¿Polly quiere una galleta? (Polly wants a cracker?)
If parrots can learn Spanish vocabulary, so can you!
But we’re going to get you way beyond parrot-level, and into having a 1,000-word vocabulary or better—fast.
Since you’re reading about building up your vocabulary, it’s now time to ask yourself how many words you actually know. How many can you remember at the drop of a hat, or whip out casually in conversation on a whim?
Many people have the basics of Spanish down, but when it comes to actually using it, they find themselves at a loss for words. That’s because new Spanish learners too often make the mistake of focusing on the grammar and not enough on vocabulary.
Knowing the proper grammar in Spanish is good and all that, but what’s the point if you don’t have a large enough word bank to use it with? Luckily for you, your brain has a much larger capacity for learning words than a parrot’s. So, don’t be a bird brain!
Here are some strategies you can use to instantly increase your vocabulary!
The 10 Secrets to Learning Spanish Vocabulary in No Time
1. Embrace What You Already Know.
One of the most important steps to learning anything efficiently is realizing what you already know, then building on it.
Since you already know these words, learning what they mean is an easy way to expand your vocabulary instantly. So, what exactly might you already know in Spanish?
In your everyday life, you may not even have realized just how much Spanish you’ve been exposed to. It’s everywhere. Just think of all the restaurants, foods, slogans and other Spanish that you’ve naturally become familiar with. Driving down the street, you might have come to know the restaurant El Pollo Loco, which is actually Spanish for “the crazy chicken.”
You may have coworkers, friends and family with last names of Spanish origin, so try seeing what those mean. For example, the last name Castillo is Spanish for “castle,” and the last name Guerra is Spanish for “war.”
If you live in the US, state names are a great place to start since they’re all already familiar. Maybe the name of your own home state originally came from Spanish and can be harnessed for learning. For example, Nevada translates to “snow-covered” and Colorado to “colored“ or “colored red.”
So, it turns out there’s way more Spanish in your daily life than you may have noticed.
Next, you can see how many loan words you know. A loan word is a word that was passed from one language to another with very slight, if any, changes. Llama, iguana and mosquito are just a few of the many that are used in English but were loaned from Spanish.
Pronto, which means “quickly,” and cafetería, which means “coffee store,” are others you may even use on a daily basis. Once you pick them out, loan words should be a breeze to remember.
Lastly, we have cognates, which are words in different languages that look and sound very similar.
In Spanish, most English words that end in -al and -ble won’t be any different, and most English words ending in -tion will simply change to -ción in Spanish.
natural — natural
national — nacional
terrible — terrible
horrible — horrible
habitation — habitación
manifestation — manifestación
While this makes it much easier, beware of false cognates to spare yourself some potentially awkward moments. False cognates are words that look very similar from one language to another, but actually mean something entirely different.
molestar — to annoy
asistir — to attend
So, if finding the Spanish naturally works for you, try to ease some more into your life.
If you don’t already, go to Spanish restaurants where much of the language is in use. On the menu, they’ll surely have things like salsa (sauce), queso (cheese) and carne asada (roasted meat).
Maybe even take a look around your house. On many things, such as shampoo bottles and foods, Spanish ingredient lists, instructions and advertisements are provided on their labels. Some appliances even come with instructions also written in Spanish for you to skim through.
So, even if you loathe reading instructions and playing by the rules, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to read the instructions for once. It’ll be our little secret.
2. Actually Make and Use Flashcards, for Crying Out Loud.
Everyone recommends flashcards for language learning, but I’m willing to bet you’ve skimmed lists of tips and strategies, seen “flashcards,” nodded your head and moved right along, never to make a single card.
I know, flashcards sound like a lot of work—they sound so high school, so old-fashioned, but they’re really an easy and efficient way to learn vocabulary.
Of course, they can be done the old-fashioned way with some index cards, a Spanish dictionary and your hand. But if you’re one of those who considers pencil and paper as stuff once used by the ancients, there are plenty of modern tools available to help you in this department.
There are software, online programs and apps specially designed to ensure that you get the most from your time spent creating and studying flashcards. Anki is one of the more popular flashcard programs, which has special extras like timers, multimedia options and the ability to synchronize with multiple devices, all to make learning as easy as possible for you.
The hardest part—which isn’t even that hard—is coming up with the words you need to learn. For best results, first think of the English words you use most frequently and make a list of them.
Then, add in some words that are relevant to you, like things that you see and discuss on a daily basis. Most people say you don’t know a language until you can think in it, and learning the words you use the most will help you get to thinking in Spanish all the more quickly. For example, you could focus on things you encounter most often at home, at work, on your commute, while shopping and while doing errands.
Once you have this list, put the words into your flashcard decks, and start by keeping them separated thematically. It’s highly recommended to learn words that are related to each other, rather than just random words in a hodgepodge.
One week, you’ll pick kitchenware as a topic. You’ll learn how to say everything that you’d find in a kitchen, such as cucharas (spoons), platos (plates) and un horno (an oven), and may even want to throw in some verbs you do in the kitchen, such as cocinar (to cook). After you’ve got all of those words down, you’ll pick a new topic and keep going!
3. Put Your New Spanish Words into Action.
After spending some time getting all of the words you know together, it’s important to start putting them into action. Only knowing individual words that you learned from studying makes it easy for them to get lost in your brain.
Try to learn and use some words in context. Starting to read and hear words in sentences and forming them yourself as early as possible will help guide you to fluency all the more quickly. There’s once catch—how the heck can you predict which texts and videos will use your chosen vocabulary?
Sure, you could try choosing texts and videos that are somehow related to your thematic area of vocabulary study, but even that’s really just a shot in the dark.
Fortunately, FluentU has taken the liberty of putting the web’s best, most authentic Spanish-language resources in one place.
Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the Spanish language and culture over time. You’ll learn Spanish as it’s actually spoken by real people.
FluentU has a wide variety of videos topics, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive transcripts. You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used.
Plus, if you see an interesting word you don’t know, you can add it to a vocab list.
Review a complete interactive transcript under the Dialogue tab, and find words and phrases listed under Vocab.
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s robust learning engine. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning, and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. Every learner has a truly personalized experience, even if they’re studying with the same video.
FluentU lets you hear your target words in use by natural Spanish speakers. Listen to how the vocabulary are used, then follow the example to use them yourself.
4. Set Yourself Some Personal Spanish Vocabulary Goals.
All right, so you’ve started working with all these great vocabulary strategies. How do you keep the magic going?
How do you stick with learning Spanish vocabulary over the long haul?
As with anything, not having a plan or goal will make it much harder to stay motivated and committed. If you really want to build up your vocabulary bank, think of your schedule and come up with a practical number of words that you’re capable of learning every week.
Since you’re setting your own goals, you know you’re capable of achieving them. This time, you get to be your own professor. Be sure to give yourself adequate time to study and quiz yourself at the end of each week.
And since you’re your own professor, why not be a fun-loving one? If you do well, reward yourself with the oh-so-educational field trip of getting a plate of nachos and jug of sangria at the nearest restaurante.
5. Utilize Ready-made Vocabulary Lists.
Vocabulary lists are a wonderful option to learn Spanish vocabulary, but creating our own lists can be time-consuming and tedious.
Fortunately, the internet is a gold mine full of ready-made lists that’ll save you tons of time.
You can find literally hundreds of thousands of vocabulary lists online. Some are classified by level, others by topic, others by word classes… But they’re all equally helpful.
I’ve selected six resources where you can find lots of ready-made vocabulary lists. Each of them is unique in its own way, so feel free to use as many as you want:
In Lingolex, you’ll find many Spanish topics divided into six levels (from beginner to advanced). Some of the topics that are included are colors, family, daily routines, animals and personality, just to name a few.
When it comes to learning vocabulary, FluentU has you covered. Thanks to the program’s comprehensive flashcard system, you’ll get ready-made vocabulary lists related to the videos you’re watching, which makes the learning experience totally personalized.
Besides, these interactive flashcards show you not only the translation of the word, but also all the grammar related to it, sample sentences with audio and related videos. An all-you-can-learn vocabulary buffet just one click away!
The perfect place for beginners to start their journey with vocabulary lists. The site contains 13 lists that cover basic Spanish vocabulary.
SpanishDict is a useful resource for a whole lot of reasons. When it comes to ready-made vocabulary lists, it offers hundreds of hours of study in an interactive, fun way. Don’t miss the 1,000-word lists for beginners, intermediate and advanced learners!
Dozens of lists divided by topic which you can listen to, learn and even watch as a slideshow. Just sit, grab a pencil and learn!
A great place to have a look at if you’re planning on going on a vacation to a Spanish-speaking country.
Dozens of lists divided by topic to learn everything from accessories to vehicles. I love the fact that all the masculine nouns are in blue, while all the feminine ones are in red.
6. Use Apps for Learning Spanish
Some of us love using physical books when we learn a new language, but learning on our laptop or smartphone is becoming more and more popular each year.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Learning online or with the help of apps is convenient, cheap and super fun.
There are thousands of apps for learning Spanish out there, but some are better than others.
Some features almost all of them have in common are:
- They let you learn when and where you want.
- They can be personalized, making learning much more engaging.
- They give you immediate feedback.
- They’re normally free or very cheap.
- They make learning fun. You spend more time learning, and that hopefully means you actually learn more.
I recommend using Duolingo, FluentU, Memrise, Busuu and MosaLingua from the post linked above. I have personally used each of them and, in my opinion, they’re the best the language learning app market has to offer right now.
Give FluentU a free try and learn with real-life videos in the most pleasant way possible. The interactive subtitles will blow your mind, and the flashcard system we mentioned earlier is out of this world!
7. Study Core Words
It’s been proven that you only need around 250-750 words in order to be able to have a conversation in Spanish.
Core words are basically a list of the words that are most often used in any given language. They’re at the heart of the language, and they’re so good at adapting themselves to different situations that a native person would be lost without them.
Learning the core words of Spanish may sound a little bit weird at the beginning. You have some numbers, but not all, some forms of the verbs ser and estar, but not all, an adjective and just a few nouns.
You may start learning them and wonder whether what you’re doing makes sense or not. It does!
How many times during the day do you say the word “the” in English? Probably thousands. That’s why “the” is a core word in English.
Now, how many times do you use the word oxygenation? Or dumbfounded? You probably spend days, if not weeks, without saying them. That’s why they’re not core words.
The frequency with which a word appears in our everyday conversations allows words to be at the core of the language. Learning the words we Spanish native-speakers used the most will give you an extra advantage because you’ll be learning words you’re actually going to be using.
Believe me, you’d rather say Juan tiene tres años (Juan is three years old) than El científico descubrió que la temperatura del agua no era correcta (The scientist discovered the temperature of the water was not correct), and that’s me not even using stranger words such as anticonstitucionalmente (unconstitutionally) or ornitorrinco (platypus).
8. Watch Videos That Utilize Your Vocabulary.
Sometimes reading and repeating the words isn’t enough. Being capable of comprehending them during conversations with natives is equally important.
When speaking the language, you’ll eventually be interacting with many different people who all have different speaking styles and speeds. This is something that’ll take time and practice to familiarize yourself with fully. Get started understanding natives right away, by using videos! As an added bonus while you’re practicing your listening skills, hearing Spanish vocabulary words in action will make it even easier to remember them.
To start, just pick your favorite movie and put on the Spanish subtitles (or, find clips and other videos on FluentU!). In a few hours, you’ll see thousands of Spanish words. So, when someone gives you a hard time for watching “Pulp Fiction” for the hundredth time, you can tell them, “hey, I’m studying.”
After that, you can watch things that are fully dubbed into Spanish, or even videos created by and for native speakers. The sky’s the limit!
So kick back, relax and “study.”
9. Read All the Short Stories You Can.
Reading short stories is a great way for beginners to learn vocabulary in context. They’re easy to follow and stay focused on. Not to mention, there are plenty of places to find short stories online.
You can start with children’s short stories that contain low-level vocabulary, and then you can move up at your own leisure to the higher levels.
E-Stories is one website that has quite a library of shorts in a variety of languages, including Spanish. There are countless readings available on the website from poetry and plays to stories, with various categories to choose from ranging from horror to satire. You’ll surely be able to find something that’s interesting as well as productive.
You can also get off the ground with the strategies and recommended short stories in this guide.
10. Get a Study Buddy.
The more the merrier, right? It’s true, especially when studying.
Most people like the idea of speaking a second language, but many give up before becoming fluent. One way to keep yourself on track is by finding someone who wants to learn Spanish as much as you do. Activities, sharing knowledge and quizzing each other will help both of you stay engaged, motivated and committed to learning.
Since Spanish is a popular language in the world that many people aspire to learn, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a good study buddy. You’ll likely find someone just by asking within your group of friends or colleagues.
And if not, check out the website Meetup. There are many online groups where you can meet like-minded people in your area to study with.
Getting a penpal isn’t a bad idea either. Having a native speaker to write back and forth with is very valuable for language learning. On the aforementioned website E-Stories, for instance, there used to be a section where international people can post to find a penpal from the country of their choice.
On the internet, these days you can seriously find anything. On a penpal site like InterPals, you can even be choosey with which Spanish-speaking country you want your penpal to be from.
So let’s have a short recap. What’s been on the list so far?
- Focus on Spanish you already know.
- Make flashcards—but for real this time.
- Watch tons of films and TV shows in Spanish.
- Make some new Spanish-speaking friends.
Sure, there are a few more things to remember, but all in all, that doesn’t sound too bad!
Now that you’ve got all of these new ideas brewing in your head, it’s time to make a plan for yourself. By using these ideas and maybe even a few more that you’ve come up with, Spanish words will be pouring out of your mouth in no time.
Contrary to popular belief, learning Spanish vocabulary can actually be fun, free and easy.
So, hop to it!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Spanish with real-world videos.