Teaching Idioms with Tener in Spanish

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Being or Having… English or Spanish?

It seems that English and Hamlet were made for each other – one is this or that. When working between English and Spanish, to be or to have is the question!

There are a number of English expressions that require the be verb but that in Spanish require the verb tener. The good news is that learners can treat these differences as if they were lexical (i.e., vocabulary) items.

The majority of these differences are usually presented at an early stage in one’s study of Spanish, but they often do not “stick.” The way to make them stick is to have students use them often to express themselves orally. Since most of these expressions have to do with sensations and needs, it is easy to engage them, whether in an early morning class (¿Tienes sueño?) or near lunch (¿Tienes hambre?) or nearly any time of day (¿Tienes sed?; ¿Tienes ganas de ir a casa?).

Other uses of tener in idiomatic expressions include tener años, frío, calor…. even pelos en la lengua.

The most effective way to fix these idioms in the minds of students is to ask warm-up questions at the beginning of class. This is an unobtrusive means of engaging in some seemingly innocent small talk. They seem to know they are on the spot, but if it doesn’t feel like a quiz, even shy students will often get involved.

Again, seeming innocence is a great technique at the outset of class, best done before some moment that defines the official beginning of class – such as calling roll. Ask about family: ¿Tienes hermanos?… leads to questions about how old they are, requiring them to use tener.

If your class is around lunch, making a few personal comments in Spanish about being hungry or thirsty can model the Spanish structure requiring tener and, when followed by a question, students often will recognize the structure they need and they will, like small children learning their native language, imitate your usage.When that happens, you know you have them on a natural learning track!


  • Author’s more than 20 years experience teaching and translating Spanish.