The ideal Presentation of the Subjunctive Mood in Spanish to English Speaking Students
Michael S. Guzman
November 27th, 2016
It is strangely comforting to read the academic theories regarding the use of the subjunctive mood in Spanish and English. That particular topic often trips me up in my usage in Spanish, and presents a challenge when I teach. I focus on the teaching of youngsters, anywhere from Kindergarten to tenth grade. At the risk of sounding like an “old fogie” I believe that the study of the subjunctive mood is well placed toward the end of the basic grammatical sequence for students with L1 English. We all do best beginning with the familiar, and cognitively recognizing the subjunctive mood is not familiar to native English speakers. Remember that the concept of a conjugation is, itself, a novelty to most students who are acquiring a new language for the first time, as is the concept of a more formal version of the second person subjects. Once a foundation of familiarity is established, e.g., the ideas of conjugation, of a formal version of the second person, of variable word order, then it is time to take on the subjunctive. Students should see and use Spanish as a true mode of communication, just as Helen Keller had to realize that words have meaning that can express her thoughts. Once this relationship is established, students can take on more complicated challenges to their understanding of language.
Having stated that, I do believe that there are several special cases that could be introduced quite early on that allow for some introduction to subjunctive structures and situations without addressing the subjunctive mood as a whole. These are commands and special phrases: they are easy to teach, entertaining to use in class, and can cover a great deal of vocabulary. Since students need to grapple with the idea of formal/informal second person subjects and it is not a great leap to explain that there are two types of commands: formal and informal, and because the command does not fall into the conjugation chart, there is no need to explain exactly why it is diverges from that pattern. The endless opportunities to apply these words in regular practice will allow them to become familiar with them in little time:
Commands make wonderful exclamations, elements in a dialogue, classroom tools: ¡Tome, Ud.!, ¡Estudien!, ¡Vengan Uds.!
… and common phrases from Spanish can be peppered throughout class interactions:
¡No vengas con chorradas! Que tengas buen fin de semana.
The more focused children will soon see patterns, although there is no need to teach it explicitly for the time being.
Therefore, in my ideal classroom, the subjunctive is not being taught explicitly until the students are comfortable conjugating most verbs in the present, past (although aspect may not yet be entirely clear), and future. I go quite a bit further into my ideal approach to the subjunctive at the end of this essay, for those who are interested.*
As a teacher of a wide variety of children, and as a concrete thinker, I am drawn to formulaic patterns as a foundation, using the basic system as a life raft onto which students may climb when they are confused by the sea of nuances. Of course the beauty of language is in the way speakers and writers launch their ideas off of this foundation. Both Bull** and Bolinger provide the most comprehensive and logical approaches to the shades of the subjunctive, in my opinion. The possibilities should be corralled into clear categories, all of which defer to the idea of an action, be it real or imagined, desired or prohibited. Goldin theorized that the subjunctive can express an evaluation of an event to which it is linked by a preposition, and there needs to be a supposition that pushes the evaluation one way or the other: Es interesante que digas eso as opposed to Es seguro que lo perdió.
Once students are comfortable with the morphology of both tenses of the mood, and with the iron-clad situations of usage, it is important for students to see the subjunctive in use and to begin to recognize the extra-systemic uses and the potential for gray area, especially in Spanish language literature. For example, it would be fun to expose students to a section from El Quixote, just to allow them to get a taste:
¡Oh buen hermano mío, y quién supiera agora dónde estabas; que yo te fuera a buscar y a librar de tus trabajos, aunque fuera a costa de los míos! ¡Oh, quién llevara nuevas a nuestro viejo padre de que tenías vida, aunque estuvieras en las mazmorras más escondidas de Berbería; que de allí te sacaran sus riquezas, las de mi hermano y las mías!
—Cervantes,Miguel de, El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha, Cap. 42
This passage transmits the words of a nobleman whose brother has just returned from years of enemy captivity, and who declares what he wishes he could have done for his brother to save him, but couldn’t. Grammatically, the conditional would suffice for many of the verbs (Yo te habría ido a buscar), the author is stressing the pain and desperation that the brother is feeling. Despite the obvious factor that literature written in the seventeenth century was more formal overall, one should also be aware that Cervantes enjoyed using double-meanings, and may be distancing the speaker’s words from reality for other reasons.
Bull´s appreciation for the uses of the subjunctive clearly establishes the need for it. It enhances communication by adding implicit information about the opinions, preferences or concerns of the speaker, or about the degree realistic truth in expression. The example Abre el grifo y sale el agua, vs Abre el grifo para que salga el agua, delineates the difference between the description of a tool and the value of a tool: the faucet delivers water, in the first case, and we wanted the water, and the faucet helped us get it. Bolinger makes it clear that the subjunctive can be switched in and out depending on the speaker´s expectations: Creo….que su país no esté bien informado… Goldin reminds us that there is a range of value in an expression concerning its veracity, and the subjunctive allows us to express the speaker´s supposition of that variance: Esquiaríamos si nevara. The option of using the subjunctive offers the speaker a level of control over how the information is perceived.
According to Whitley (SEC), the examples of subjunctive morphology in English are so few and insignificant that they are not useful pedagogically as a comparison to its meaning and morphology in Spanish. I disagree. I believe that, anemic as they are, examples of the subjunctive in English are eye-openers for native English speakers, and we are fortunate that they exist. By pointing out expressions such as as it were or truth be told, the teacher immediately validates further discussion of the subjunctive mood. Beyond that, however, the comparison between English and Spanish mood does fall short: the relative rigidity of English verb syntax (not to say that choices are limited, but that word order is more strict) channels meaning and provides for any shift in mood in a subordinate clause using would (I wish you wouldn’t go) or should (I should think not) or a construction using an infinitive: We need you to stay. An interesting switch in English involves the use of an impersonal subject (1) as opposed to a personal (2) one in the independent clause in some cases, for example with advise.
- It is advisable that you leave immediately.
(2) I advise you to leave immediately.
The intricacies of the subjunctive moods in English and Spanish lack symmetry, and to play them off one another, if the goal is to teach the subjunctive mood to native English speakers efficiently, is cumbersome and impractical. It is far more useful to teach the subjunctive as the enhanced form of communication that it is. As a topic of advanced theory, on the other hand, it is interesting to corral the English structures that express this complexity and compare them to their Spanish counterparts. As we have seen in the reading, however, experts do not agree on exactly how to do this.
The morphology used to construct the Spanish subjunctive mood is, it itself, evidence that we are moving to another level, a different reality. Everything is switched, as if we were entering a parallel universe: everything is the same and different. It is important for students to be able to use the present, past, and, only superficially, the conditional tenses and aspects in the indicative mood before embarking on any formal treatment of the subjunctive. Any in-depth understanding of the subjunctive mood in Spanish will require that students take a good look at English first. In the present tense we use complex constructs that are considered quite formal: I work so that you might study is the most accurate expression that translates Yo trabajo para que tú estudies, however, this will often be expressed as : I work so that you can study. The focus of the meaning is on the work’s allowing for the study. In the more modern version in English, you can study puts the focus on the study with the assumption that it is actually happening. The segues well into the past tense: I worked so that you could study falls short, in my opinion, of relating the effort made to allow for the study. I worked so that you might study is, as before, a bit archaic, whereas I worked to allow you to study is probably just right. In English you need to add some umph to achieve equity.
The conditional with if is, in principle, quite easily transferred from English to Spanish: They would travel if they had money translates as: Ellos viajarían si tuvieran dinero. There is no question that they don’t have the money, so the use of the subjunctive in Spanish in the dependent clause is clear, and this is expressed in English using the past tense of have (even though it refers to the present). In the past tense, the otherwise simple morphology becomes complicated due to frequent usage and generations of errors. English speakers on the American continent tend to say: If they would have (instead of had) had the money, they would have traveled last summer, while Spanish speakers, at least in Spain, use a surprisingly symmetrical error : Si hubieran tenido tenido el dinero, hubieran (instead of habrían) viajado el verano pasado.
The theory of language must at all times brush up against the evolving usage by many large groups of people of different cultures that are widely divided geographically. This effect in modern times is not completely undermined, but in some ways enhanced, by lighting-paced internet communication. The complexity of each language empowers its speakers within each culture, and the subjunctive mood in Spanish offers its speakers a tool of expression that deals in temperatures of meaning in a way that English can address in a variety of ways, sometimes using a type of patchwork. Exactly why we choose our words from the web of possibilities continues to feed academics with sometimes opposing theories while it continues to bind the humans who perpetuate the systems.
Further thoughts on teaching the subjunctive….
In my ideal classroom, the subjunctive is not taught explicitly until the students are comfortable conjugating most verbs in the present, past (although aspect may not be entirely clear), and future.
Once it is time, I sincerely believe in beginning with the most simple explanation, the iron-clad systemic model, and building complexity from there. Also, it is important to cash in on any familiarity with the subjunctive that already exists. Thus, one could begin evoking the formal commands, which they memorized when learning the present tense:
¡Hable! Here, we used and -ER ending for an -AR verb. Why?
Abra la puerta…here we switched again, what is the pattern? Students are already familiar with the morphology of stem-changing verbs and first-person-irregulars, so, although there will be confused flareups for sure, for the most part that hurdle is behind you.
The first assignment would be to offer the class a text containing several formal commands: they are to identify and give the infinitive form of each one. Next, give them 4 minutes to look at the verbs and the infinitives and come up with an explanation of the morphology. Some students will have already been thinking of it, others will develop pieces of it on their own, and still others will be very curious by the end of the four minutes, and will be very attentive and grateful once is explained!
This is where you get the class teaching itself and together they see the new language as a puzzle that actually has final image, and each lesson adds a piece to the puzzle. You have sidestepped a great deal of the frustration often associated with language learning, and you have the students feeling capable of taking on the complex task that is ahead of them. Next, the morphology is explicitly laid out:
Start with the infinitive: Hablar
- Take the first person present tense form: hablo
- Remove the ending and keep the stem: habl
Now you have a “new stem”. (This extra step in finding the stem is only necessary because of some verbs.) As always, the key is to build on familiarity. Students understand the concept of a verb stem from their first experiences in conjugation. The next step is to conjugate the subjunctive stem. As a mental pushpin in the minds of the students, I always add the word que to the conjugation chart. The students themselves may or may not drop it, but the option is there:
-AR verbs: -ER/-IR verbs:
que yo hable etc que yo beba etc.
Stop here and put it to use. Have students go over the collection of phrases and sayings that they have heard “casually” in class without understanding the grammar to this point:
¡No vengas con charradas!
Dios te bendiga.
En martes ni te cases ni te embarques.
Que te vaya bien.
Que tengas buen fin de semana.
No hay mal que por bien no venga.
Here is your chance to present the sense of the subjunctive: what do these verbs have in common? They all describe something that perhaps shouldn’t happen, or perhaps we hope for, but in any case is not actually happening. The action is just an idea. You have started simple, and each lesson branches out from there, always basing the conjectures on as much genuine usage as possible. Here is where the methodological approach and the experiential approach intersect.
Since the first job is to make the morphology second-nature to the learners, we will apply the usage often and with ease, beginning with the most clearly orchestrated situations:
Mamá dice que tú…
No creo que Ernesto…
Yo quiero que nosotros…
Es importante que el gobierno…
Again, give lots of examples and have the class fill them in and then spend 4-5 minutes trying to find patterns. Students can write the patterns they find on the board or add to a list of notes on a bulletin board. The patterns they find should stay put for the following classes and each one should be supported or debunked as the subjunctive is practiced and new uses are explained.
This is a good time to re-visit the commands. Have students compare the various forms of the command to the subjunctive constructions and identify which follow the indicative and which adhere to subjunctive morphology. This discussion, alone, can touch on the very core of the “need” for a subjunctive: Why in the formal? Why always in the negative? If it is essentially the same command, how does the meaning vary? How many subjects are really involved?
It is crucial to offer a clear systemic option to students as a life raft to climb onto when they are confused. Several iron-clad uses of subjunctive should be put forth (a list from any textbook will do):
Es necesario que…, Está prohibido que.., Quizás…, Tal vez…, Para que…
One must pepper the examples with phrases using que that are clearly not subjunctives:
¡Que me voy!
Creo que el nuevo profesor es maravilloso.
Esto is lo que yo tengo.
Este libro que leo es interesante.
Then build on to the concrete cases such as doubt (No creo que venga el tío Ignacio a la fiesta.), suggestion (Es mejor que gane el candidato más experiencia.), time limits (Comeremos cuando llegues a casa.), desired characteristics (Busco un trabajador que sepa hablar idiomas), etc. (One realistic way to drill this last use is to find a list of job offers on the internet or in a newspaper, and have students transfer the list of requirements into sentences with two subjects.)
Continue to contrast with similar situations that do not require the subjunctive:
Voy a comprar el nuevo móvil que tiene G5.
Me voy a casar con una mujer que tiene m
Siempre comemos cuando Fernando llega a casa.
Los niños se quedan jugando hasta que empieza a llover
As soon as possible, students should start to create phrases, dialogues and texts using the subjunctive. Start by having them complete text or dialogue with gaps, and later initiate their own writing. Later, move into other verbal aspects in a natural manner, reminding students that it all works according to the same rules, it is just a matter of remembering which verb is being conjugated:
He pedido que me transfieran a una ciudad grande.
Espero que estés estudiando mucho.
The next step is to introduce the past subjunctive: this will pop up on its own as students create their own texts, and they will be eager to learn it so as not to be limited by the present tense. The good news is there are no new concepts: just alterations to the familiar steps:
Start with the infinitive: Hablar
- Find the third person plural form of the verb in the preterite: Hablaron
- Remove the -ON at the end. Hablar—
You now have a new stem. Conjugate with the same morphemes you used to conjugate the present subjunctive: Que yo hablara, etc.
In my classes, we study a song from the Sr. Wooly website called Los quehaceres, and this song drills two phrases using he following: tengo que and quisiera. So students are familiar at least with that form. The students have already covered the conditional in a very superficial way, so you don’t have to introduce that now. You can use it to launch the teaching of the past tense of the subjunctive mood:
Yo sería rico si tuviera mucho dinero.
Ella estaría en Florida si tuviera su mejor deseo.
** I refer throughout the essay to the theorists below as cited in Whitley, Stanley M, Spanish/English Contrasts, 2002: