Spanish Vocabulary: How to Keep a Lifelong vocabulary

Your Spanish learning program should contain the basic amount of Spanish words.

Certainly after finishing it you’ll have to learn more and more words.

You’ve got to be ready to study and learn new words all your life – learn new ones and forget some old ones - unlike grammar rules which are usually learnt somewhere in the beginning and are usually harder to forget.

You’ve got to be ready to study new Spanish words wherever and whenever possible. It’s normal to remember those words you use extensively, and forget those ones you use just rarely or don’t use at all.

The good news is that a predominant part of the Spanish words are similar to their English equivalents, and that should not be a surprise since they have common origin – the old Latin language where most of the Western European languages come from.

Another good news is that those Spanish words which have nothing in common with the corresponding English words are both commonly used and nice sounding – so, you either learn them while meeting them high and low, or it’ll be easy for you to learn them by certain associations.

Knowing about 2000-2500 words guarantees that you’re able to understand more than 90% of the spoken Spanish, and be ready to communicate normally with native Spanish people. This amount is definitely not difficult to achieve, provided that you study every day.

Listening and speaking will help you a lot in expanding your vocabulary

Some proven techniques

Flash cards. To be honest I’ve rarely used flash cards in my life, probably because I’m too lazy. But most of my friends who are fluent of a language say they do perfect work.

Flash cards are pieces of paper on whose sides you write the same word – in Spanish on one side and in English on the other. You take one of the pieces, from example from your pocket, look at the word on one side and try to tell the word that is on the other side, then put it in the other pocket. Then take out the next piece out of the first pocket and so on. By such an exercise you enlarge and refresh both your Spanish-English and English-Spanish vocabulary.

Flash cards have one peculiarity. They are proven to work only within a short period of time, within a couple of minutes – for this reason these cards are called “flash”. Within a reasonable period – let’s say an hour – you could do the next session. Reviewing flash cards for longer period than a few minutes is exhausting and might get you both tired and bored. What is more, flash cards are not used for all the available vocabulary you have learnt, but just for a small part.

Vocabulary log-book – not very moving, yet proven strategy. When I was a child we were told at school that this is the best way to memorize your new words. I don’t consider it the best, since it reminds me too much of my school years when the language learning system was a disaster.

Anyway it is not bad to have all the words you collected since the very first day of your training, gathered in one place. Making reviews does not lack sense due to the fact that all the entries are chronologically written, and while reviewing the words, you bring all the lessons, dialogues and stories back to your mind, which is really a kind of contextual learning (see below). You might not believe me, but in my mind some words from various languages are still related to the story, to the lesson where I first met that word!

Association. That’s what David Fisher calls “awesome memory technique”. Association is a very effective way for learning words and phrases as long as you:

  • Have rich enough fantasy and associative mind.
  • Don’t apply it for any single word, since it’s a mind resource consuming process.

Association is suitable mostly for beginners because they still don’t have trained memory for words memorization and experience some problems being faced the huge amount of words they have to remember.

Moreover, applying association is very individual and depends on personality. Everyone can invent their own associations to learn words successfully.

Let’s give some examples of how association technique works:

-The Spanish word “trabajar” means “to work”. When I first met the word “trabajar”, it resembled me very much of “travel”. And very often people travel to get to work, it’s something normal nowadays.

-The word “esperanza” means “a hope”. I have always associated them with something between “expect” and “expert”.

And it’s not far from reality, when you have a problem you normally expect from an expert to suggest a solution. And all the time you are waiting your problem to be resolved, you are hoping, you have a hope.

-“Regalo” in Spanish means “a present”, “a gift”. Doesn’t “regalo” remind you of “regular” or “regularly”? Tell me then just one person who doesn’t like to get presents REGULARLY!

-The word “gastar” means “to spend”. To me “gastar” sound just like “guest”. And what do you do if you know you’ll have a guest this evening? You get your home ready for him, you buy drinks and prepare some tasty meals. What does all this mean? That you have to SPEND some money, so that you have a nice time together.

Contextual learning or learning words and phrases through constant listening and reading. This works for more effectively for intermediate, as a beginner usually learns words from their language course – at least during the first couple of weeks.

Many years ago, my English teachers would always tell me that the most effective way to learn new words was through whatever repetition – log-book, flash-cards, repetitive writing or just repeating them orally.

Much later, when I started studying languages by myself I found out that repeating a list of words for hours does not solve the whole problem.

Learning a word does not just mean to memorize it. It also means to know how to use it, to apply it successfully in practice.

I discovered that it’s most effective when you see a word, to search for its meaning (often it is possible just to guess it by the context, without any need of a dictionary!), think over it, and try to memorize by associating it with some word in your native language, that is close to your mind.

It’s ok if you forget it till next time you see it.

When you see the same word again in a context, you find its meaning again. This time the chances to memorize it are better.

If you forget it again – and you could forget it because you simply don’t use it, do see it and therefore don’t need it, that’s absolutely normal – the chances to keep it into your brain are even better.

The more often you see this word, the better you can memorize it. What is more, as you have memorized it not through repetition or by flash cards, but by meeting it in context, you not only keep it in your mind but will be able to apply it successfully. That’s what I call efficiency.

Some common advices:

-If you have a whole Spanish phrase to learn, learn it. Don’t split it into separate words.

-Avoid learning lists of words. Words are best learnt in a context – that is, in text telling an interesting story, in conversation, on the TV or the radio, in the newspaper or in the magazine while reading an interesting article.

-If you are getting words’ meaning from a Spanish-English dictionary, write down and then try to memorize only the meaning of the word in the context, that is, what it means in exactly this story, conversation, article and so on.

You’ll see that in a dictionary to a single word corresponds a whole list of words – it is natural, as often a word has multiple meanings.

-Don’t torture yourself by reviewing flash cards or your log-book for hours. You’d better review you old lessons, redo the exercises, play again the recordings, and then have some rest.

Then switch on the TV or the radio and try to discover all the Spanish words you have reviewed. Make your study variable and apply various forms of repetition, rather than spend hours doing the same thing.