What's the best way to improve your Spanish vocabulary? ~ Learn Spanish language fast | free memory tricks | Spanish vocabulary lessons.
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Thursday, August 23, 2007

What's the best way to improve your Spanish vocabulary?


I've tried many things; some things work and others do not work so well. Usually if I hear the word or phrase spoken it sticks better than if something I read from a book and tried to memorize. Well, that's my personal opinion. What do real learners feel about this question? Here's a discussion.


I've heard that using a word 10 or 20 times will make it stick (some say 10 and others say 20). But it's not always easy work a word into a conversation and I don't always have the chance to speak to someone in Spanish. I read books, look up words if I can't tell the meaning by the context. I watch Spanish programs, mainly the news and soaps. I watch soaps to try to get the gist of the way people talk in a conversation.

I've tried witting new words, making flash cards and carrying them with me. I never know if this worked until I really need the word. When I work in different places that require me to learn different vocabulary words I tend to learn more. I worked awhile in security at a racetrack for horses. That built up my vocabulary for things that had to do with racing and horses, words like horseshoe, bridle, etc.

Working in the school system, I've learned more about things that have to do with children. Measles, mumps and chickenpox were words unfamiliar to me until I had to write notes to parents to make sure their children were vaccinated. Calificar was a verb I should have known before but it just never came up.

I would just like to build up my vocabulary without having to go into another profession to do so. Does anyone have any advice on this?

Response 1 There was an English vocabulary-building program (I think it was a feature in a long-ago magazine) whose slogan was: Use a word three times and it is yours. And I think that is the key — that's why your vocabulary increases when you are in certain environments, for there you don't just receive the words passively, but use them actively.

Since you may not often be in such environments, perhaps inventing sentences that contain the new words would help. Or maybe you could look for opportunities to use the new words, even if it means talking to yourself.

Response 2 I really don't think there are many "tricks." You basically have to slodge through the memory process. I have a German friend living here who has come to speak Spanish enough to get along very well. One of his tricks is, when he comes across a new word in conversation, he will use it two or three times within the next twenty minutes. Sometimes what he comes up with seems a bit forced, but I think it really helps him to plant" the word in his head. Of course, the larger your English vocabulary the easier it will be since you can find more cognates. And your vocabulary within the sphere of your professional or social life will always be much larger than your average vocabulary.

What I mean is, sitting here right now without thinking, I would have no idea how to say piston ring in Spanish (and I really don't care) simply because I have nothing to do with engines, except to use one to get around, on a day-to-day basis. But I suppose I could get around it if I had to by trying to describe it with vocabulary I do know, and eventually the mechanic will tell me what it is. But isn't that true of English also?

Response 3 I agree, thinking in Spanish and simultaneously translating it and using it all the time. I learned Portuguese because I wrote to about 20 people a day. When you write to 20 different people, just as if you were to talk to them, you'd be talking about a lot of different things and using a lot of different words, and thus increasingly your vocabulary without even thinking about it. What's really cool is the thing works.

Response 4 Another oldie-but-goodie idea: E-mail practice partners. I think that if you can find a Spanish-speaking English student whose English is on par with your Spanish and whose motivation and ability to commit time is similar to yours — for me that has worked as well as anything. My experience was that it wasn't as difficult to find someone like that for e-mail exchange as it was to find someone to practice with in person. If you can't find that situation, trying to keep a journal in Spanish might serve somewhat the same purpose.

Response 5 Reading is good too. But for building vocabulary, it is better to be reading from newspapers, magazines and literature (this can also give you cultural insights you don't get from textbooks). There is a lot of Spanish-language literature and there are a lot of Spanish language newspapers and magazines on line.

Response 6 I have a few pen pals that I write to. One in particular I have written to for about five years and he has helped me a great deal. Some of them are learning English and I can help them as well.

I would not have gotten as far as I have had it not been for these good people taking the time to help me. Sometimes there are things that they can't really answer, but just being able to write freely to them has been great. Not only have I learned a lot about Spanish but also about their country and culture.

Response 7 I really do believe in reading as a way of building vocabulary, although it must be done in conjunction with speaking the language to someone every now and then! I find that the more I read, the more when I get stuck trying to express something in spoken conversation, a phrase will spring to mind that I have read — perhaps in a slightly different context — in a newspaper or magazine. I have really stepped up my Spanish reading when it occurred to me that my English vocabulary is infinitely richer for all the reading I do. In the past I would be reluctant to spend money on reading material in Spanish because I was afraid the subjects would be too obscure or the vocabulary too hard. Now that there is so much free on the Internet, it is much easier to do!

Response 8 My advice is to keep a journal in the language you are trying to learn, put in all your days activities and also add a list of the words you learned that day with the native language translation and a sentence in both languages.

Response 9 It seems to me new vocabulary is good learned in sentences, but even better learned in stories or environments. Also, enhanced further by actual kinetic activity
doing or acting out the story or word you are learning. This is why i feel you learn so much through new jobs or trips.
So try acting out or doing the words as you learn them: Maybe try to learn food-words in the grocery, or while cooking. Translate the word, say garlic, then speak out loud (important: not in your head) a sentence describing what you are doing: I am cutting garlic. Every one will think you are crazy now, but a linguistic genius later.

Luckily I live in a major city, New York, with huge Spanish speaking communities, radio and TV. For those who don't and who can't take trips to immerse themselves in the language try this one: I help achieve a level of immersion at home by videotaping Spanish language television, especially news, soaps, a. k. a. diarios, and movies with the closed-caption feature turned on. I also rent Spanish language movies and turn on the English subtitles, then rent English-language movies and turn on the Spanish subtitles. I hunker in with a dictionary and a cup of tea and enjoy the ride.

Response 10 Mostly it is practice, practice, practice speaking, especially with native speakers. Be bold and unafraid to make mistakes and tell your Spanish friends (victims?) to correct every one. Because I am already fluent in one Romance language and read Spanish reasonably well, my teacher concentrates on getting me to talk about things that interest me, and we work on my weaknesses. Try to make it fun, don't get too serious. You need to make the time you spend in Spanish, with Spanish people, something you enjoy and look forward to, and this will become easier as you get to know them in their native language. You will make very rapid progress this way. If you have a skill, such as playing an instrument or a sport or game that your Spanish friend(s) would like to learn, then it's good idea to offer to teach them, or if you know a Spanish speaker who wants to improve his or her English, try doing half an hour each day. The sharing of the learning process makes the whole thing much more fun for both sides, and somehow the vocabulary is locked in better.

Learning a new language requires making a complete clown of yourself on a regular basis, but it's worth it.

The above discussion has been adapted from forums.about.com.

Scott Thomas said...

My wife, Gaby, and I are the authors of The Big Red Book of Spanish Vocabulary and the forthcoming McGraw-Hill book, Learn Spanish from Your Hollywood Favorities: the Movie-Lover's Guide to Becoming Fluent in Spanish.

In my experience, reading books and watching television shows or movies, watching YouTube music videos, or reading the Bible are all useful ways to improve your vocabulary. To avoid discouragement however, it's good to find sources that give you the vocabulary up front. It's also useful if you are familiar with the story-line ahead of time.

Laura at Learn Spanish by Singing does a good job of this for those who want to use music to learn Spanish.

At our Language Safari site, we use a similar approach to help people learn Spanish vocabulary. About 20% of the material is free. We emphasize TV shows (Mission: Impossible, I Love Lucy, The Flintstones), novels (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, A Cricket in Times Square, The Hundred Dresses) and frontload vocabulary to some YouTube videos as well.

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I am trying to learn Spanish. I have tried books and audio CDs, but I seem to be on a plateau and nothing else is sinking in any more.

Like you said, I think the solution is simply to get out there and find somebody Spanish to have a conversation with.

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I was taking evening classes and learning the language at a slow pace. Then I got a Spanish-speaking girlfriend, and one of our main connections was communicating in Spanish. Conversations, music and text messages. My language ability quickly improved several levels.

cotaxista said...

I just stumbled upon this blog and thought I'd add my two cents.

While reading is good, it's even better to read out loud (en alta voz). This way you can practice your pronunciations as well hearing what the words sound like. I also used to take a short news story from a Spanish language newspaper every day and make sure I understood every word in the article. I once came across a word that meant, "the color of leaves just before they fall from the tree". Heheh, don't remember what it was though.

Listening to music is good. If you're looking to learn Mexican slang, corridos are a good bet. You can look up the lyrics of songs online and then sing along. One problem however is that many dictionaries don't cover a lot of slang. There are some street Spanish dictionaries out there.

I live in a Mexican neighborhood and work nearly exclusively with Mexicans. That helps a bunch. Sometimes I mutilate the language so bad that they start laughing. When they correct me and I realize what I did say, I start laughing too (and from that moment on you will never forget what you just learned). It can be fun. People who speak the language you are trying to learn are very forgiving, as no doubt you are to those trying to master our mother tongue.

Remember, it took a six year old more than four years to speak as well as a six year old ;o)

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I learn spanish in two months, it is not hard language. In any case you just have to talk with people to learn quickly. that tricks helps me really much.

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Avoid too much use of your textbook. Train your ears to listen well and put it in memory. Avoid packing in too much of Japanese new words when you are learning to speak more and listen more as mush as you can so that we have the language in our blood.

rosetta stone said...

"Use a word three times and it is yours."

That's true. but should remember the difference between USE and SPEAK. someone would say, why I can not remember a word after I repeat it 10 or 20 times? see, you should use the word in the right occasion.

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I live in a Mexican neighborhood and work nearly exclusively with Mexicans. That helps a bunch. Sometimes I mutilate the language so bad that they start laughing.

Herve Leger said...

The fastest way for me was to find something I really enjoyed and use Spanish for it. For me, it was reading. I began to read books I was unfamiliar with in Spanish, rather than English. I found my language skills progressed more from that than from the language lab.

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In the past I would be reluctant to spend money on reading material in Spanish because I was afraid the subjects would be too obscure or the vocabulary too hard. Now that there is so much free on the Internet, it is much easier to do!

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The right way is to constantly to read, in the process of reading

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I practice with my Spanish speaking friends, that live both near me and abroad, but it doesn’t seem like I really have enough opportunity.

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To avoid discouragement however, it's good to find sources that give you the vocabulary up front. It's also useful if you are familiar with the story-line ahead of time.

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My experience was that it wasn't as difficult to find someone like that for e-mail exchange as it was to find someone to practice with in person. If you can't find that situation, trying to keep a journal in Spanish might serve somewhat the same purpose.

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