While memorizing vocabulary is not the end-all and be-all of language learning, it constitutes a huge chunk of the work you will be doing. After all, you’ll need to build up a huge reserve of the different words used in the language if you’re going to interact using it.
Assuming you’re an English speaker, then you’re in an enviable position when it comes to learning Spanish: the two languages share a lot of vocabulary items in common, making it just a bit easier to build up your stock. Spanish is a direct descendant of Latin, after all, which also happens to be the source for many English words.
Cognates (words that are similar and have a common origin) are common in the two languages, so some words you already know in English will also end up being useful to you in Spanish. However, you will need to watch out — language evolves and words that started out as cognates in English and Spanish may have turned into something else entirely over time. As a rule, don’t assume a word that looks like a cognate you encounter in Spanish automatically means the same thing in English. Check you dictionary (or whatever resource you’re using) to be sure.
Want to quickly boost your vocabulary stock? Then look for cognates. Some materials will cover them exclusively as a chapter, so you can quickly add dozens of new yet familiar words to your Spanish vocabulary.
Memorizing words one by one is rarely the most enjoyable way to build up your vocabulary. However, it’s how many of us have gotten by in school and if you’re used to it (i.e. it works for you) then it’s just as good a way as any to build up your vocabulary.
A big caveat, though: when you memorize a bunch of words for the sake of memorizing them, they rarely stick. Most of the time, memorizing works better when you use the vocabulary item. In school, for instance, you memorize something and get tested on it, effectively requiring you to apply what you’ve committed to memory. With vocabulary items, try to memorize one word and then apply it immediately, by constructing sentences using it or some other real-world application. As a minimum, try to use it three times either in actual or practice conversations — often, that’s enough to get it to stick.
Many people have developed different techniques to help them memorize vocabulary. Here are some we recommend:
1. Memorizing related words together. Grouping words adds context that makes them easier to remember. That’s why many instructors teach new words this way: for instance, they’ll teach students the words for parts of a face (eyes, ears, nose, etc.) at the same time.
2. Word a day. Sure, this isn’t the fastest way to memorize either, but it’s very effective. One new word everyday keeps things very manageable, with just one word to commit to memory and an entire day to find opportunities to use it.
3. Learn what you’ll use. Identify which words you’re likely to need and learn those first. If you’re in a Spanish-speaking country, for instance, and are planning a trip to the market, then it will be smart to learn words and phrases that you will be using while there. Inquiring about the price of items, asking for markdowns and asking for where a specific item can be bought will likely be very useful to you, so learn those instead of anything else. When you study what you’ll use, it becomes easier to imagine applying the vocabulary items, as their usefulness is immediately tangible.
4. Learn the use of suffixes and prefixes early on. Doing this allows you to expand your repertoire of vocabulary items even with a limited amount of words in your arsenal. Prefixes in Spanish are particularly easy, since a lot of them are similar to what we use in English. When you learn a new word then, try to learn the different prefixes and suffixes that can be used with each. This will allow you to add a lot of depth to your speaking without a lot of memorizing necessary.
5. Use new vocabulary items in your head. You know how you’re told to “think” in the target language? Yes, that’s one of the most important things you can integrate in your language learning toolbox. In vocabulary building, you can use this tool by mentally using the new vocabulary items you learn and integrating them into your internal dialogue. Chances are, you’re already entertaining thousands of these in-your-head talks everyday — doing this merely directs it in a conscious manner.
Choosing Words To Learn
Don’t pick up a dictionary and memorize it cover to cover — that’s just being silly. Instead, rely on your materials to choose which words to learn first. If you’re not using a book or a software, then use the technique above of grouping related words together.
We also suggest picking up a newspaper in the target language (many should be available online) and using them to find new words to learn. Most news articles are written with common language — the same type people will be using in normal conversation. Any time you encounter a new word, look it up and do whatever techniques you use to commit it to memory.
How Many Vocabulary Items?
Something almost all learners want to know is how many words they need to commit to memory before being functional in a language. The answer, in all honesty, is always the same: it depends.
What do you want to do with the language? If all you need is to survive a week in Spain that’s mostly spent relaxing by the poolside in a resort hotel, you can probably get away with a minimum amount of vocabulary, along with a little knowledge of basic grammar and sentence construction. Heck, if you never leave the hotel, you may need no Spanish whatsoever.