how to form sentences.
Fluency is all about being able to say what you want to say in Spanish in real time, and to do that, you need to be able not just to recite memorized phrases, but to create entire Spanish sentences from scratch.
Now I say that, but that's not quite true. In fact, nobody assembles sentences from scratch. Every real sentence, both in English and in Spanish is actually based on an existing template that native speakers naturally use all the time.
Think of a sentence template like a potato head face. If you've ever played with a potato head toy, you know about the changing parts such as the hair, eyes, nose, and mouth.
You can replace the hair with a hat. You can trade the open eyes for closed or angry eyes, and you can switch the normal mouth for a stuck out tongue. Of course, if you're following the face template, you're not really supposed to put eyes where the mouth goes or put shoes where the nose goes. The face has a basic structure that you'll follow: hair of some type on top, then eyes of some sort, then nose, then mouth.
Sentences are the same way. There's a basic template for how sentences work, but certain parts are exchangeable. We call those exchangeable parts “parts of speech”. There are many different types of parts of speech, but as examples will cover just two today: Nouns and verbs. The way that nouns and verbs work in Spanish is similar to how they work in English, but not exactly the same.
So let's review what nouns and verbs are, how to identify them, and how you can use them in Spanish sentence templates so that you'll eventually be able to express ideas in Spanish 100% of the time, no matter how complex your ideas are. And even if you think you know what nouns and verbs are, don’t skip this episode and its accompanying exercises, because the way we talk about “parts of speech” on this podcast is pretty nuanced and probably a bit different from what you’re used to. For example, when I say “noun”, I’m not necessarily talking about just one word; it might be a whole collection of words that are behaving a specific way in a sentence template.
Let's go ahead and talk about nouns because they're perhaps the easiest to learn, but they also have the highest potential for being extremely complex.
For the purposes of this podcast, when we say a “noun”, we’re talking about any word, OR phrase, that's used like the word “food”. For example, compare the following two sentences:
Food makes me happy.
Losing myself in a new city makes me happy.
What's going on here? We just used the same sentence template two times in a row. In the first sentence, the word food is being used as a noun. In the second sentence, however, we've replaced the word food with an entire phrase: “Losing myself in a new city.” But that entire phrase is being used as a noun. The sentence still makes sense if we replace that entire phrase, “losing myself in a new city”, with the word “food”. And that's a basic principle behind understanding Spanish — recognizing not just what an individual word is, but how a word or phrase is functioning in a sentence, with awareness of how one part could be switched out for another exchangeable part, just like a potato head face.
Let’s practice putting this to some use. I’m going to present a couple of sentences, and you should see if you can predict how much of the sentence is functioning as a noun in the template. In each case, perform the food test; try replacing a word, or multiple words, with the word “food”. If you can successfully replace it with “food”, that means you've identified a noun.
So here’s the first sentence: “Don’t forget your purse.” Which part of this sentence could you replace with the word “food”? “Don’t forget your purse.” So there are actually two possible answers here. You could replace the word “purse” with “food”. So we’d end up with “don’t forget your food”. But you could also actually replace the entire phrase “your purse” with the word “food”. We can say “Don’t forget food”. So what we’ve identified here is that the entire phrase “your purse” is functioning as a noun in the sentence, even though it’s more than one word.
But the other words in the sentence can’t be replaced with “food”. We can’t say “food forget your purse” or “Don’t food your purse”. So we can tell that the only noun here is the end of the sentence.
Now note that as we do exercises like this, you don’t have to think too much about the meaning of the sentence, but instead about the function and whether the sentence is coherent in the language. Remember that our goal is to be able to think in Spanish like a native speaker, and to do that, we need to be able to come up with basically an infinite variety of sentences quickly, even sentences that have very strange meanings. A sentence is only “wrong” if it doesn’t have grammatical coherence (or any meaning at all). So for this next sentence example, when you do the food test, the meaning is going to be bizarre, but it will still be grammatically coherent.
OK, so here’s the next sentence:
Waiting around like this isn't my favorite activity.
This is tricky, but how much of the sentence can you replace with the word “food” and still have it grammatically coherent? Again, the sentence is:
Waiting around like this isn't my favorite activity.
…So the answer is that there are two different parts of the sentence that could be replaced with the word food. You could say food isn't my favorite activity. Or you could say “Waiting around like this isn't food.” But you couldn’t say “Waiting around like this food my favorite activity.” So the answer is that there are two nouns in this sentence.
This whole silly activity is something you should try as an everyday exercise. Start noticing where nouns are in sentences on a regular basis. As you can see, nouns aren't just persons, places and things. Sometimes they're actions such as “losing myself in a new city” or “waiting around like this”. What makes it a noun is the way that it functions in the sentence, meaning that it can be replaced by the word “food” and still make a correct sentence.
All right. Now let's cover verbs. These are words that generally speaking can be replaced by the word “eat” (or “eats” or “ate”). So let's look at the same sentences that we just used for nouns. And instead of doing the food test, let's try the eat test to identify where the verbs are. In each case, if you can exchange the word for eat, eats, or ate, you've identified the verb.
“Don't forget your purse.”
So you could coherently say, “don't eat your purse”. So the verb here is “forget”.
“Waiting around like this isn't my favorite activity.”
…So the verb here is “isn’t”. “Waiting around like this eats my favorite activity.” This is weird, but it does work as a sentence.
Now a quick, important note about this one: In this sentence, you might have tried to use the “eat test” to put a verb at the beginning of the sentence, saying something like this; “eating isn’t my favorite activity”. So if you can do that, can’t we call that first phrase, “waiting around like this”, a verb? Well, the thing is, that whole phrase is still a noun; as we demonstrated earlier, you can replace that whole phrase with the word “food”. This is even true if you change it to “eating isn’t my favorite activity”; the word “eating” there may look like an action, but in the sentence it’s functioning as a noun, not a verb. In fact, VERY often, actions are nouns, not verbs. Later on the show we’ll go much deeper into the details of why and how you can recognize this, and as a teaser, this is key for learning the nuances of how Spanish verbs work differently from English verbs. But for now, the important thing to remember is to use the “eat test” for identifying verbs in a sentence, but it will specifically work if you use the terms “eat”, “eats”, or “ate”. Don’t try using “eating” or “eaten” for this verb test, because functionally those aren’t behaving as the verb in a sentence.
And then one last note on the “eat test” and the “food test”: I have to acknowledge that sometimes sentences do turn into completely incoherent nonsense when you transform sentences this way. Really the food test for nouns and the eat test for verbs will work about 90% of the time, and that’s enough to get us to start thinking deeply about the grammar of sentence structures so that we can start reprogramming our thoughts into Spanish very soon.
So what we want to do as soon as possible is not just to recognize how words and phrases fit into our sentence templates, we also want to start replacing them by playing the potato head game. This is the fun part of language — you can replace one noun with a basically limitless number of other nouns, or you can replace a verb with all kinds of other verbs, once you recognize what these things are and where they are in a sentence template.
As a really fun and versatile example, let’s learn our first Spanish word: The word eso. This word means “that”, and it’s exchangeable with nouns. That means that anything that could be exchanged for “food” could also be exchanged for eso.
Now, technically, eso is not a noun. It's a pronoun, which means that you would use it instead of an actual noun. And it's probably the most versatile pronoun in the Spanish language. In fact, if you go back over all the sentence examples we’ve used in this episode, you could replace any of the nouns and noun phrases with the word eso, or “that”, and each of the sentences would still make sense.
Check it out. Our first sentence example was “Losing myself in a new city makes me happy.” What happens if we replace “losing myself in a new city” with the word “that”, or eso? We simply say “that makes me happy”, or “eso makes me happy”, which makes perfect sense.
Or how about “Don't forget your purse.” We can replace “your purse” with the word “that”, or eso, and we end up with “don’t forget that” (or don’t forget eso). This makes perfect sense as well.
And then finally, we have “Waiting around like this isn't my favorite activity.” We can replace either one of the nouns in this sentence with eso. It makes perfect sense to say “That isn’t my favorite activity”, or “waiting around like this isn’t that”. We can even replace both of the nouns and just say “that isn’t that”.
And actually, one of the reasons the word eso is so awesome is because it’s a specific type of pronoun that’s most often used to represent entire phrases, or big concepts, or actions. There are many pronouns that can function in the place of simple nouns, but eso is a big and powerful word that can represent pretty much anything, including the most complex noun concepts that you can think of.
And that’s your mission now: try to practice this at every opportunity. When you notice a noun in a sentence or a noun phrase, you can replace it with “food”. Or you can replace it with eso, which means “that”. This “potato head game” is a great way to work on thinking abstractly about language, whether in English or in Spanish, and it will get you some amazing practice right away with the skill of using Spanish sentence templates, which we’ll do more and more throughout this show.
In tomorrow’s episode, we’re going to expand our grammar to some more nitty gritty elements, the little connecting words that hold together our nouns, verbs, and everything else.
Meanwhile, to get some more practice playing the “potato head game” with real sentences, go to LCSPodcast.com/2 to access a little online quiz and see if you ace both the “food test” and the “eat test” before we move on to more complicated stuff.
This show is brought to you by LearnCraftSpanish.com. Music for this episode was provided by the Seattle Marimba Quartet, and I’m Timothy, encouraging you to do the hard work of learning Spanish. Acquiring a second language is one of the most fulfilling things you can do, so start your fluency journey today at LCSPodcast.com.