Vocabulary. Perhaps the single biggest threat to every rookie language-learner’s motivation after grammar. And for all the right reasons. A perpetual regimen of rote-rehearsal is not something we look forward to. But it’s a bitter pill you must swallow swallow if you intend to someday speak the language, can’t help it! And yet it feels frustratingly ineffective, despite all the efforts. I mean sure, an all-nighter repeating lists after lists of totally alien words and their meanings like a maniac and a dash of desperate prayer to every deity you’ve ever heard of should certainly pull you through the Spanish-language test the morning after. But when push comes to shove in real-life situations, you’re as lost as a nervous tourist with a two-dollar phrase-book. So much for enduring that assault of monotony in hopes of getting better in a new language! Is there an escape? Let’s try to find an answer.
Why Not Rote Memorization Anyway?
Of course, rote-rehearsals work. They have for most of us who didn’t know any better when we picked up our own native tongue growing up. Especially non-native English speakers who are fluent in English – most of them, including me – aced English in fits and starts using nothing but rote memorization. But that doesn’t make it terribly efficient.
The problem with mindless rote memorization is that it’s too taxing and monotonous and comes with no instant gratification. It still leaves you with that nagging feeling that you might forget the word at any moment. In other words, it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. And lack of confidence is not particularly healthy to your language endeavors. All you do while repeating a new word three hundred and seventy nine times is force your mind to accept and internalize a connection between that word and its meaning. The two words are of course, most likely, as unrelated as it goes. But you still want your brain to accept the two as related and produce one whenever you think the other. But that’s brute force.
You’re not making any logical connection here. You have forced yourself to accept the two words as related even though you haven’t actually “familiarized” yourself with the pair. And like a super-bright but super-reluctant child, your brain doesn’t like being force-fed things without a logical understanding. That’s why it’s so easy to forget words you memorize this way. That’s why even if you do eventually manage to speak in Spanish, you still think in English and translate on-the-fly, thus butchering your proficiency. That’s a terrible price to pay for such dicey results, don’t you think? You want to be able to think in Spanish. And that will never come with rote-memorization. This is the reason we see so many people who can read and write excellent English and yet fumble horribly when it comes to speaking. That’s because they’re still trying to translate in their heads while talking. This is the worst side-effect of rote-memorization. Remember, reps are for biceps, not for the brain.
Don’t Swallow the Blarney Stone
For those not in the know, Blarney Stone (Cloch na Blarnan) is a particular block of limestone that forms a part of the battlements of Blarney Castle. This castle stands a few miles off Cork, Ireland, and is at least 500 years old. The stone we’re talking about, has a curious legend that attracts thousands of tourists from all over the world every year. They say that kissing the Blarney Stone magically makes you eloquent – in other words, grants you the gift of the gab. The legend is so strong that the very word blarney has over the years come to refer to a flattering or coaxing talk. Unfortunately, this legend is just that, a legend – with no shred of truth about it. But the good news here is you don’t need to kiss a stone in order to have your own thing going on with words, even Spanish ones!
Ask yourself, how many words you really know in your own language? Okay, that’s gonna take forever to count but some experts have already done that for you. And the numbers will surprise you. Not only do you know far fewer words in your native language than you thought you did, you actively use even fewer. That doesn’t imply you are not good enough in your language – hell, you were born into it! It just means that you don’t need all those words in the dictionary in order to get street-worthy in a language. That’s why I said, you don’t need no Blarney Stone for your vocabulary. Chowing down the entire dictionary is neither practical, nor necessary.
So coming back to the initial question, how many words do you think is enough? It’s not 20,000. It’s not 10,000. Not even a quarter of that. The magic number is 2,000! You heard that right – 2,000 words is all it takes for you to get going in Spanish. And by get going, I mean being able to comprehend 80% of all written and spoken Spanish in a native setting. How’s that for some inspiration? If that doesn’t make you go “Yes, I totally can,” I don’t know what will.
Now that you know how many, you should also know which ones. Just numbers are not enough. You cannot just pick up a María Moliner (the Merriam-Webster of Spanish) and proceed to cram up the first 1,000 or first 2,000 words in it in hopes of turning into a Spanish-language spelling-bee champion. That’s not how it works. The 2,000 (or any number of) words that you must be familiar with in order to do anything useful with Spanish is commonly referred to as core vocabulary. And what words make this core vocabulary is determined by the word-frequency of that language – in our case, Spanish. In absolute layman’s terms this is the set of words that get used more frequently than the others. Plenty of such lists are available a dime-a-dozen on the Internet; just look around and you’ll find one. In fact, one such list of 5,000 words comes with a subscription to this blog in case you’re feeling particularly lazy. That being said, 5,000 words might be overkill for most beginners.
History Can Kill Boredom!
That’s true even if you’re not particularly fond of this subject. In the realm of language-learning, nothing entertains like history – or in the words of linguistic prudes, etymology. Most likely, you have already grabbed a core-vocabulary list for Spanish by now. Good. So you have your goals in sight – both how many words to learn and which ones. Now is the time to discuss what we’re all gathered here for. The witchcraft!
If rote memorization is off the table, how do you do it? The reason rote rehearsals don’t work is they fail to make a logical connection between the word and its meaning. That’s where etymology comes in. Let’s illustrate this with an example. Take mano for instance. That’s Spanish for hand. Mano comes from Latin manus. That’s the same source that gives us a whole range of “man-” words including manufacture and manual. When something is manual, you’ve got to work it with your hand, right? See how mano suddenly sounds logically related to hand now? That’s the magic of history.
Another example would be pared, Spanish for wall. These two words appear as related to each other as, say, book and kitchen. And yet a thread can be traced between the two with a little bit of history. Let’s see how. Pared comes from Latin pariete which is cognates with Old Icelandic sparri through a common Proto-Indo-European ancestor. While on one hand, pariete evolved into pared, sparri evolved into sparro of Old High German and eventually entered English as support. And giving support is what a wall’s job description involves, no? Now every time you come across pared, you’ll recall sparri which will lead you to support and help you recall wall, all in a split-second.
The reason this works is because Spanish, like all its Romance cousins, evolved from Latin. And thanks to the Norman invasion of England back in the day, English has absorbed a whole lot of Latin descendants into its lexicon despite primarily being a Germanic tongue. Although centuries of weathering has resulted in many words looking completely different today from what they did back then, all bridges haven’t been burned yet. Just a little scratch under the surface would tell you most words still retain strong ties with their Latin roots which makes them easily relatable to their English counterparts.
If They Can Be Linked, They Must Be
Etymology isn’t always the silver bullet to all vocabulary woes. The very nature of evolution means a lot of words would have lost all ties to their roots and history is going to be no help learning them. But that doesn’t mean you go back to rote-memorization. No way! There’s more than one way to skin the cat (although I strongly urge you against doing that to the poor feline) and we have just learned one. The aim is to somehow connect the Spanish word with its English counterpart in a way that seems logical and fun enough for our brain to happily accept. One way is etymology. Another way is creativity.
By creativity, I mean using your own wacky ideas to build imaginary bridges. Call it word-association, visualization, word-link, etc. This is how it works. You take the word in Spanish and try to think of an image, a word, or an idea that connects its pronunciation with that of its English counterpart. Take pato, for instance. That’s Spanish for duck. Etymology is going to be absolutely useless here because the word has Arabic origins and English is as related to Arabic as you are to Thor. So we resort to building an artificial bridge – a mental connection, if you will.
Imagine you live in a beautiful country villa by the lake. Imagine that lake as home to a lot of ducks. Your villa has a nice little wooden patio where you often sit in your rocking chair with a book in one hand and a glass of the finest tequila in the other. Not a hard thing to imagine, is it? Happy images are always easy to retain in your head so be as greedy as you want. Now imagine a dozen-odd noisy ducks strutting all over your patio making it hard for you to read.
Wanna get crazier? Picture sharing that tequila with Scrooge McDuck in your patio. Patos in your patio. See the way it all adds up? Now every time you think duck, you’ll recall your imaginary patio which will lead you to pato. That’s how word-association works. Just be as imaginative as you can. How long did it take for you to nail pato now? How many repetitions do you think it would have taken otherwise?
If You Must Repeat
Old habits die hard. So I can understand why some of you might still feel like falling back on rote-memorization just to be sure. That’s fine. Just don’t let that become your primary tool of the trade. Don’t get me wrong, I am not entirely dissing repetitions. They are great. But not for learning. They’re only good for reviews. That is after you’ve already learned the word.
If you must do repetitions, at least make sure there’s some method to the madness. Mindless repetition is crazy and inefficient. Follow a scientifically-proven pattern and you’ll draw maximum juice for the squeeze. Science says subsequent reviews should be spaced out in a certain pattern. And it also says that this spacing should get longer with every subsequent review. This is what ensures maximum retention for the minimum efforts. However, we live in interesting times and the job of finding that optimal sweet spot is no longer ours. Back in the day, people would use decks of flashcards and spend more time recalling when they reviewed the a particular card than recalling the word itself. Today, there are spaced repetitions systems, or SRS, that take this pain off your shoulders. In layman terms, you can call them digital flashcards. In an age where every aspect of our life is going digital, this is hardly a surprise. If gambling can go digital, why not learning?
Some of the big names in this arena are Memrise®, Anki®, and Mnemosyne®. There are dozens of others with new ones cropping up by the minute, but these three are by far the biggest. Of these three, Anki seems to be the hottest among language learners in my experience. Being free and open source might have something to do with it, I don’t know.
The idea is pretty straightforward. Just have a list of top 2,000 Spanish words and their meaning handy and once ready, add them to a new Anki deck. Then review that deck consistently as the app mandates. Make it a part of your daily routine and you will be surprised at how quickly you start building up your vocabulary. I would still suggest that you first familiarize yourself with those words using one of the two tricks discussed above and use Anki only for reviews.
The Big Red Book of Spanish Vocabulary
I know this is cheating but I had to do it. Blowing my own trumpet is not something I do very often but since we are discussing vocabulary and how to make every minute count, it would be unfair not to discuss the one thing I have spent three years on for this very purpose.
Researching etymology or coming up with creative ideas to build mnemonic hooks might sound like a fun project for a handful of words. But when we’re dealing with 2,000 words, it can quickly get monotonous in and of itself. Besides, not all of us have the time and patience for that much mental juggling. So I decided to do all the heavy lifting for you and make me some money doing so. The result was this 1,400-page behemoth named Spanish Vocabulary Bible: Memory Tricks for the Lazy Learner. I spent three years on this tome to ensure you spend more time building your vocabulary than you do figuring out how to.
The book lists out the 2,000 words of core Spanish vocabulary with a detailed synopsis on each word. This synopsis contains not only what it means and how its used but also at least one, if not two, memory trick to memorizing it instantly and without any repetition. Some words use etymology as the trick, others visualization, but they all use something. You won’t find a single word without a memory cue. Other than that, the book is also dotted with fun and interesting trivia on Spanish words, slang, and colloquialism. This is to ensure there’s never a dull moment with me.
Like I said, each word also comes with at least two example sentences in both English and Spanish to help you understand the context its used in. Since words learned in context last longer in your head, there’s also a digital deck of Anki-ready flashcards that comes with this book for free. So, you can just load the deck into your Anki app and get started. No fuss. I must put out a disclaimer here: The book isn’t free. But is 20 bucks too much for something that takes the single biggest bottleneck in your Spanish-learning endeavors off your shoulders? I will let you decide for yourself and to help you with that, I have a few sample chapters up for a free download on this site. The sample alone is over 200 pages, so it should give you a fair idea of whether the book is worth your penny.
Hope this long-winding post helps you kill all your vocabulary pains once and for all. Whether you buy my book or not, I want you to leave convinced that vocabulary is the easiest aspect of language learning – all it takes is a little creativity and you are fully capable of it even without any book’s help!