Sometime during the first week of every semester, my Spanish students always ask me if they have to learn the vosotros form for verb conjugations. No high school Spanish instructor seems to teach the vosotros form. Now that I think of it, Señor Mordini never made us learn the vosotros form at Divine Heart Seminary. And Señor Mordini was from Spain! I didn’t have to learn it in college either.
Now as a Spanish teacher myself, I find this truly amazing since there are more than forty million Spanish speakers who use the vosotros form. If you’ve ever watched Penelope Cruz movies, surely you’ve noticed that her character always calls her friends and acquaintances vosotros. So for the sake of Spanish cinema fans, I always teach the vosotros form even if the students won’t be tested on it. Every Spanish student should at least recognize the vosotros form when they hear or read it so they’re not totally lost. Like I was in the days of my youth.
When I was a boy, our family often went to mass in Spanish. Jesus, Jesucristo in Spanish, always spoke to his apostles using the vosotros form. I was puzzled by what he was saying when he did. For example, Jesus told his apostles, “No penséis que he venido para traer paz a la tierra” on one occasion, and on another, “Id por todo el mundo y predicad el evangelio a toda criatura,” which confused me. I asked my father what Jesus had told his apostles and my father explained to me that in Spain they used the vosotros form. I found it hard to believe that Jesus had ever been to Spain! But I didn’t dare question my father.
So what exactly does vosotros mean? It means “you” plural. When you translate “you” into Spanish, you choose from tú, vos, vosotros, vosotras, usted, or ustedes. In Spanish, you must also choose between the formal and the familiar. If you are speaking to someone you don’t know personally or they are in a position of authority over you, you must call him, her, or them usted or ustedes. Family members, friends, or acquaintances whom you know well you call tú. If there are more than one tú, you are supposed to use vosotros or vosotras. However, in the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America, everyone uses ustedes instead of vosotros(as). So, if I’m speaking to my cousins or my friends, I call them ustedes instead of vosotros, as they would do in Spain.
So, ustedes could be used for both formal and familiar situations. Sometimes, this results in absurd situations. For example, people who own a cat will call it tú. If they own more than one cat, they call them ustedes when vosotros would be more appropriate in this situation. Someone from Spain will laugh if they hear you calling your pets ustedes!