Students learn early on that phrases do not literally translate from one language to another. In English, the prepositional phrase is “to think about,” but the prepositional phrase is “pensar en” in Spanish. While this takes time to memorize and get used to, students are often able to accept it. There is another aspect of language that does not translate exactly and it can be harder to grasp; I am referring to using tenses. Students learn how to conjugate the tenses and their equivalent in English, but students also need to learn to be flexible and understand how to use the tenses.
Present Tense and Present Progressive
In English, the present tense (“I read the book”) and the present progressive tense (“I am reading the book”) are used in very specific situations. It is very clear to native speakers when to use the present and when the present progressive absolutely must be used. In Spanish, the present tense (I read/Yo leo) can also be interpreted as the present progressive, so “Yo leo” can either be said as “I read” or “I am reading.” There is a progressive tense is Spanish that is composed of estar and gerund, so “I am reading” would be expressed as “Yo estoy leyendo.” The present progressive is not used as frequently is Spanish because it is understood that the present tense also works as the progressive tense based on the context. If a mother calls for her daughter to come to dinner in Spanish, the daughter would say “Voy” to let her mother know she is going to head to the kitchen. It is more appropriate to use the present rather than the present progressive in that situation (“Yo estoy yendo”). Of course, you should not be deterred from ever using the progressive tense! If you are studying at the very moment someone asks you what you are doing, you can say “Estoy estudiando para un examen." These conventions apply to the past tense as well. Understanding this will help you learn that in the imperfect tense, you do not need to use the progressive tense to have a statement translate as a progressive one. You can state that a baby was crying by saying “El bebé lloraba” or "El bebé estaba llorando."
Conditional and Future
The use of the conditional and future tenses can be similar to their usage in English, but they do differ in some regards. The conditional tense does mean “could/would” and it is used the way it is used in English. “Si tuviera más dinero, iría a México---If I had more money, I would go to México.” The way the conditional tense differs is that it is not used to speculate about the present. In English, we ask, “Where could Edward Snowden be right now?” In Spanish, the future tense is used to speculate about the present. The question would be stated as “¿Dónde estará Edward Snowden?” The future tense is also used quite similarly because it expresses what will happen in the future. “Ellos vendrán el mes que viene” means “They will come next month.” The difference between English and Spanish is that the future tense in Spanish is not used when the future event is very soon. If you want to know if your friend is going to call you soon, you can ask your friend, “¿Me llamas?” to mean “Will you call me?” because it is implied that your friend will call you in the near future. When we want to be polite in English, we use the future tense. We ask the waiter, “Will you please bring us the bill?” We do this subconsciously and it is so engrained that it is hard to understand how “¿Nos trae usted la cuenta por favor?” translates as “Will you please bring us the bill?” even though it is said in the present tense. In Spanish, there is no need to use the future tense to sound polite; this is a convention that English uses and it does not make sense in Spanish.
Understanding how to use tenses correctly will come with exposure and time. Take note when you read or hear tenses used in a context to help give you examples.