Beginner’s Guide: The Best Way to Learn the Past Tense in Spanish [Part I]

So, you’re learning Spanish in Costa Rica, and you’ve gotten the basics of the present tense down. And now you can’t wait to learn the past tense in Spanish. It’s a major milestone as you become proficient in another language, allowing you to talk about past events and make a more personal connection with your conversation partner. But it’s time you know it: The Past Tense in Spanish has many faces: simple preterit, past progressive, present perfect… So, read on to learn about the best way to learn the Spanish past tense as a beginner.

1. Spanish uses several tenses to state facts.

When you use the past in English to describe events that happened, to say the same thing in Spanish you could be using any of several indicative past tenses in Spanish, including compound tenses. These include the preterit, imperfect, past progressive, present perfect, and past perfect.

2. Think of the simple past in terms of preterit (preterite) and imperfect.

Talking about what happened in Spanish without using compound tenses is divided into the preterit indicative and the imperfect indicative. The simple preterit indicative in Spanish is used when you merely state what happened at a particular point and time, emphasizing that the event is over. The other non-compound tense used in Spanish to cover the basic past in English is the imperfect. In a nutshell, the imperfect tense describes one of two things: 1) what was going on or what was happening at the time, and 2) the repetitive, cyclical past, describing the way things were or how things used to be. The speaker’s emphasis is on the middle, or the process while the event was happening.

3. Concentrate on the preterit first.

The preterit emphasizes the start and finish of an action: The class began, the movie ended, the practice session wrapped up. It is also used when you list items in a series that occurred in the past: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” In addition, you would use the preterit to ask and answer any of these questions:

  • What happened here?
  • Who closed the door?
  • When did the movie end?
  • What did you say (at a specific point and time)?
  • What did you do (at a specific point and time)?


To find out two more tips in the second part of this Beginner’s Guide: The Best Way to Learn the Past Tense in Spanish, read Part II.

Meanwhile, don’t forget: The best way to learn Spanish is to participating in a language immersion program in a leading Spanish academy like CRLA. For more information on how you improve your Spanish at Costa Rica’s leading Spanish immersion school, please contact us.