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In a book, I've read a recommendation, that it is possible to limit the variety of verb forms used in spoken speech to:

  • preterite (estudié)
  • imperfect (estudiaba)
  • present (estudio)
  • phrasal verb constructions like "voy a estudiar" for future.

For irreal situations, wishes and conditionals one would use additional adverbs such as "probablemente". Perfect tense (he oído, etc.) is not necessary, as it is not so widely used in Latin American Spanish.

At the moment, I have to be able to speak as soon as possible, so I have to prioritize the most essential forms I really need.
Would you agree with the above list of tense forms or could there be other considerations?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Charlie Sep 23 '19 at 5:53
  • I think this is an "opinion based" type of question (off-topic) but I don't think there is a way to prioritize a language learning. You learn a language like kids do. i.e. At first you don't know the irregular verbs so you make mistakes using them but people will understand you or make fun of you or both. To be able to speak asap you just have to spend more time studying and practicing but I don't think postponing subjects is the way to go. – DGaleano Sep 23 '19 at 15:16
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I kind of agree that, if we only care about effective communication using valid Spanish (and not about actually speaking good Spanish), the number of tenses can be greatly reduced.
Mind you: doing so will obviously slightly change the tone and nuances and other small details of what you are saying, but you will be understood nonetheless.

If I had to say which tenses... No wait, in fact I have to, right? That's the point of the question.

Non-finite forms

Impersonal or non-finite forms are like basic building blocks. You need them to form compound tenses and phrasal verbs. You can't do much without them.

  • Infinitive, gerund, (past) participle → must learn

Technically, if you only care about effective communication, you could stop here and just speak like a Hollywood Indian:

Peter Pan es un valiente guerrero. Ayer salvó a Tigrilla e hizo al Gran Jefe feliz. Mañana se casará con Tigrilla. → Peter Pan. Valiente guerrero. Ayer salvar Tigrilla. Hacer Gran Jefe feliz. Mañana casar con Tigrilla.

But that'd be going too far in our quest for simplification, IMHO (and probably embarrassing to you and to anybody listening).

Indicative

Indicative is the mood used to talk about the real world. Things you do or did or will do; events in the past, present or future. You need to learn at least the simplest tenses: it will make it easier for people to understand you, it will make your speech sound more natural, and they're needed to replace more complex tenses and moods.

  • Simple tenses

    • Presentmust learn.
    • Imperfectmust learn. When using action verbs (correr, saltar, subir...), imperfect of those verbs can be replaced with imperfect of estar + gerund; still need to learn it for situations when action verbs are used for facts rather than actions, for any other verbs, and to replace the conditional, too.

      La niña corría hacia la tienda. → La niña estaba corriendo hacia la tienda.
      Me caí cuando subía por las escaleras. → Me caí cuando estaba subiendo por las escaleras.
      El autobús no pasaba por mi barrio. → ❌El autobús no estaba pasando por mi barrio.
      Juan tenía 200 pesos en su bolsillo. → ❌Juan estaba teniendo 200 pesos en su bolsillo.
      Lucía sabía la respuesta. → ❌Lucía estaba sabiendo la respuesta.

    • Preteritemust learn.

    • Future → can be replaced with present + infinitive, or just present (adverbs help here). Actually there's some debate on whether the future tense is bound to disappear.

      Mañana cenaré con Noa. → Mañana voy a cenar con Noa.
      Mañana cenaré con Noa. → Mañana ceno con Noa.

  • Compound tenses

    • Present perfect → can be replaced with preterite.

      He ido a comprar. → Fui a comprar.
      Este mes ha llovido mucho. → Este mes llovió mucho.

    • Past perfectgood to learn. Often times it can be replaced with preterite; other times with estar/llevar + gerund/infinitive. Some other times you might need to discard the main verb entirely and use some alternative form; it may be easier to just learn the tense.

      ¿El libro no lo habías cogido tú? → ¿El libro no lo cogiste tú?
      A las 10, la obra había terminado. → A las 10, la obra estaba terminada.
      Cuando llegué, habían hecho una gran parte del trabajo. → Cuando llegué, llevaban hecha una gran parte del trabajo.
      Había esperado varias horas antes de entrar. → Estuve esperando varias horas antes de entrar.
      Todavía no había empezado a comer. → Todavía no estaba comiendo.
      Ya había conseguido el pase. → Ya tenía el pase.

    • Past anterior → can be replaced with preterite.

      Cuando hubieron llegado todos, empezó la ceremonia. → Cuando llegaron todos, empezó la ceremonia.
      Apenas María hubo terminado la canción, su padre entró. → Apenas María terminó la canción, su padre entró.

    • Future perfect → the auxiliar verb can be replaced with present ir a + haber.

      Cuando venga, ya habrá terminado. → Cuando venga, ya va a haber terminado.

Imperative

The imperative mood is used to give orders and commands. However, given that current social norms favor politeness, this mood is seldom needed, as there are "nicer" ways of telling other people to do things. It has only one tense and it can be easily replaced.

  • Present → can be replaced with present ind. (by turning it into a request or by throwing some adverbs into the mix), or even with just an adverb, in some cases.

    Recoge eso. → ¿Puedes recoger eso?
    Vete a tu habitación. → Ahora te vas a tu habitación.
    Salid de ahí. → Fuera de ahí.
    ¡Cállense! → ¡Silencio!

Subjunctive

Used for wishes, emotions, alternative possibilities... When talking about hypothetical "if ..., then ..." scenarios, subjunctive is used to talk about the "if" part. Also used in subordinate clauses. Spanish uses it a lot more than English does, so you will need to learn at least the simple tenses.

  • Simple tenses

    • Presentmust learn. It's used in many different ways (possibilities, negative commands, subordinated sentences...) and each way has a different possible replacement and it's just easier to learn the tense.
    • Imperfectgood to learn. Like present sub., possible replacements are varied enough depending on context to merit learning the tense. Also, it is necessary as a replacement for present perfect sub. That being said... Can be replaced with present ind., by itself or using helpers like "alguna vez" or "en un futuro". Sometimes, infinitive might do for subordinate clauses.

      Quisiera un poco de agua. → Quiero un poco de agua, por favor.
      Si tuviera/tuviese dinero, ... → Si alguna vez tengo dinero, ...
      Le dije que corriera/corriese rápido. → Le dije**: corre** rápido. / Le dije de correr rápido.
      No hizo falta que gritara/gritase. → No me hizo falta gritar.

  • Compound tenses

    • Present perfect → can be replaced with present sub. or present perfect sub.

      Me alegra que me hayas llamado. → Me alegra que me llames. / Me alegra que me llamaras/llamases.
      No se espera que me haya leído el informe. → No se espera que me leyera/leyese el informe.
      Cuando haya llegado, salúdale. → Cuando llegue, salúdale.

    • Pluperfect → can many times be replaced with present ind. of llegar a + infinitive, or just present ind. There are also some cases where natives use pluperfect sub. where conditional should be used; those can be replaced with present as explained below for Conditional.

      Si hubiera sabido lo que iba a pasar... → Si llego a saber lo que iba a pasar...
      ... no hubiera venido a la fiesta. → ... no habría venido a la fiesta. → ... no vengo a la fiesta.
      Si hubiera tenido la oportunidad, ... → Si tiene la oportunidad...

  • Future (both simple and compound) → The future tenses of subjunctive mood are not used in modern language (save for legalese). Just ignore them.

Conditional

Conditional is not a mood, but a tense. When I was a kid, it was taught as one of the indicative tenses; nowadays there seems to be some debate about that classification, so I just put it here.
When talking about hypothetical "if ..., then ..." scenarios, conditional is used to talk about the "then" part. It is also used in courtesy formulas.

  • Simple conditional → can be replaced with present for requests/courtesy (adding a courtesy formula like por favor to compensate for the rudeness of using present tense), and with imperfect (or imperfect + infinitive) for most anything else.

    Querría un vaso de agua. → Quiero un vaso de agua, por favor.
    ¿Podría darme eso? → ¿Puede darme eso, por favor?
    Si tuviera dinero, viajaría a Sudamérica. → Si tuviera dinero, viajaba a Sudamérica.
    Yo que tú, lo olvidaría. → Yo que tú, lo olvidaba.
    De pequeño, pensaba que sería médico → De pequeño, pensaba que iba a ser médico.

  • Compound conditional → can be replaced with present, as long as you also replace the bounded subjunctive as explained above. Bonus: doing so clears the confusion between 1st and 3rd person habría.

    (1st) Si hubiera tenido ocasión, se lo habría dicho. → Si llego a tener ocasión, se lo digo.
    (3rd) Si hubiera tenido ocasión, se lo habría dicho. → Si llega a tener ocasión, se lo dice.
    Él no habría respondido así si tú no le hubieras insultado. → Él no responde así si tú no le insultas.


There may be some cases where the above replacements just won't work and you will have to get creative (like e.g. "No me hubiera gustado estar en su lugar" → "No me habría gustado estar en su lugar" → ...? → "Mejor no haber estado en su lugar"), but for the rest 95% they are enough.

TL;DR

  • Tenses you cannot avoid: present, imperfect and preterite of the indicative mood; and present of the subjunctive mood.
  • Tenses that will make your life easier: past perfect of the indicative mood, and imperfect of the subjunctive mood.
  • Tenses you can survive without: future tenses, conditional tenses, any other compound tenses, and the whole imperative mood.
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Your list is pretty good. I'd add the conditional because it's so easy to learn, and having it in your repertoire would expand the type of communication that would make your listener identify with you. (But then once you've got the conditional it will take another two minutes to add the future.)

Certainly you can do without the progressives in the beginning, and eliminating them would help you avoid falling in the overuse of progressives that is common to beginning Spanish learners.

It seems a shame to eliminate the perfect tenses, if your native language has them, e.g. English, French, German, since the work needed isn't significant, in terms of knowing when to use it and being able to conjugate the auxiliary and form the past participle. The Spanish perfect is so much easier than the French and German because you don't have to wrestle with making the right choice of two possible auxiliaries.

It is hard to make good determinations of what you need and don't need at this stage, because you didn't specify your target audience, the subject matter, how you plan to express the informal you plural (ustedes vs. vosotros), or how important it will be for you to understand what people are saying to you. You might need the imperative but I'm not sure. Communication in a graduate seminar is so different from family life, e.g. taking a nephew on a walk to the park, where the imperative would be imperative!

The tense that will take a little more time to learn about is the subjunctive, but I would not postpone that too long because it permeates the language. If you have some awareness of it, you may be able to start noticing it when it happens, even if you can't use it yourself yet.

I personally think the best way to learn a language is with someone giving you certain helpful hand signals, as prompts and as aids in listening comprehension. For example, with beginners, a teacher can set up a timeline against their body. The present is just in front of the body, the future is more in front, the recent past is just over the shoulder, and the distant past is more emphatically behind the body. In a similar vein, let's say you don't need the timeline any more. If I imagine you in an intermediate class having skipped over some prerequisite course, it would be great if the teacher or a student buddy would give you special signals to indicate what tense is being used by whoever is speaking. Which tenses need these signals depends on what is challenging for you. One signal could be for the subjunctive, for example. Or maybe you'd like a special signal whenever an irregular verb is being used.

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  • As for "informal you plural ", I don't think I will ever get to use it in the classroom. Speaking of prerequisites, I had been learning Spanish in an advanced group half a year ago, albeit low intensity.Topics covered included future, futuro compuesto and (partially) even imperatives. Subjunctive was not directly taught, but mentioned, so I will be able to identify it when I encounter it. Actually, I guess I could use Futuro right ahead, but I would like to prioritze flawless usage of the most basic forms instead. On a side note, I've been curious about simplifying languages before. – Dan Sep 22 '19 at 17:41
  • As for conditional and Perfecto, they probably are easy to learn, if taken isolated, in vacuum to so speak, but not simultaneously with all the irregular verb forms in Present and Indefinido one cannot do without... – Dan Sep 22 '19 at 17:42
  • @Dan - Regarding perfect tenses: it's not hard to learn the past participle; then you learn to conjugate the verb haber which one tends not to use outside the context of a perfect tense. Present perfect goes like this: he hablado, has hablado, han hablado, hemos hablado, han hablado. Past perfect: había hablado, habías hablado, etc. Do you see what I mean? It builds on what you already know. // It sounds so funny that an "advanced" class would only mention subjunctive. // At your level I recommend avoiding future. That is a tense that beginners tend to overuse. You are right... – aparente001 Sep 22 '19 at 23:26
  • ... to stick with voy a ver to express future actions. // I have no idea what your classroom activities, exercises and dynamics are, how much interaction with others there is, and how structured the interaction is. When I was a language teacher I was trained to elicit a variety of tenses from students. For example, I'd tell a student, Pregunta a David y Lee si tienen hermanos. The student was then forced to use the informal plural you. – aparente001 Sep 22 '19 at 23:28
  • ""advanced" class would only mention subjunctive" - well it did in fact consider it in detail, but I wasn't there. As for past participles, there are a lot of exceptions, "abierto", "visto", "vuelto" etc. Of course I could use "he volvado", but that would be worse than using "Volví" - the latter being somewhat "correct" in Latin America. The teacher so far would sometimes suggest a topic and has us comment on it, or asks us a question. There are not so many dialogues between the participants. – Dan Sep 22 '19 at 23:33

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